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The terms of the United Kingdom’s (UK) exit from the European Union (EU) – “Brexit” – are of great significance not just to UK and EU citizens, but for those in the United States and around the world who value economic liberty (see my Heritage Foundation memorandum giving the reasons why, here).

If Brexit is to promote economic freedom and enhanced economic welfare, Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU must not limit the ability of the United Kingdom to pursue (1) efficiency-enhancing regulatory reform and (2) trade liberalizing agreements with non-EU nations.  These points are expounded upon in a recent economic study (The Brexit Inflection Point) by the non-profit UK think tank the Legatum Institute, which has produced an impressive body of research on the benefits of Brexit, if implemented in a procompetitive, economically desirable fashion.  (As a matter of full disclosure, I am a member of Legatum’s “Special Trade Commission,” which “seeks to re-focus the public discussion on Brexit to a positive conversation on opportunities, rather than challenges, while presenting empirical evidence of the dangers of not following an expansive trade negotiating path.”  Members of the Special Trade Commission are unpaid – they serve on a voluntary pro bono basis.)

Unfortunately, however, leading UK press commentators have urged the UK Government to accede to a full harmonization of UK domestic regulations and trade policy with the EU.  Such a deal would be disastrous.  It would prevent the UK from entering into mutually beneficial trade liberalization pacts with other nations or groups of nations (e.g., with the U.S. and with the members of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement), because such arrangements by necessity would lead to a divergence with EU trade strictures.  It would also preclude the UK from unilaterally reducing harmful regulatory burdens that are a byproduct of economically inefficient and excessive EU rules.  In short, it would be antithetical to economic freedom and economic welfare.

Notably, in a November 30 article (Six Impossible Notions About “Global Britain”), a well-known business journalist, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, sharply criticized The Brexit Inflection Point’s recommendation that the UK should pursue trade and regulatory policies that would diverge from EU standards.  Notably, Wolf characterized as an “impossible thing” Legatum’s point that the UK should not “’allow itself to be bound by the EU’s negotiating mandate.’  We all now know this is infeasible.  The EU holds the cards and it knows it holds the cards. The Legatum authors still do not.”

Shanker Singham, Director of Economic Policy and Prosperity Studies at Legatum, brilliantly responded to Wolf’s critique in a December 4 article (published online by CAPX) entitled A Narrow-Minded Brexit Is Doomed to Fail.  Singham’s trenchant analysis merits being set forth in its entirety (by permission of the author):

“Last week, the Financial Times’s chief economics commentator, Martin Wolf, dedicated his column to criticising The Brexit Inflection Point, a report for the Legatum Institute in which Victoria Hewson, Radomir Tylecote and I discuss what would constitute a good end state for the UK as it seeks to exercise an independent trade and regulatory policy post Brexit, and how we get from here to there.

We write these reports to advance ideas that we think will help policymakers as they tackle the single biggest challenge this country has faced since the Second World War. We believe in a market place of ideas, and we welcome challenge. . . .

[W]e are thankful that Martin Wolf, an eminent economist, has chosen to engage with the substance of our arguments. However, his article misunderstands the nature of modern international trade negotiations, as well as the reality of the European Union’s regulatory system – and so his claim that, like the White Queen, we “believe in impossible things” simply doesn’t stack up.

Mr Wolf claims there are six impossible things that we argue. We will address his rebuttals in turn.

But first, in discussions about the UK’s trade policy, it is important to bear in mind that the British government is currently discussing the manner in which it will retake its independent WTO membership. This includes agricultural import quotas, and its WTO rectification processes with other WTO members.

If other countries believe that the UK will adopt the position of maintaining regulatory alignment with the EU, as advocated by Mr Wolf and others, the UK’s negotiating strategy would be substantially weaker. It would quite wrongly suggest that the UK will be unable to lower trade barriers and offer the kind of liberalisation that our trading partners seek and that would work best for the UK economy. This could negatively impact both the UK and the EU’s ongoing discussions in the WTO.

Has the EU’s trading system constrained growth in the World?

The first impossible thing Mr Wolf claims we argue is that the EU system of protectionism and harmonised regulation has constrained economic growth for Britain and the world. He is right to point out that the volume of world trade has increased, and the UK has, of course, experienced GDP growth while a member of the EU.

However, as our report points out, the EU’s prescriptive approach to regulation, especially in the recent past (for example, its approach on data protection, audio-visual regulation, the restrictive application of the precautionary principle, REACH chemicals regulation, and financial services regulations to name just a few) has led to an increase in anti-competitive regulation and market distortions that are wealth destructive.

