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

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

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

A summary of my paper follows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economic Policy Concerns Raised by Competition Rulemaking

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

From Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), populist calls to “fix” our antitrust laws and the underlying Consumer Welfare Standard have found a foothold on Capitol Hill. At the same time, there are calls to “fix” the Supreme Court by packing it with new justices. The court’s unanimous decision in NCAA v. Alston demonstrates that neither needs repair. To the contrary, clearly anti-competitive conduct—like the NCAA’s compensation rules—is proscribed under the Consumer Welfare Standard, and every justice from Samuel Alito to Sonia Sotomayor can agree on that.

In 1984, the court in NCAA v. Board of Regents suggested that “courts should take care when assessing the NCAA’s restraints on student-athlete compensation.” After all, joint ventures like sports leagues are entitled to rule-of-reason treatment. But while times change, the Consumer Welfare Standard is sufficiently flexible to meet those changes.

Where a competitive restraint exists primarily to ensure that “enormous sums of money flow to seemingly everyone except the student athletes,” the court rightly calls it out for what it is. As Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in his concurrence:

Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate.  And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different.  The NCAA is not above the law.

Disturbing these “ordinary principles”—whether through legislation, administrative rulemaking, or the common law—is simply unnecessary. For example, the Open Markets Institute filed an amicus brief arguing that the rule of reason should be “bounded” and willfully blind to the pro-competitive benefits some joint ventures can create (an argument that has been used, unsuccessfully, to attack ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft). Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has proposed shifting the burden of proof so that merging parties are guilty until proven innocent. Sen. Warren would go further, deeming Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods anti-competitive simply because the company is “big,” and ignoring the merger’s myriad pro-competitive benefits. Sen. Hawley has gone further still: calling on Amazon to be investigated criminally for the crime of being innovative and successful.

Several of the current proposals, including those from Sens. Klobuchar and Hawley (and those recently introduced in the House that essentially single out firms for disfavored treatment), would replace the Consumer Welfare Standard that has underpinned antitrust law for decades with a policy that effectively punishes firms for being politically unpopular.

These examples demonstrate we should be wary when those in power assert that things are so irreparably broken that they need a complete overhaul. The “solutions” peddled usually increase politicians’ power by enabling them to pick winners and losers through top-down approaches that stifle the bottom-up innovations that make consumers’ lives better.

Are antitrust law and the Supreme Court perfect? Hardly. But in a 9-0 decision, the court proved this week that there’s nothing broken about either.

In its June 21 opinion in NCAA v. Alston, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and thereby upheld a district court injunction finding unlawful certain National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules limiting the education-related benefits schools may make available to student athletes. The decision will come as no surprise to antitrust lawyers who heard the oral argument; the NCAA was portrayed as a monopsony cartel whose rules undermined competition by restricting compensation paid to athletes.

Alas, however, Alston demonstrates that seemingly “good facts” (including an apparently Scrooge-like defendant) can make very bad law. While superficially appearing to be a relatively straightforward application of Sherman Act rule of reason principles, the decision fails to come to grips with the relationship of the restraints before it to the successful provision of the NCAA’s joint venture product – amateur intercollegiate sports. What’s worse, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion further muddies the court’s murky jurisprudential waters by signaling his view that the NCAA’s remaining compensation rules are anticompetitive and could be struck down in an appropriate case (“it is not clear how the NCAA can defend its remaining compensation rules”). Prospective plaintiffs may be expected to take the hint.

The Court’s Flawed Analysis

I previously commented on this then-pending case a few months ago:

In sum, the claim that antitrust may properly be applied to combat the alleged “exploitation” of college athletes by NCAA compensation regulations does not stand up to scrutiny. The NCAA’s rules that define the scope of amateurism may be imperfect, but there is no reason to think that empowering federal judges to second guess and reformulate NCAA athletic compensation rules would yield a more socially beneficial (let alone optimal) outcome. (Believing that the federal judiciary can optimally reengineer core NCAA amateurism rules is a prime example of the Nirvana fallacy at work.)  Furthermore, a Supreme Court decision affirming the 9th Circuit could do broad mischief by undermining case law that has accorded joint venturers substantial latitude to design the core features of their collective enterprise without judicial second-guessing.

Unfortunately, my concerns about a Supreme Court affirmance of the 9th Circuit were realized. Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion for the court in Alston manifests a blinkered approach to the NCAA “monopsony” joint venture. To be sure, it cites and briefly discusses key Supreme Court joint venture holdings, including 2006’s Texaco v. Dagher. Nonetheless, it gives short shrift to the efficiency-based considerations that counsel presumptive deference to joint venture design rules that are key to the nature of a joint venture’s product.  

As a legal matter, the court felt obliged to defer to key district court findings not contested by the NCAA—including that the NCAA enjoys “monopsony power” in the student athlete labor market, and that the NCAA’s restrictions in fact decrease student athlete compensation “below the competitive level.”

However, even conceding these points, the court could have, but did not, take note of and assess the role of the restrictions under review in helping engender the enormous consumer benefits the NCAA confers upon consumers of its collegiate sports product. There is good reason to view those restrictions as an effort by the NCAA to address a negative externality that could diminish the attractiveness of the NCAA’s product for ultimate consumers, a result that would in turn reduce inter-brand competition.

As the amicus brief by antitrust economists (“Antitrust Economists Brief”) pointed out:

[T]he NCAA’s consistent and growing popularity reflects a product—”amateur sports” played by students and identified with the academic tradition—that continues to generate enormous consumer interest. Moreover, it appears without dispute that the NCAA, while in control of the design of its own athletic products, has preserved their integrity as amateur sports, notwithstanding the commercial success of some of them, particularly Division I basketball and Football Subdivision football. . . . Over many years, the NCAA has continually adjusted its eligibility and participation rules to prevent colleges from pursuing their own interests—which certainly can involve “pay to play”—in ways that would conflict with the procompetitive aims of the collaboration. In this sense, the NCAA’s amateurism rules are a classic example of addressing negative externalities and free riding that often are inherent or arise in the collaboration context.

The use of contractual restrictions (vertical restraints) to counteract free riding and other negative externalities generated in manufacturer-distributor interactions are well-recognized by antitrust courts. Although the restraints at issue in NCAA (and many other joint venture situations) are horizontal in nature, not vertical, they may be just as important as other nonstandard contracts in aligning the incentives of member institutions to best satisfy ultimate consumers. Satisfying consumers, in turn, enhances inter-brand competition between the NCAA’s product and other rival forms of entertainment, including professional sports offerings.

Alan Meese made a similar point in a recent paper (discussing a possible analytical framework for the court’s then-imminent Alston analysis):

[U]nchecked bidding for the services of student athletes could result in a market failure and suboptimal product quality, proof that the restraint reduces student athlete compensation below what an unbridled market would produce should not itself establish a prima facie case. Such evidence would instead be equally consistent with a conclusion that the restraint eliminates this market failure and restores compensation to optimal levels.

The court’s failure to address the externality justification was compounded by its handling of the rule of reason. First, in rejecting a truncated rule of reason with an initial presumption that the NCAA’s restraints involving student compensation are procompetitive, the court accepted that the NCAA’s monopsony power showed that its restraints “can (and in fact do) harm competition.” This assertion ignored the efficiency justification discussed above. As the Antitrust Economists’ Brief emphasized: 

[A]cting more like regulators, the lower courts treated the NCAA’s basic product design as inherently anticompetitive [so did the Supreme Court], pushing forward with a full rule of reason that sent the parties into a morass of inquiries that were not (and were never intended to be) structured to scrutinize basic product design decisions and their hypothetical alternatives. Because that inquiry was unrestrained and untethered to any input or output restraint, the application of the rule of reason in this case necessarily devolved into a quasi-regulatory inquiry, which antitrust law eschews.

Having decided that a “full” rule of reason analysis is appropriate, the Supreme Court, in effect, imposed a “least restrictive means” test on the restrictions under review, while purporting not to do so. (“We agree with the NCAA’s premise that antitrust law does not require businesses to use anything like the least restrictive means of achieving legitimate business purposes.”) The court concluded that “it was only after finding the NCAA’s restraints ‘patently and inexplicably stricter than is necessary’ to achieve the procompetitive benefits the league had demonstrated that the district court proceeded to declare a violation of the Sherman Act.” Effectively, however, this statement deferred to the lower court’s second-guessing of the means employed by the NCAA to preserve consumer demand, which the lower court did without any empirical basis.