As the OECD notes in various reports on regulatory reform, regulation can act as a behind-the-border barrier to trade and impede market openness for trade and investment. Inefficient regulation imposes unnecessary burdens on firms, increases barriers to entry, impacts on competition and incentives for innovation, and ultimately hurts productivity. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is an example of regulation that is disproportionate to its objectives; it is highly prescriptive and imposes substantial compliance costs for business that want to use data to innovate.

Rapid growth during the post-war period is in part thanks to the progressive elimination of border trade barriers. But, in terms of wealth creation, we are no longer growing at that rate. Since before the financial crisis, measures of actual wealth creation (not GDP which includes consumer and government spending) such as industrial output have stalled, and the number of behind-the-border regulatory barriers has been increasing.

The global trading system is in difficulty. The lack of negotiation of a global trade round since the Uruguay Round, the lack of serious services liberalisation in either the built-in agenda of the WTO or sectorally following on from the Basic Telecoms Agreement and its Reference Paper on Competition Safeguards in 1997 has led to an increase in behind-the-border barriers and anti-competitive distortions and regulation all over the world. This stasis in international trade negotiations is an important contributory factor to what many economists have talked about as a “new normal” of limited growth, and a global decline in innovation.

Meanwhile the EU has sought to force its regulatory system on the rest of the world (the GDPR is an example of this). If it succeeds, the result would be the kind of wealth destruction that pushes more people into poverty. It is against this backdrop that the UK is negotiating with both the EU and the rest of the world.

The question is whether an independent UK, the world’s sixth biggest economy and second biggest exporter of services, is able to contribute to improving the dynamics of the global economic architecture, which means further trade liberalisation. The EU is protectionist against outside countries, which is antithetical to the overall objectives of the WTO. This is true in agriculture and beyond. For example, the EU imposes tariffs on cars at four times the rate applied by the US, while another large auto manufacturing country, Japan, has unilaterally removed its auto tariffs.

In addition, the EU27 represents a declining share of UK exports, which is rather counter-intuitive for a Customs Union and single market. In 1999, the EU represented 55 per cent of UK exports, and by 2016, this was 43 per cent. That said, the EU will remain an important, albeit declining, market for the UK, which is why we advocate a comprehensive free trade agreement with it.

Can the UK secure meaningful regulatory recognition from the EU without being identical to it?

Second, Mr Wolf suggests that regulatory recognition between the UK and EU is possible only if there is harmonisation or identical regulation between the UK and EU.

This is at odds with WTO practice, stretching back to its rules on domestic laws and regulation as encapsulated in Article III of the GATT and Article VI of the GATS, and as expressed in the Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) and Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) agreements.

This is the critical issue. The direction of travel of international trade thinking is towards countries recognising each other’s regulatory systems if they achieve the same ultimate goal of regulation, even if the underlying regulation differs, and to regulate in ways that are least distortive to international trade and competition. There will be areas where this level of recognition will not be possible, in which case UK exports into the EU will of course have to satisfy the standards of the EU. But even here we can mitigate the trade costs to some extent by Mutual Recognition Agreements on conformity assessment and market surveillance.

Had the US taken the view that it would not receive regulatory recognition unless their regulatory systems were the same, the recent agreement on prudential measures in insurance and reinsurance services between the EU and US would not exist. In fact this point highlights the crucial issue which the UK must successfully negotiate, and one in which its interests are aligned with other countries and with the direction of travel of the WTO itself. The TBT and SPS agreements broadly provide that mutual recognition should not be denied where regulatory goals are aligned but technical regulation differs.

Global trade and regulatory policy increasingly looks for regulation that promotes competition. The EU is on a different track, as the GDPR demonstrates. This is the reason that both the Canada-EU agreement (CETA) and the EU offer in the Trade in Services agreement (TiSA) does not include new services. If GDPR were to become the global standard, trade in data would be severely constrained, slowing the development of big data solutions, the fourth industrial revolution, and new services trade generally.

As many firms recognise, this would be extremely damaging to global prosperity. In arguing that regulatory recognition is only available if the UK is fully harmonised with the EU, Mr Wolf may be in harmony with the EU approach to regulation. But that is exactly the approach that is damaging the global trading environment.

Can the UK exercise trade policy leadership?

Third, Mr Wolf suggests that other countries do not, and will not, look to the UK for trade leadership. He cites the US’s withdrawal from the trade negotiating space as an example. But surely the absence of the world’s biggest services exporter means that the world’s second biggest exporter of services will be expected to advocate for its own interests, and argue for greater services liberalisation.

Mr Wolf believes that the UK is a second-rank power in decline. We take a different view of the world’s sixth biggest economy, the financial capital of the world and the second biggest exporter of services. As former New Zealand High Commissioner, Sir Lockwood Smith, has said, the rest of the world does not see the UK as the UK too often seems to see itself.