The Supreme Court also approved the district court’s rejection of the NCAA’s view of what amateurism requires. It stressed the district court’s findings that “the NCAA’s rules and restrictions on compensation have shifted markedly over time” (seemingly a reasonable reaction to changes in market conditions) and that the NCAA developed the restrictions at issue without any reference to “considerations of consumer demand” (a de facto regulatory mandate directed at the NCAA). The Supreme Court inexplicably dubbed these lower court actions “a straightforward application of the rule of reason.” These actions seem more like blind deference to rather arbitrary judicial second-guessing of the expert party with the greatest interest in satisfying consumer demand.

The Supreme Court ended its misbegotten commentary on “less restrictive alternatives” by first claiming that it agreed that “antitrust courts must give wide berth to business judgments before finding liability.” The court asserted that the district court honored this and other principles of judicial humility because it enjoined restraints on education-related benefits “only after finding that relaxing these restrictions would not blur the distinction between college and professional sports and thus impair demand – and only finding that this course represented a significantly (not marginally) less restrictive means of achieving the same procompetitive benefits as the NCAA’s current rules.” This lower court finding once again was not based on an empirical analysis of procompetitive benefits under different sets of rules. It was little more than the personal opinion of a judge, who lacked the NCAA’s knowledge of relevant markets and expertise. That the Supreme Court accepted it as an exercise in restrained judicial analysis is well nigh inexplicable.

The Antitrust Economists’ Brief, unlike the Supreme Court, enunciated the correct approach to judicial rewriting of core NCAA joint venture rules:

The institutions that are members of the NCAA want to offer a particular type of athletic product—an amateur athletic product that they believe is consonant with their primary academic missions. By doing so, as th[e] [Supreme] Court has [previously] recognized [in its 1984 NCAA v. Board of Regents decision], they create a differentiated offering that widens consumer choice and enhances opportunities for student-athletes. NCAA, 468 U.S. at 102. These same institutions have drawn lines that they believe balance their desire to foster intercollegiate athletic competition with their overarching academic missions. Both the district court and the Ninth Circuit have now said that they may not do so, unless they draw those lines differently. Yet neither the district court nor the Ninth Circuit determined that the lines drawn reduce the output of intercollegiate athletics or ascertained whether their judicially-created lines would expand that output. That is not the function of antitrust courts, but of legislatures.                                                                                                   

Other Harms the Court Failed to Consider                    

Finally, the court failed to consider other harms that stem from a presumptive suspicion of NCAA restrictions on athletic compensation in general. The elimination of compensation rules should favor large well-funded athletic programs over others, potentially undermining “competitive balance” among schools. (Think of an NCAA March Madness tournament where “Cinderella stories” are eliminated, as virtually all the talented players have been snapped up by big name schools.) It could also, through the reallocation of income to “big name big sports” athletes who command a bidding premium, potentially reduce funding support for “minor college sports” that provide opportunities to a wide variety of student-athletes. This would disadvantage those athletes, undermine the future of “minor” sports, and quite possibly contribute to consumer disillusionment and unhappiness (think of the millions of parents of “minor sports” athletes).

What’s more, the existing rules allow many promising but non-superstar athletes to develop their skills over time, enhancing their ability to eventually compete at the professional level. (This may even be the case for some superstars, who may obtain greater long-term financial rewards by refining their talents and showcasing their skills for a year or two in college.) In addition, the current rules climate allows many student athletes who do not turn professional to develop personal connections that serve them well in their professional and personal lives, including connections derived from the “brand” of their university. (Think of wealthy and well-connected alumni who are ardent fans of their colleges’ athletic programs.) In a world without NCAA amateurism rules, the value of these experiences and connections could wither, to the detriment of athletes and consumers alike. (Consistent with my conclusion, economists Richard McKenzie and Dwight Lee have argued against the proposition that “college athletes are materially ‘underpaid’ and are ‘exploited’”.)   

This “parade of horribles” might appear unlikely in the short term. Nevertheless, in the course of time, the inability of the NCAA to control the attributes of its product, due to a changed legal climate, make it all too real. This is especially the case in light of Justice Kavanaugh’s strong warning that other NCAA compensation restrictions are likely indefensible. (As he bluntly put it, venerable college sports “traditions alone cannot justify the NCAA’s decision to build a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student athletes who are not fairly compensated. . . . The NCAA is not above the law.”)

Conclusion

The Supreme Court’s misguided Alston decision fails to weigh the powerful efficiency justifications for the NCAA’s amateurism rules. This holding virtually invites other lower courts to ignore efficiencies and to second guess decisions that go to the heart of the NCAA’s joint venture product offering. The end result is likely to reduce consumer welfare and, quite possibly, the welfare of many student athletes as well. One would hope that Congress, if it chooses to address NCAA rules, will keep these dangers well in mind. A statutory change not directed solely at the NCAA, creating a rebuttable presumption of legality for restraints that go to the heart of a lawful joint venture, may merit serious consideration.   

It’s a telecom tale as old as time: industry gets a prime slice of radio spectrum and falls in love with it, only to take it for granted. Then, faced with the reapportionment of that spectrum, it proceeds to fight tooth and nail (and law firm) to maintain the status quo. 

In that way, the decision by the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA) and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) to seek judicial review of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) order reassigning the 5.9GHz band was right out of central casting. But rather than simply asserting that the FCC’s order was arbitrary, ITSA foreshadowed many of the arguments that it intends to make against the order. 

There are three arguments of note, and should ITSA win on the merits of any of those arguments, it would mark a significant departure from the way spectrum is managed in the United States.

First, ITSA asserts that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), by virtue of its role as the nation’s transportation regulator, retains authority to regulate radio spectrum as it pertains to DOT programs, not the FCC. Of course, this notion is absurd on its face. Congress mandated that the FCC act as the exclusive regulator of non-federal uses of wireless. This leaves the FCC free to—in the words of the Communications Act—“encourage the provision of new technologies and services to the public” and to “provide to all Americans” the best communications networks possible. 

In contrast, other federal agencies with some amount of allocated spectrum each focus exclusively on a particular mission, without regard to the broader concerns of the country (including uses by sister agencies or the states). That’s why, rather than allocate the spectrum directly to DOT, the statute directs the FCC to consider allocating spectrum for Intelligent Transportation Systems and to establish the rules for their spectrum use. The statute directs the FCC to consult with the DOT, but leaves final decisions to the FCC.

Today’s crowded airwaves make it impossible to allocate spectrum for 5G, Wi-Fi 6, and other innovative uses without somehow impacting spectrum used by a federal agency. Accepting the ITSA position would fundamentally alter the FCC’s role relative to other agencies with an interest in the disposition of spectrum, rendering the FCC a vestigial regulatory backwater subject to non-expert veto. As a matter of policy, this would effectively prevent the United States from meeting the growing challenges of our exponentially increasing demand for wireless access. 

It would also put us at a tremendous disadvantage relative to other countries.  International coordination of wireless policy has become critical in the global economy, with our global supply chains and wireless equipment manufacturers dependent on global standards to drive economies of scale and interoperability around the globe. At the last World Radio Conference in 2019, interagency spectrum squabbling significantly undermined the U.S. negotiation efforts. If agencies actually had veto power over the FCC’s spectrum decisions, the United States would have no way to create a coherent negotiating position, let alone to advocate effectively for our national interests.   

Second, though relatedly, ITSA asserts that the FCC’s engineers failed to appropriately evaluate safety impacts and interference concerns. It’s hard to see how this could be the case, given both the massive engineering record and the FCC’s globally recognized expertise in spectrum. As a general rule, the FCC leads the world in spectrum engineering (there is a reason things like mobile service and Wi-Fi started in the United States). No other federal agency (including DOT) has such extensive, varied, and lengthy experience with interference analysis. This allows the FCC to develop broadly applicable standards to protect all emergency communications. Every emergency first responder relies on this expertise every day that they use wireless communications to save lives. Here again, we see the wisdom in Congress delegating to a single expert agency the task of finding the right balance to meet all our wireless public-safety needs.

Third, the petition ambitiously asks the court to set aside all parts of the order, with the exception of the one portion that ITSA likes: freeing the top 30MHz of the band for use by C-V2X on a permanent basis. Given their other arguments, this assertion strains credulity. Either the FCC makes the decisions, or the DOT does. Giving federal agencies veto power over FCC decisions would be bad enough. Allowing litigants to play federal agencies against each other so they can mix and match results would produce chaos and/or paralysis in spectrum policy.

In short, ITSA is asking the court to fundamentally redefine the scope of FCC authority to administer spectrum when other federal agencies are involved; to undermine deference owed to FCC experts; and to do all of this while also holding that the FCC was correct on the one part of the order with which the complainants agree. This would make future progress in wireless technology effectively impossible.

We don’t let individual states decide which side of the road to drive on, or whether red or some other color traffic light means stop, because traffic rules only work when everybody follows the same rules. Wireless policy can only work if one agency makes the rules. Congress says that agency is the FCC. The courts (and other agencies) need to remember that.

In his recent concurrence in Biden v. Knight, Justice Clarence Thomas sketched a roadmap for how to regulate social-media platforms. The animating factor for Thomas, much like for other conservatives, appears to be a sense that Big Tech has exhibited anti-conservative bias in its moderation decisions, most prominently by excluding former President Donald Trump from Twitter and Facebook. The opinion has predictably been greeted warmly by conservative champions of social-media regulation, who believe it shows how states and the federal government can proceed on this front.

While much of the commentary to date has been on whether Thomas got the legal analysis right, or on the uncomfortable fit of common-carriage law to social media, the deeper question of the First Amendment’s protection of private ordering has received relatively short shrift.

Conservatives’ main argument has been that Big Tech needs to be reined in because it is restricting the speech of private individuals. While conservatives traditionally have defended the state-action doctrine and the right to editorial discretion, they now readily find exceptions to both in order to justify regulating social-media companies. But those two First Amendment doctrines have long enshrined an important general principle: private actors can set the rules for speech on their own property. I intend to analyze this principle from a law & economics perspective and show how it benefits society.

Who Balances the Benefits and Costs of Speech?

Like virtually any other human activity, there are benefits and costs to speech and it is ultimately subjective individual preference that determines the value that speech has. The First Amendment protects speech from governmental regulation, with only limited exceptions, but that does not mean all speech is acceptable or must be tolerated. Under the state-action doctrine, the First Amendment only prevents the government from restricting speech.

Some purported defenders of the principle of free speech no longer appear to see a distinction between restraints on speech imposed by the government and those imposed by private actors. But this is surely mistaken, as no one truly believes all speech protected by the First Amendment should be without consequence. In truth, most regulation of speech has always come by informal means—social mores enforced by dirty looks or responsive speech from others.

Moreover, property rights have long played a crucial role in determining speech rules within any given space. If a man were to come into my house and start calling my wife racial epithets, I would not only ask that person to leave but would exercise my right as a property owner to eject the trespasser—if necessary, calling the police to assist me. I similarly could not expect to go to a restaurant and yell at the top of my lungs about political issues and expect them—even as “common carriers” or places of public accommodation—to allow me to continue.

As Thomas Sowell wrote in Knowledge and Decisions:

The fact that different costs and benefits must be balanced does not in itself imply who must balance them―or even that there must be a single balance for all, or a unitary viewpoint (one “we”) from which the issue is categorically resolved.

Knowledge and Decisions, p. 240

When it comes to speech, the balance that must be struck is between one individual’s desire for an audience and that prospective audience’s willingness to play the role. Asking government to use regulation to make categorical decisions for all of society is substituting centralized evaluation of the costs and benefits of access to communications for the individual decisions of many actors. Rather than incremental decisions regarding how and under what terms individuals may relate to one another—which can evolve over time in response to changes in what individuals find acceptable—government by its nature can only hand down categorical guidelines: “you must allow x, y, and z speech.”

This is particularly relevant in the sphere of social media. Social-media companies are multi-sided platforms. They are profit-seeking, to be sure, but the way they generate profits is by acting as intermediaries between users and advertisers. If they fail to serve their users well, those users could abandon the platform. Without users, advertisers would have no interest in buying ads. And without advertisers, there is no profit to be made. Social-media companies thus need to maximize the value of their platform by setting rules that keep users engaged.

In the cases of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, the platforms have set content-moderation standards that restrict many kinds of speech that are generally viewed negatively by users, even if the First Amendment would foreclose the government from regulating those same types of content. This is a good thing. Social-media companies balance the speech interests of different kinds of users to maximize the value of the platform and, in turn, to maximize benefits to all.

Herein lies the fundamental difference between private action and state action: one is voluntary, and the other based on coercion. If Facebook or Twitter suspends a user for violating community rules, it represents termination of a previously voluntary association. If the government kicks someone out of a public forum for expressing legal speech, that is coercion. The state-action doctrine recognizes this fundamental difference and creates a bright-line rule that courts may police when it comes to speech claims. As Sowell put it:

The courts’ role as watchdogs patrolling the boundaries of governmental power is essential in order that others may be secure and free on the other side of those boundaries. But what makes watchdogs valuable is precisely their ability to distinguish those people who are to be kept at bay and those who are to be left alone. A watchdog who could not make that distinction would not be a watchdog at all, but simply a general menace.

Knowledge and Decisions, p. 244

Markets Produce the Best Moderation Policies

The First Amendment also protects the right of editorial discretion, which means publishers, platforms, and other speakers are free from carrying or transmitting government-compelled speech. Even a newspaper with near-monopoly power cannot be compelled by a right-of-reply statute to carry responses by political candidates to editorials it has published. In other words, not only is private regulation of speech not state action, but in many cases, private regulation is protected by the First Amendment.

There is no reason to think that social-media companies today are in a different position than was the newspaper in Miami Herald v. Tornillo. These companies must determine what, how, and where content is presented within their platform. While this right of editorial discretion protects the moderation decisions of social-media companies, its benefits accrue to society at-large.

Social-media companies’ abilities to differentiate themselves based on functionality and moderation policies are important aspects of competition among them. How each platform is used may differ depending on those factors. In fact, many consumers use multiple social-media platforms throughout the day for different purposes. Market competition, not government power, has enabled internet users (including conservatives!) to have more avenues than ever to get their message out.

Many conservatives remain unpersuaded by the power of markets in this case. They see multiple platforms all engaging in very similar content-moderation policies when it comes to certain touchpoint issues, and thus allege widespread anti-conservative bias and collusion. Neither of those claims have much factual support, but more importantly, the similarity of content-moderation standards may simply be common responses to similar demand structures—not some nefarious and conspiratorial plot.

In other words, if social-media users demand less of the kinds of content commonly considered to be hate speech, or less misinformation on certain important issues, platforms will do their best to weed those things out. Platforms won’t always get these determinations right, but it is by no means clear that forcing them to carry all “legal” speech—which would include not just misinformation and hate speech, but pornographic material, as well—would better serve social-media users. There are always alternative means to debate contestable issues of the day, even if it may be more costly to access them.

Indeed, that content-moderation policies make it more difficult to communicate some messages is precisely the point of having them. There is a subset of protected speech to which many users do not wish to be subject. Moreover, there is no inherent right to have an audience on a social-media platform.

Conclusion

Much of the First Amendment’s economic value lies in how it defines roles in the market for speech. As a general matter, it is not the government’s place to determine what speech should be allowed in private spaces. Instead, the private ordering of speech emerges through the application of social mores and property rights. This benefits society, as it allows individuals to create voluntary relationships built on marginal decisions about what speech is acceptable when and where, rather than centralized decisions made by a governing few and that are difficult to change over time.

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

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

The Court’s Opinion

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

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

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

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

What Comes Next

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Conclusion

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case of Stolen Valor

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Social Media Ministry of Truth

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

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

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

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

Extremely Limited Room to Regulate Extremism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Can the Government Do?

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

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

Antitrust by Fiat

Jonathan M. Barnett —  23 February 2021

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

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

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

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

Blank Check #1

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

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

Blank Check #2

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

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

Anti-Market Antitrust

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

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

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the antitrust lawsuits against Google. The entire series of posts is available here.]