The global companies that have their headquarters in the UK do not see things the same way as Mr Wolf. In fact, the lack of trade leadership since 1997 means that a country with significant services exports would be expected to show some leadership.

Mr Wolf’s point is that far from seeking to grandiosely lead global trade negotiations, the UK should stick to its current knitting, which consists of its WTO rectification, and includes the negotiation of its agricultural import quotas and production subsidies in agriculture. This is perhaps the most concerning part of his argument. Yes, the UK must rectify its tariff schedules, but for that process to be successful, especially on agricultural import quotas, it must be able to demonstrate to its partners that it will be able to grant further liberalisation in the near term future. If it can’t, then its trading partners will have no choice but to demand as much liberalisation as they can secure right now in the rectification process.

This will complicate that process, and cause damage to the UK as it takes up its independent WTO membership. Those WTO partners who see the UK as vulnerable on this point will no doubt see validation in Mr Wolf’s article and assume it means that no real liberalisation will be possible from the UK. The EU should note that complicating this process for the UK will not help the EU in its own WTO processes, where it is vulnerable.

Trade negotiations are dynamic not static and the UK must act quickly

Fourth, Mr Wolf suggests that the UK is not under time pressure to “escape from the EU”.  This statement does not account for how international trade negotiations work in practice. In order for countries to cooperate with the UK on its WTO rectification, and its TRQ negotiations, as well to seriously negotiate with it, they have to believe that the UK will have control over tariff schedules and regulatory autonomy from day one of Brexit (even if we may choose not to make changes to it for an implementation period).

If non-EU countries think that the UK will not be able to exercise its freedom for several years, they will simply demand their pound of flesh in the negotiations now, and get on with the rest of their trade policy agenda. Trade negotiations are not static. The US executive could lose trade-negotiating authority in the summer of next year if the NAFTA renegotiation is not going well. Other countries will seek to accede to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). China is moving forward with its Regional Cooperation and Economic Partnership, which does not meaningfully touch on domestic regulatory barriers. Much as we might criticise Donald Trump, his administration has expressed strong political will for a UK-US agreement, and in that regard has broken with traditional US trade policy thinking. The UK has an opportunity to strike and must take it.

The UK should prevail on the EU to allow Customs Agencies to be inter-operable from day one

Fifth, with respect to the challenges raised on customs agencies working together, our report argued that UK customs and the customs agencies of the EU member states should discuss customs arrangements at a practical and technical level now. What stands in the way of this is the EU’s stubbornness. Customs agencies are in regular contact on a business-as-usual basis, so the inability of UK and member-state customs agencies to talk to each other about the critical issue of new arrangements would seem to border on negligence. Of course, the EU should allow member states to have these critical conversations now.  Given the importance of customs agencies interoperating smoothly from day one, the UK Government must press its case with the European Commission to allow such conversations to start happening as a matter of urgency.

Does the EU hold all the cards?

Sixth, Mr Wolf argues that the EU holds all the cards and knows it holds all the cards, and therefore disagrees with our claim that the the UK should “not allow itself to be bound by the EU’s negotiating mandate”. As with his other claims, Mr Wolf finds himself agreeing with the EU’s negotiators. But that does not make him right.

While absence of a trade deal will of course damage UK industries, the cost to EU industries is also very significant. Beef and dairy in Ireland, cars and dairy in Bavaria, cars in Catalonia, textiles and dairy in Northern Italy – all over Europe (and in politically sensitive areas), industries stands to lose billions of Euros and thousands of jobs. This is without considering the impact of no financial services deal, which would increase the cost of capital in the EU, aborting corporate transactions and raising the cost of the supply chain. The EU has chosen a mandate that risks neither party getting what it wants.

The notion that the EU is a masterful negotiator, while the UK’s negotiators are hopeless is not the global view of the EU and the UK. Far from it. The EU in international trade negotiations has a reputation for being slow moving, lacking in creative vision, and unable to conclude agreements. Indeed, others have generally gone to the UK when they have been met with intransigence in Brussels.

What do we do now?

Mr Wolf’s argument amounts to a claim that the UK is not capable of the kind of further and deeper liberalisation that its economy would suggest is both possible and highly desirable both for the UK and the rest of the world. According to Mr Wolf, the UK can only consign itself to a highly aligned regulatory orbit around the EU, unable to realise any other agreements, and unable to influence the regulatory system around which it revolves, even as that system becomes ever more prescriptive and anti-competitive. Such a position is at odds with the facts and would guarantee a poor result for the UK and also cause opportunities to be lost for the rest of the world.

In all of our [Legatum Brexit-related] papers, we have started from the assumption that the British people have voted to leave the EU, and the government is implementing that outcome. We have then sought to produce policy recommendations based on what would constitute a good outcome as a result of that decision. This can be achieved only if we maximise the opportunities and minimise the disruptions.