U.S. antitrust regulators have a history of narrowly defining relevant markets—often to the point of absurdity—in order to create market power out of thin air. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) famously declared that Whole Foods and Wild Oats operated in the “premium natural and organic supermarkets market”—a narrowly defined market designed to exclude other supermarkets carrying premium natural and organic foods, such as Walmart and Kroger. Similarly, for the Staples-Office Depot merger, the FTC

narrowly defined the relevant market as “office superstore” chains, which excluded general merchandisers such as Walmart, K-Mart and Target, who at the time accounted for 80% of office supply sales.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s complaint against Google’s advertising business, joined by the attorneys general of nine other states, continues this tradition of narrowing market definition to shoehorn market dominance where it may not exist.

For example, one recent paper critical of Google’s advertising business narrows the relevant market first from media advertising to digital advertising, then to the “open” supply of display ads and, finally, even further to the intermediation of the open supply of display ads. Once the market has been sufficiently narrowed, the authors conclude Google’s market share is “perhaps sufficient to confer market power.”

While whittling down market definitions may achieve the authors’ purpose of providing a roadmap to prosecute Google, one byproduct is a mishmash of market definitions that generates as many as 16 relevant markets for digital display and video advertising, in many of which Google doesn’t have anything approaching market power (and in some of which, in fact, Facebook, and not Google, is the most dominant player).

The Texas complaint engages in similar relevant-market gerrymandering. It claims that, within digital advertising, there exist several relevant markets and that Google monopolizes four of them:

  1. Publisher ad servers, which manage the inventory of a publisher’s (e.g., a newspaper’s website or a blog) space for ads;
  2. Display ad exchanges, the “marketplace” in which auctions directly match publishers’ selling of ad space with advertisers’ buying of ad space;
  3. Display ad networks, which are similar to exchanges, except a network acts as an intermediary that collects ad inventory from publishers and sells it to advertisers; and
  4. Display ad-buying tools, which include demand-side platforms that collect bids for ad placement with publishers.

The complaint alleges, “For online publishers and advertisers alike, the different online advertising formats are not interchangeable.” But this glosses over a bigger challenge for the attorneys general: Is online advertising a separate relevant market from offline advertising?

Digital advertising, of which display advertising is a small part, is only one of many channels through which companies market their products. About half of today’s advertising spending in the United States goes to digital channels, up from about 10% a decade ago. Approximately 30% of ad spending goes to television, with the remainder going to radio, newspapers, magazines, billboards and other “offline” forms of media.

Physical newspapers now account for less than 10% of total advertising spending. Traditionally, newspapers obtained substantial advertising revenues from classified ads. As internet usage increased, newspaper classifieds have been replaced by less costly and more effective internet classifieds—such as those offered by Craigslist—or targeted ads on Google Maps or Facebook.

The price of advertising has fallen steadily over the past decade, while output has risen. Spending on digital advertising in the United States grew from $26 billion in 2010 to nearly $130 billion in 2019, an average increase of 20% a year. Over the same period, the producer price index (PPI) for internet advertising sales declined by nearly 40%. Rising spending in the face of falling prices indicates the number of ads bought and sold increased by approximately 27% a year.

Since 2000, advertising spending has been falling as a share of gross domestic product, with online advertising growing as a share of that. The combination of increasing quantity, decreasing cost and increasing total revenues are consistent with a growing and increasingly competitive market, rather than one of rising concentration and reduced competition.

There is little or no empirical data evaluating the extent to which online and offline advertising constitute distinct markets or the extent to which digital display is a distinct submarket of online advertising. As a result, analysis of adtech competition has relied on identifying several technical and technological factors—as well as the say-so of participants in the business—that the analysts assert distinguish online from offline and establish digital display (versus digital search) as a distinct submarket. This approach has been used and accepted, especially in cases in which pricing data has not been available.

But the pricing information that is available raises questions about the extent to which online advertising is a distinct market from offline advertising. For example, Avi Goldfarb and Catherine Tucker find that, when local regulations prohibit offline direct advertising, search advertising is more expensive, indicating that search and offline advertising are substitutes. In other research, they report that online display advertising circumvents, in part, local bans on offline billboard advertising for alcoholic beverages. In both studies, Goldfarb and Tucker conclude their results suggest online and offline advertising are substitutes. They also conclude this substitution suggests that online and offline markets should be considered together in the context of antitrust.

While this information is not sufficient to define a broader relevant market, it raises questions regarding solely relying on the technical or technological distinctions and the say-so of market participants.

In the United States, plaintiffs do not get to define the relevant market. That is up to the judge or the jury. Plaintiffs have the burden to convince the court that a proposed narrow market definition is the correct one. With strong evidence that online and offline ads are substitutes, the court should not blindly accept the gerrymandered market definitions posited by the attorneys general.

FTC v. Qualcomm

Last week the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) and twelve noted law and economics scholars filed an amicus brief in the Ninth Circuit in FTC v. Qualcomm, in support of appellant (Qualcomm) and urging reversal of the district court’s decision. The brief was authored by Geoffrey A. Manne, President & founder of ICLE, and Ben Sperry, Associate Director, Legal Research of ICLE. Jarod M. Bona and Aaron R. Gott of Bona Law PC collaborated in drafting the brief and they and their team provided invaluable pro bono legal assistance, for which we are enormously grateful. Signatories on the brief are listed at the end of this post.

We’ve written about the case several times on Truth on the Market, as have a number of guest bloggers, in our ongoing blog series on the case here.   

The ICLE amicus brief focuses on the ways that the district court exceeded the “error cost” guardrails erected by the Supreme Court to minimize the risk and cost of mistaken antitrust decisions, particularly those that wrongly condemn procompetitive behavior. As the brief notes at the outset:

The district court’s decision is disconnected from the underlying economics of the case. It improperly applied antitrust doctrine to the facts, and the result subverts the economic rationale guiding monopolization jurisprudence. The decision—if it stands—will undercut the competitive values antitrust law was designed to protect.  

The antitrust error cost framework was most famously elaborated by Frank Easterbrook in his seminal article, The Limits of Antitrust (1984). It has since been squarely adopted by the Supreme Court—most significantly in Brooke Group (1986), Trinko (2003), and linkLine (2009).  

In essence, the Court’s monopolization case law implements the error cost framework by (among other things) obliging courts to operate under certain decision rules that limit the use of inferences about the consequences of a defendant’s conduct except when the circumstances create what game theorists call a “separating equilibrium.” A separating equilibrium is a 

solution to a game in which players of different types adopt different strategies and thereby allow an uninformed player to draw inferences about an informed player’s type from that player’s actions.

Baird, Gertner & Picker, Game Theory and the Law

The key problem in antitrust is that while the consequence of complained-of conduct for competition (i.e., consumers) is often ambiguous, its deleterious effect on competitors is typically quite evident—whether it is actually anticompetitive or not. The question is whether (and when) it is appropriate to infer anticompetitive effect from discernible harm to competitors. 

Except in the narrowly circumscribed (by Trinko) instance of a unilateral refusal to deal, anticompetitive harm under the rule of reason must be proven. It may not be inferred from harm to competitors, because such an inference is too likely to be mistaken—and “mistaken inferences are especially costly, because they chill the very conduct the antitrust laws are designed to protect.” (Brooke Group (quoting yet another key Supreme Court antitrust error cost case, Matsushita (1986)). 

Yet, as the brief discusses, in finding Qualcomm liable the district court did not demand or find proof of harm to competition. Instead, the court’s opinion relies on impermissible inferences from ambiguous evidence to find that Qualcomm had (and violated) an antitrust duty to deal with rival chip makers and that its conduct resulted in anticompetitive foreclosure of competition. 

We urge you to read the brief (it’s pretty short—maybe the length of three blogs posts) to get the whole argument. Below we draw attention to a few points we make in the brief that are especially significant. 

The district court bases its approach entirely on Microsoft — which it misinterprets in clear contravention of Supreme Court case law

The district court doesn’t stay within the strictures of the Supreme Court’s monopolization case law. In fact, although it obligingly recites some of the error cost language from Trinko, it quickly moves away from Supreme Court precedent and bases its approach entirely on its reading of the D.C. Circuit’s Microsoft (2001) decision. 

Unfortunately, the district court’s reading of Microsoft is mistaken and impermissible under Supreme Court precedent. Indeed, both the Supreme Court and the D.C. Circuit make clear that a finding of illegal monopolization may not rest on an inference of anticompetitive harm.

The district court cites Microsoft for the proposition that

Where a government agency seeks injunctive relief, the Court need only conclude that Qualcomm’s conduct made a “significant contribution” to Qualcomm’s maintenance of monopoly power. The plaintiff is not required to “present direct proof that a defendant’s continued monopoly power is precisely attributable to its anticompetitive conduct.”

It’s true Microsoft held that, in government actions seeking injunctions, “courts [may] infer ‘causation’ from the fact that a defendant has engaged in anticompetitive conduct that ‘reasonably appears capable of making a significant contribution to maintaining monopoly power.’” (Emphasis added). 

But Microsoft never suggested that anticompetitiveness itself may be inferred.

“Causation” and “anticompetitive effect” are not the same thing. Indeed, Microsoft addresses “anticompetitive conduct” and “causation” in separate sections of its decision. And whereas Microsoft allows that courts may infer “causation” in certain government actions, it makes no such allowance with respect to “anticompetitive effect.” In fact, it explicitly rules it out:

[T]he plaintiff… must demonstrate that the monopolist’s conduct indeed has the requisite anticompetitive effect…; no less in a case brought by the Government, it must demonstrate that the monopolist’s conduct harmed competition, not just a competitor.”

The D.C. Circuit subsequently reinforced this clear conclusion of its holding in Microsoft in Rambus

Deceptive conduct—like any other kind—must have an anticompetitive effect in order to form the basis of a monopolization claim…. In Microsoft… [t]he focus of our antitrust scrutiny was properly placed on the resulting harms to competition.

Finding causation entails connecting evidentiary dots, while finding anticompetitive effect requires an economic assessment. Without such analysis it’s impossible to distinguish procompetitive from anticompetitive conduct, and basing liability on such an inference effectively writes “anticompetitive” out of the law.

Thus, the district court is correct when it holds that it “need not conclude that Qualcomm’s conduct is the sole reason for its rivals’ exits or impaired status.” But it is simply wrong to hold—in the same sentence—that it can thus “conclude that Qualcomm’s practices harmed competition and consumers.” The former claim is consistent with Microsoft; the latter is emphatically not.

Under Trinko and Aspen Skiing the district court’s finding of an antitrust duty to deal is impermissible 

Because finding that a company operates under a duty to deal essentially permits a court to infer anticompetitive harm without proof, such a finding “comes dangerously close to being a form of ‘no-fault’ monopolization,” as Herbert Hovenkamp has written. It is also thus seriously disfavored by the Court’s error cost jurisprudence.

In Trinko the Supreme Court interprets its holding in Aspen Skiing to identify essentially a single scenario from which it may plausibly be inferred that a monopolist’s refusal to deal with rivals harms consumers: the existence of a prior, profitable course of dealing, and the termination and replacement of that arrangement with an alternative that not only harms rivals, but also is less profitable for the monopolist.

In an effort to satisfy this standard, the district court states that “because Qualcomm previously licensed its rivals, but voluntarily stopped licensing rivals even though doing so was profitable, Qualcomm terminated a voluntary and profitable course of dealing.”

But it’s not enough merely that the prior arrangement was profitable. Rather, Trinko and Aspen Skiing hold that when a monopolist ends a profitable relationship with a rival, anticompetitive exclusion may be inferred only when it also refuses to engage in an ongoing arrangement that, in the short run, is more profitable than no relationship at all. The key is the relative value to the monopolist of the current options on offer, not the value to the monopolist of the terminated arrangement. In a word, what the Court requires is that the defendant exhibit behavior that, but-for the expectation of future, anticompetitive returns, is irrational.

It should be noted, as John Lopatka (here) and Alan Meese (here) (both of whom joined the amicus brief) have written, that even the Supreme Court’s approach is likely insufficient to permit a court to distinguish between procompetitive and anticompetitive conduct. 

But what is certain is that the district court’s approach in no way permits such an inference.

“Evasion of a competitive constraint” is not an antitrust-relevant refusal to deal

In order to infer anticompetitive effect, it’s not enough that a firm may have a “duty” to deal, as that term is colloquially used, based on some obligation other than an antitrust duty, because it can in no way be inferred from the evasion of that obligation that conduct is anticompetitive.

The district court bases its determination that Qualcomm’s conduct is anticompetitive on the fact that it enables the company to avoid patent exhaustion, FRAND commitments, and thus price competition in the chip market. But this conclusion is directly precluded by the Supreme Court’s holding in NYNEX

Indeed, in Rambus, the D.C. Circuit, citing NYNEX, rejected the FTC’s contention that it may infer anticompetitive effect from defendant’s evasion of a constraint on its monopoly power in an analogous SEP-licensing case: “But again, as in NYNEX, an otherwise lawful monopolist’s end-run around price constraints, even when deceptive or fraudulent, does not alone present a harm to competition.”

As Josh Wright has noted:

[T]he objection to the “evasion” of any constraint approach is… that it opens the door to enforcement actions applied to business conduct that is not likely to harm competition and might be welfare increasing.

Thus NYNEX and Rambus (and linkLine) reinforce the Court’s repeated holding that an inference of harm to competition is permissible only where conduct points clearly to anticompetitive effect—and, bad as they may be, evading obligations under other laws or violating norms of “business morality” do not suffice.

The district court’s elaborate theory of harm rests fundamentally on the claim that Qualcomm injures rivals—and the record is devoid of evidence demonstrating actual harm to competition. Instead, the court infers it from what it labels “unreasonably high” royalty rates, enabled by Qualcomm’s evasion of competition from rivals. In turn, the court finds that that evasion of competition can be the source of liability if what Qualcomm evaded was an antitrust duty to deal. And, in impermissibly circular fashion, the court finds that Qualcomm indeed evaded an antitrust duty to deal—because its conduct allowed it to sustain “unreasonably high” prices. 

The Court’s antitrust error cost jurisprudence—from Brooke Group to NYNEX to Trinko & linkLine—stands for the proposition that no such circular inferences are permitted.

The district court’s foreclosure analysis also improperly relies on inferences in lieu of economic evidence

Because the district court doesn’t perform a competitive effects analysis, it fails to demonstrate the requisite “substantial” foreclosure of competition required to sustain a claim of anticompetitive exclusion. Instead the court once again infers anticompetitive harm from harm to competitors. 

The district court makes no effort to establish the quantity of competition foreclosed as required by the Supreme Court. Nor does the court demonstrate that the alleged foreclosure harms competition, as opposed to just rivals. Foreclosure per se is not impermissible and may be perfectly consistent with procompetitive conduct.

Again citing Microsoft, the district court asserts that a quantitative finding is not required. Yet, as the court’s citation to Microsoft should have made clear, in its stead a court must find actual anticompetitive effect; it may not simply assert it. As Microsoft held: 

It is clear that in all cases the plaintiff must… prove the degree of foreclosure. This is a prudential requirement; exclusivity provisions in contracts may serve many useful purposes. 

The court essentially infers substantiality from the fact that Qualcomm entered into exclusive deals with Apple (actually, volume discounts), from which the court concludes that Qualcomm foreclosed rivals’ access to a key customer. But its inference that this led to substantial foreclosure is based on internal business statements—so-called “hot docs”—characterizing the importance of Apple as a customer. Yet, as Geoffrey Manne and Marc Williamson explain, such documentary evidence is unreliable as a guide to economic significance or legal effect: 

Business people will often characterize information from a business perspective, and these characterizations may seem to have economic implications. However, business actors are subject to numerous forces that influence the rhetoric they use and the conclusions they draw….

There are perfectly good reasons to expect to see “bad” documents in business settings when there is no antitrust violation lurking behind them.

Assuming such language has the requisite economic or legal significance is unsupportable—especially when, as here, the requisite standard demands a particular quantitative significance.

Moreover, the court’s “surcharge” theory of exclusionary harm rests on assumptions regarding the mechanism by which the alleged surcharge excludes rivals and harms consumers. But the court incorrectly asserts that only one mechanism operates—and it makes no effort to quantify it. 

The court cites “basic economics” via Mankiw’s Principles of Microeconomics text for its conclusion:

The surcharge affects demand for rivals’ chips because as a matter of basic economics, regardless of whether a surcharge is imposed on OEMs or directly on Qualcomm’s rivals, “the price paid by buyers rises, and the price received by sellers falls.” Thus, the surcharge “places a wedge between the price that buyers pay and the price that sellers receive,” and demand for such transactions decreases. Rivals see lower sales volumes and lower margins, and consumers see less advanced features as competition decreases.

But even assuming the court is correct that Qualcomm’s conduct entails such a surcharge, basic economics does not hold that decreased demand for rivals’ chips is the only possible outcome. 

In actuality, an increase in the cost of an input for OEMs can have three possible effects:

  1. OEMs can pass all or some of the cost increase on to consumers in the form of higher phone prices. Assuming some elasticity of demand, this would mean fewer phone sales and thus less demand by OEMs for chips, as the court asserts. But the extent of that effect would depend on consumers’ demand elasticity and the magnitude of the cost increase as a percentage of the phone price. If demand is highly inelastic at this price (i.e., relatively insensitive to the relevant price change), it may have a tiny effect on the number of phones sold and thus the number of chips purchased—approaching zero as price insensitivity increases.
  2. OEMs can absorb the cost increase and realize lower profits but continue to sell the same number of phones and purchase the same number of chips. This would not directly affect demand for chips or their prices.
  3. OEMs can respond to a price increase by purchasing fewer chips from rivals and more chips from Qualcomm. While this would affect rivals’ chip sales, it would not necessarily affect consumer prices, the total number of phones sold, or OEMs’ margins—that result would depend on whether Qualcomm’s chips cost more or less than its rivals’. If the latter, it would even increase OEMs’ margins and/or lower consumer prices and increase output.

Alternatively, of course, the effect could be some combination of these.

Whether any of these outcomes would substantially exclude rivals is inherently uncertain to begin with. But demonstrating a reduction in rivals’ chip sales is a necessary but not sufficient condition for proving anticompetitive foreclosure. The FTC didn’t even demonstrate that rivals were substantially harmed, let alone that there was any effect on consumers—nor did the district court make such findings. 

Doing so would entail consideration of whether decreased demand for rivals’ chips flows from reduced consumer demand or OEMs’ switching to Qualcomm for supply, how consumer demand elasticity affects rivals’ chip sales, and whether Qualcomm’s chips were actually less or more expensive than rivals’. Yet the court determined none of these. 

Conclusion

Contrary to established Supreme Court precedent, the district court’s decision relies on mere inferences to establish anticompetitive effect. The decision, if it stands, would render a wide range of potentially procompetitive conduct presumptively illegal and thus harm consumer welfare. It should be reversed by the Ninth Circuit.

Joining ICLE on the brief are:

  • Donald J. Boudreaux, Professor of Economics, George Mason University
  • Kenneth G. Elzinga, Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics, University of Virginia
  • Janice Hauge, Professor of Economics, University of North Texas
  • Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, Associate Professor of Law, University of Nebraska College of Law; Director of Law & Economics Programs, ICLE
  • Thomas A. Lambert, Wall Chair in Corporate Law and Governance, University of Missouri Law School
  • John E. Lopatka, A. Robert Noll Distinguished Professor of Law, Penn State University Law School
  • Daniel Lyons, Professor of Law, Boston College Law School
  • Geoffrey A. Manne, President and Founder, International Center for Law & Economics; Distinguished Fellow, Northwestern University Center on Law, Business & Economics
  • Alan J. Meese, Ball Professor of Law, William & Mary Law School
  • Paul H. Rubin, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics Emeritus, Emory University
  • Vernon L. Smith, George L. Argyros Endowed Chair in Finance and Economics, Chapman University School of Business; Nobel Laureate in Economics, 2002
  • Michael Sykuta, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Missouri


It might surprise some readers to learn that we think the Court’s decision today in Apple v. Pepper reaches — superficially — the correct result. But, we hasten to add, the Court’s reasoning (and, for that matter, the dissent’s) is completely wrongheaded. It would be an understatement to say that the Court reached the right result for the wrong reason; in fact, the Court’s analysis wasn’t even in the same universe as the correct reasoning.

Below we lay out our assessment, in a post drawn from an article forthcoming in the Nebraska Law Review.

Did the Court forget that, just last year, it decided Amex, the most significant U.S. antitrust case in ages?

What is most remarkable about the decision (and the dissent) is that neither mentions Ohio v. Amex, nor even the two-sided market context in which the transactions at issue take place.

If the decision in Apple v. Pepper hewed to the precedent established by Ohio v. Amex it would start with the observation that the relevant market analysis for the provision of app services is an integrated one, in which the overall effect of Apple’s conduct on both app users and app developers must be evaluated. A crucial implication of the Amex decision is that participants on both sides of a transactional platform are part of the same relevant market, and the terms of their relationship to the platform are inextricably intertwined.

Under this conception of the market, it’s difficult to maintain that either side does not have standing to sue the platform for the terms of its overall pricing structure, whether the specific terms at issue apply directly to that side or not. Both end users and app developers are “direct” purchasers from Apple — of different products, but in a single, inextricably interrelated market. Both groups should have standing.

More controversially, the logic of Amex also dictates that both groups should be able to establish antitrust injury — harm to competition — by showing harm to either group, as long as it establishes the requisite interrelatedness of the two sides of the market.

We believe that the Court was correct to decide in Amex that effects falling on the “other” side of a tightly integrated, two-sided market from challenged conduct must be addressed by the plaintiff in making its prima facie case. But that outcome entails a market definition that places both sides of such a market in the same relevant market for antitrust analysis.

As a result, the Court’s holding in Amex should also have required a finding in Apple v. Pepper that an app user on one side of the platform who transacts with an app developer on the other side of the market, in a transaction made possible and directly intermediated by Apple’s App Store, should similarly be deemed in the same market for standing purposes.

Relative to a strict construction of the traditional baseline, the former entails imposing an additional burden on two-sided market plaintiffs, while the latter entails a lessening of that burden. Whether the net effect is more or fewer successful cases in two-sided markets is unclear, of course. But from the perspective of aligning evidentiary and substantive doctrine with economic reality such an approach would be a clear improvement.

Critics accuse the Court of making antitrust cases unwinnable against two-sided market platforms thanks to Amex’s requirement that a prima facie showing of anticompetitive effect requires assessment of the effects on both sides of a two-sided market and proof of a net anticompetitive outcome. The critics should have been chastened by a proper decision in Apple v. Pepper. As it is, the holding (although not the reasoning) still may serve to undermine their fears.

But critics should have recognized that a necessary corollary of Amex’s “expanded” market definition is that, relative to previous standing doctrine, a greater number of prospective parties should have standing to sue.

More important, the Court in Apple v. Pepper should have recognized this. Although nominally limited to the indirect purchaser doctrine, the case presented the Court with an opportunity to grapple with this logical implication of its Amex decision. It failed to do so.

On the merits, it looks like Apple should win. But, for much the same reason, the Respondents in Apple v. Pepper should have standing

This does not, of course, mean that either party should win on the merits. Indeed, on the merits of the case, the Petitioner in Apple v. Pepper appears to have the stronger argument, particularly in light of Amex which (assuming the App Store is construed as some species of a two-sided “transaction” market) directs that Respondent has the burden of considering harms and efficiencies across both sides of the market.

At least on the basis of the limited facts as presented in the case thus far, Respondents have not remotely met their burden of proving anticompetitive effects in the relevant market.

The actual question presented in Apple v. Pepper concerns standing, not whether the plaintiffs have made out a viable case on the merits. Thus it may seem premature to consider aspects of the latter in addressing the former. But the structure of the market considered by the court should be consistent throughout its analysis.

Adjustments to standing in the context of two-sided markets must be made in concert with the nature of the substantive rule of reason analysis that will be performed in a case. The two doctrines are connected not only by the just demands for consistency, but by the error-cost framework of the overall analysis, which runs throughout the stages of an antitrust case.

Here, the two-sided markets approach in Amex properly understands that conduct by a platform has relevant effects on both sides of its interrelated two-sided market. But that stems from the actual economics of the platform; it is not merely a function of a judicial construct. It thus holds true at all stages of the analysis.

The implication for standing is that users on both sides of a two-sided platform may suffer similarly direct (or indirect) injury as a result of the platform’s conduct, regardless of the side to which that conduct is nominally addressed.

The consequence, then, of Amex’s understanding of the market is that more potential plaintiffs — specifically, plaintiffs on both sides of a two-sided market — may claim to suffer antitrust injury.

Why the myopic focus of the holding (and dissent) on Illinois Brick is improper: It’s about the market definition, stupid!

Moreover, because of the Amex understanding, the problem of analyzing the pass-through of damages at issue in Illinois Brick (with which the Court entirely occupies itself in Apple v. Pepper) is either mitigated or inevitable.

In other words, either the users on the different sides of a two-sided market suffer direct injury without pass-through under a proper definition of the relevant market, or else their interrelatedness is so strong that, complicated as it may be, the needs of substantive accuracy trump the administrative costs in sorting out the incidence of the costs, and courts cannot avoid them.

Illinois Brick’s indirect purchaser doctrine was designed for an environment in which the relationship between producers and consumers is mediated by a distributor in a direct, linear supply chain; it was not designed for platforms. Although the question presented in Apple v. Pepper is explicitly about whether the Illinois Brick “indirect purchaser” doctrine applies to the Apple App Store, that determination is contingent on the underlying product market definition (whether the product market is in fact well-specified by the parties and the court or not).

Particularly where intermediaries exist precisely to address transaction costs between “producers” and “consumers,” the platform services they provide may be central to the underlying claim in a way that the traditional direct/indirect filters — and their implied relevant markets — miss.

Further, the Illinois Brick doctrine was itself based not on the substantive necessity of cutting off liability evaluations at a particular level of distribution, but on administrability concerns. In particular, the Court was concerned with preventing duplicative recovery when there were many potential groups of plaintiffs, as well as preventing injustices that would occur if unknown groups of plaintiffs inadvertently failed to have their rights adequately adjudicated in absentia. It was also concerned with avoiding needlessly complicated damages calculations.

But, almost by definition, the tightly coupled nature of the two sides of a two-sided platform should mitigate the concerns about duplicative recovery and unknown parties. Moreover, much of the presumed complexity in damages calculations in a platform setting arise from the nature of the platform itself. Assessing and apportioning damages may be complicated, but such is the nature of complex commercial relationships — the same would be true, for example, of damages calculations between vertically integrated companies that transact simultaneously at multiple levels, or between cross-licensing patent holders/implementers. In fact, if anything, the judicial efficiency concerns in Illinois Brick point toward the increased importance of properly assessing the nature of the product or service of the platform in order to ensure that it accurately encompasses the entire relevant transaction.

Put differently, under a proper, more-accurate market definition, the “direct” and “indirect” labels don’t necessarily reflect either business or antitrust realities.

Where the Court in Apple v. Pepper really misses the boat is in its overly formalistic claim that the business model (and thus the product) underlying the complained-of conduct doesn’t matter:

[W]e fail to see why the form of the upstream arrangement between the manufacturer or supplier and the retailer should determine whether a monopolistic retailer can be sued by a downstream consumer who has purchased a good or service directly from the retailer and has paid a higher-than-competitive price because of the retailer’s unlawful monopolistic conduct.

But Amex held virtually the opposite:

Because “[l]egal presumptions that rest on formalistic distinctions rather than actual market realities are generally disfavored in antitrust law,” courts usually cannot properly apply the rule of reason without an accurate definition of the relevant market.

* * *

Price increases on one side of the platform likewise do not suggest anticompetitive effects without some evidence that they have increased the overall cost of the platform’s services. Thus, courts must include both sides of the platform—merchants and cardholders—when defining the credit-card market.

In the face of novel business conduct, novel business models, and novel economic circumstances, the degree of substantive certainty may be eroded, as may the reasonableness of the expectation that typical evidentiary burdens accurately reflect competitive harm. Modern technology — and particularly the platform business model endemic to many modern technology firms — presents a need for courts to adjust their doctrines in the face of such novel issues, even if doing so adds additional complexity to the analysis.

The unlearned market-definition lesson of the Eighth Circuit’s Campos v. Ticketmaster dissent

The Eight Circuit’s Campos v. Ticketmaster case demonstrates the way market definition shapes the application of the indirect purchaser doctrine. Indeed, the dissent in that case looms large in the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Apple v. Pepper. [Full disclosure: One of us (Geoff) worked on the dissent in Campos v. Ticketmaster as a clerk to Eighth Circuit judge Morris S. Arnold]

In Ticketmaster, the plaintiffs alleged that Ticketmaster abused its monopoly in ticket distribution services to force supracompetitve charges on concert venues — a practice that led to anticompetitive prices for concert tickets. Although not prosecuted as a two-sided market, the business model is strikingly similar to the App Store model, with Ticketmaster charging fees to venues and then facilitating ticket purchases between venues and concert goers.

As the dissent noted, however:

The monopoly product at issue in this case is ticket distribution services, not tickets.

Ticketmaster supplies the product directly to concert-goers; it does not supply it first to venue operators who in turn supply it to concert-goers. It is immaterial that Ticketmaster would not be supplying the service but for its antecedent agreement with the venues.

But it is quite relevant that the antecedent agreement was not one in which the venues bought some product from Ticketmaster in order to resell it to concert-goers.

More important, and more telling, is the fact that the entirety of the monopoly overcharge, if any, is borne by concert-goers.

In contrast to the situations described in Illinois Brick and the literature that the court cites, the venues do not pay the alleged monopoly overcharge — in fact, they receive a portion of that overcharge from Ticketmaster. (Emphasis added).

Thus, if there was a monopoly overcharge it was really borne entirely by concert-goers. As a result, apportionment — the complexity of which gives rise to the standard in Illinois Brick — was not a significant issue. And the antecedent transaction that allegedly put concertgoers in an indirect relationship with Ticketmaster is one in which Ticketmaster and concert venues divvied up the alleged monopoly spoils, not one in which the venues absorb their share of the monopoly overcharge.

The analogy to Apple v. Pepper is nearly perfect. Apple sits between developers on one side and consumers on the other, charges a fee to developers for app distribution services, and facilitates app sales between developers and users. It is possible to try to twist the market definition exercise to construe the separate contracts between developers and Apple on one hand, and the developers and consumers on the other, as some sort of complicated version of the classical manufacturing and distribution chains. But, more likely, it is advisable to actually inquire into the relevant factual differences that underpin Apple’s business model and adapt how courts consider market definition for two-sided platforms.

Indeed, Hanover Shoe and Illinois Brick were born out of a particular business reality in which businesses structured themselves in what are now classical production and distribution chains. The Supreme Court adopted the indirect purchaser rule as a prudential limitation on antitrust law in order to optimize the judicial oversight of such cases. It seems strangely nostalgic to reflexively try to fit new business methods into old legal analyses, when prudence and reality dictate otherwise.

The dissent in Ticketmaster was ahead of its time insofar as it recognized that the majority’s formal description of the ticket market was an artifact of viewing what was actually something much more like a ticket-services platform operated by Ticketmaster through the poor lens of the categories established decades earlier.

The Ticketmaster dissent’s observations demonstrate that market definition and antitrust standing are interrelated. It makes no sense to adhere to a restrictive reading of the latter if it connotes an economically improper understanding of the former. Ticketmaster provided an intermediary service — perhaps not quite a two-sided market, but something close — that stands outside a traditional manufacturing supply chain. Had it been offered by the venues themselves and bundled into the price of concert tickets there would be no question of injury and of standing (nor would market definition matter much, as both tickets and distribution services would be offered as a joint product by the same parties, in fixed proportions).

What antitrust standing doctrine should look like after Amex

There are some clear implications for antitrust doctrine that (should) follow from the preceding discussion.

A plaintiff has a choice to allege that a defendant operates either as a two-sided market or in a more traditional, linear chain during the pleading stage. If the plaintiff alleges a two-sided market, then, to demonstrate standing, it need only be shown that injury occurred to some subset of platform users with which the plaintiff is inextricably interrelated. The plaintiff would not need to demonstrate injury to him or herself, nor allege net harm, nor show directness.

In response, a defendant can contest standing by challenging the interrelatedness of the plaintiff and the group of platform users with whom the plaintiff claims interrelatedness. If the defendant does not challenge the allegation that it operates a two-sided market, it could not challenge standing by showing indirectness, that plaintiff had not alleged personal injury, or that plaintiff hasn’t alleged a net harm.

Once past a determination of standing, however, a plaintiff who pleads a two-sided market would not be able to later withdraw this allegation in order to lessen the attendant legal burdens.

If the court accepts that the defendant is operating a two-sided market, both parties would be required to frame their allegations and defenses in accordance with the nature of the two-sided market and thus the holding in Amex. This is critical because, whereas alleging a two-sided market may make it easier for plaintiffs to demonstrate standing, Amex’s requirement that net harm be demonstrated across interrelated sets of users makes it more difficult for plaintiffs to present a viable prima facie case. Further, defendants would not be barred from presenting efficiencies defenses based on benefits that interrelated users enjoy.

Conclusion: The Court in Apple v. Pepper should have acknowledged the implications of its holding in Amex

After Amex, claims against two-sided platforms might require more evidence to establish anticompetitive harm, but that business model also means that firms should open themselves up to a larger pool of potential plaintiffs. The legal principles still apply, but the relative importance of those principles to judicial outcomes shifts (or should shift) in line with the unique economic position of potential plaintiffs and defendants in a platform environment.

Whether a priori the net result is more or fewer cases and more or fewer victories for plaintiffs is not the issue; what matters is matching the legal and economic theory to the relevant facts in play. Moreover, decrying Amex as the end of antitrust was premature: the actual affect on injured parties can’t be known until other changes (like standing for a greater number of plaintiffs) are factored into the analysis. The Court’s holding in Apple v. Pepper sidesteps this issue entirely, and thus fails to properly move antitrust doctrine forward in line with its holding in Amex.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that platforms and courts might be inundated with expensive and difficult to manage lawsuits. There may be reasons of administrability for limiting standing (as Illinois Brick perhaps prematurely did for fear of the costs of courts’ managing suits). But then that should have been the focus of the Court’s decision.

Allowing standing in Apple v. Pepper permits exactly the kind of legal experimentation needed to enable the evolution of antitrust doctrine along with new business realities. But in some ways the Court reached the worst possible outcome. It announced a rule that permits more plaintiffs to establish standing, but it did not direct lower courts to assess standing within the proper analytical frame. Instead, it just expands standing in a manner unmoored from the economic — and, indeed, judicial — context. That’s not a recipe for the successful evolution of antitrust doctrine.

Following is the (slightly expanded and edited) text of my remarks from the panel, Antitrust and the Tech Industry: What Is at Stake?, hosted last Thursday by CCIA. Bruce Hoffman (keynote), Bill Kovacic, Nicolas Petit, and Christine Caffarra also spoke. If we’re lucky Bruce will post his remarks on the FTC website; they were very good.

(NB: Some of these comments were adapted (or lifted outright) from a forthcoming Cato Policy Report cover story co-authored with Gus Hurwitz, so Gus shares some of the credit/blame.)

 

The urge to treat antitrust as a legal Swiss Army knife capable of correcting all manner of social and economic ills is apparently difficult for some to resist. Conflating size with market power, and market power with political power, many recent calls for regulation of industry — and the tech industry in particular — are framed in antitrust terms. Take Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example:

[T]oday, in America, competition is dying. Consolidation and concentration are on the rise in sector after sector. Concentration threatens our markets, threatens our economy, and threatens our democracy.

And she is not alone. A growing chorus of advocates are now calling for invasive, “public-utility-style” regulation or even the dissolution of some of the world’s most innovative companies essentially because they are “too big.”

According to critics, these firms impose all manner of alleged harms — from fake news, to the demise of local retail, to low wages, to the veritable destruction of democracy — because of their size. What is needed, they say, is industrial policy that shackles large companies or effectively mandates smaller firms in order to keep their economic and political power in check.

But consider the relationship between firm size and political power and democracy.

Say you’re successful in reducing the size of today’s largest tech firms and in deterring the creation of new, very-large firms: What effect might we expect this to have on their political power and influence?

For the critics, the effect is obvious: A re-balancing of wealth and thus the reduction of political influence away from Silicon Valley oligarchs and toward the middle class — the “rudder that steers American democracy on an even keel.”

But consider a few (and this is by no means all) countervailing points:

To begin, at the margin, if you limit firm growth as a means of competing with rivals, you make correspondingly more important competition through political influence. Erecting barriers to entry and raising rivals’ costs through regulation are time-honored American political traditions, and rent-seeking by smaller firms could both be more prevalent, and, paradoxically, ultimately lead to increased concentration.

Next, by imbuing antitrust with an ill-defined set of vague political objectives, you also make antitrust into a sort of “meta-legislation.” As a result, the return on influencing a handful of government appointments with authority over antitrust becomes huge — increasing the ability and the incentive to do so.

And finally, if the underlying basis for antitrust enforcement is extended beyond economic welfare effects, how long can we expect to resist calls to restrain enforcement precisely to further those goals? All of a sudden the effort and ability to get exemptions will be massively increased as the persuasiveness of the claimed justifications for those exemptions, which already encompass non-economic goals, will be greatly enhanced. We might even find, again, that we end up with even more concentration because the exceptions could subsume the rules.

All of which of course highlights the fundamental, underlying problem: If you make antitrust more political, you’ll get less democratic, more politically determined, results — precisely the opposite of what proponents claim to want.

Then there’s democracy, and calls to break up tech in order to save it. Calls to do so are often made with reference to the original intent of the Sherman Act and Louis Brandeis and his “curse of bigness.” But intentional or not, these are rallying cries for the assertion, not the restraint, of political power.

The Sherman Act’s origin was ambivalent: although it was intended to proscribe business practices that harmed consumers, it was also intended to allow politically-preferred firms to maintain high prices in the face of competition from politically-disfavored businesses.

The years leading up to the adoption of the Sherman Act in 1890 were characterized by dramatic growth in the efficiency-enhancing, high-tech industries of the day. For many, the purpose of the Sherman Act was to stem this growth: to prevent low prices — and, yes, large firms — from “driving out of business the small dealers and worthy men whose lives have been spent therein,” in the words of Trans-Missouri Freight, one of the early Supreme Court decisions applying the Act.

Left to the courts, however, the Sherman Act didn’t quite do the trick. By 1911 (in Standard Oil and American Tobacco) — and reflecting consumers’ preferences for low prices over smaller firms — only “unreasonable” conduct was actionable under the Act. As one of the prime intellectual engineers behind the Clayton Antitrust Act and the Federal Trade Commission in 1914, Brandeis played a significant role in the (partial) legislative and administrative overriding of the judiciary’s excessive support for economic efficiency.

Brandeis was motivated by the belief that firms could become large only by illegitimate means and by deceiving consumers. But Brandeis was no advocate for consumer sovereignty. In fact, consumers, in Brandeis’ view, needed to be saved from themselves because they were, at root, “servile, self-indulgent, indolent, ignorant.”

There’s a lot that today we (many of us, at least) would find anti-democratic in the underpinnings of progressivism in US history: anti-consumerism; racism; elitism; a belief in centrally planned, technocratic oversight of the economy; promotion of social engineering, including through eugenics; etc. The aim of limiting economic power was manifestly about stemming the threat it posed to powerful people’s conception of what political power could do: to mold and shape the country in their image — what economist Thomas Sowell calls “the vision of the anointed.”

That may sound great when it’s your vision being implemented, but today’s populist antitrust resurgence comes while Trump is in the White House. It’s baffling to me that so many would expand and then hand over the means to design the economy and society in their image to antitrust enforcers in the executive branch and presidentially appointed technocrats.

Throughout US history, it is the courts that have often been the bulwark against excessive politicization of the economy, and it was the courts that shepherded the evolution of antitrust away from its politicized roots toward rigorous, economically grounded policy. And it was progressives like Brandeis who worked to take antitrust away from the courts. Now, with efforts like Senator Klobuchar’s merger bill, the “New Brandeisians” want to rein in the courts again — to get them out of the way of efforts to implement their “big is bad” vision.

But the evidence that big is actually bad, least of all on those non-economic dimensions, is thin and contested.

While Zuckerberg is grilled in Congress over perceived, endemic privacy problems, politician after politician and news article after news article rushes to assert that the real problem is Facebook’s size. Yet there is no convincing analysis (maybe no analysis of any sort) that connects its size with the problem, or that evaluates whether the asserted problem would actually be cured by breaking up Facebook.

Barry Lynn claims that the origins of antitrust are in the checks and balances of the Constitution, extended to economic power. But if that’s right, then the consumer welfare standard and the courts are the only things actually restraining the disruption of that order. If there may be gains to be had from tweaking the minutiae of the process of antitrust enforcement and adjudication, by all means we should have a careful, lengthy discussion about those tweaks.

But throwing the whole apparatus under the bus for the sake of an unsubstantiated, neo-Brandeisian conception of what the economy should look like is a terrible idea.