We all recognise that the UK has embarked on a very difficult process. But there is a difference between difficult and impossible. There is also a difference between tasks that must be done and take time, and genuine negotiation points. We welcome the debate that comes from constructive challenge of our proposals; and we ask in turn that those who criticise us suggest alternative plans that might achieve positive outcomes. We look forward to the opportunity of a broader debate so that collectively the country can find the best path forward.”

 

This week the FCC will vote on Chairman Ajit Pai’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order. Once implemented, the Order will rescind the 2015 Open Internet Order and return antitrust and consumer protection enforcement to primacy in Internet access regulation in the U.S.

In anticipation of that, earlier this week the FCC and FTC entered into a Memorandum of Understanding delineating how the agencies will work together to police ISPs. Under the MOU, the FCC will review informal complaints regarding ISPs’ disclosures about their blocking, throttling, paid prioritization, and congestion management practices. Where an ISP fails to make the proper disclosures, the FCC will take enforcement action. The FTC, for its part, will investigate and, where warranted, take enforcement action against ISPs for unfair, deceptive, or otherwise unlawful acts.

Critics of Chairman Pai’s plan contend (among other things) that the reversion to antitrust-agency oversight of competition and consumer protection in telecom markets (and the Internet access market particularly) would be an aberration — that the US will become the only place in the world to move backward away from net neutrality rules and toward antitrust law.

But this characterization has it exactly wrong. In fact, much of the world has been moving toward an antitrust-based approach to telecom regulation. The aberration was the telecom-specific, common-carrier regulation of the 2015 Open Internet Order.

The longstanding, global transition from telecom regulation to antitrust enforcement

The decade-old discussion around net neutrality has morphed, perhaps inevitably, to join the larger conversation about competition in the telecom sector and the proper role of antitrust law in addressing telecom-related competition issues. Today, with the latest net neutrality rules in the US on the chopping block, the discussion has grown more fervent (and even sometimes inordinately violent).

On the one hand, opponents of the 2015 rules express strong dissatisfaction with traditional, utility-style telecom regulation of innovative services, and view the 2015 rules as a meritless usurpation of antitrust principles in guiding the regulation of the Internet access market. On the other hand, proponents of the 2015 rules voice skepticism that antitrust can actually provide a way to control competitive harms in the tech and telecom sectors, and see the heavy hand of Title II, common-carrier regulation as a necessary corrective.

While the evidence seems clear that an early-20th-century approach to telecom regulation is indeed inappropriate for the modern Internet (see our lengthy discussions on this point, e.g., here and here, as well as Thom Lambert’s recent post), it is perhaps less clear whether antitrust, with its constantly evolving, common-law foundation, is up to the task.

To answer that question, it is important to understand that for decades, the arc of telecom regulation globally has been sweeping in the direction of ex post competition enforcement, and away from ex ante, sector-specific regulation.

Howard Shelanski, who served as President Obama’s OIRA Administrator from 2013-17, Director of the Bureau of Economics at the FTC from 2012-2013, and Chief Economist at the FCC from 1999-2000, noted in 2002, for instance, that

[i]n many countries, the first transition has been from a government monopoly to a privatizing entity controlled by an independent regulator. The next transformation on the horizon is away from the independent regulator and towards regulation through general competition law.

Globally, nowhere perhaps has this transition been more clearly stated than in the EU’s telecom regulatory framework which asserts:

The aim is to progressively reduce ex ante sector-specific regulation progressively as competition in markets develops and, ultimately, for electronic communications [i.e., telecommunications] to be governed by competition law only. (Emphasis added.)

To facilitate the transition and quash regulatory inconsistencies among member states, the EC identified certain markets for national regulators to decide, consistent with EC guidelines on market analysis, whether ex ante obligations were necessary in their respective countries due to an operator holding “significant market power.” In 2003 the EC identified 18 such markets. After observing technological and market changes over the next four years, the EC reduced that number to seven in 2007 and, in 2014, the number was further reduced to four markets, all wholesale markets, that could potentially require ex ante regulation.

It is important to highlight that this framework is not uniquely achievable in Europe because of some special trait in its markets, regulatory structure, or antitrust framework. Determining the right balance of regulatory rules and competition law, whether enforced by a telecom regulator, antitrust regulator, or multi-purpose authority (i.e., with authority over both competition and telecom) means choosing from a menu of options that should be periodically assessed to move toward better performance and practice. There is nothing jurisdiction-specific about this; it is simply a matter of good governance.

And since the early 2000s, scholars have highlighted that the US is in an intriguing position to transition to a merged regulator because, for example, it has both a “highly liberalized telecommunications sector and a well-established body of antitrust law.” For Shelanski, among others, the US has been ready to make the transition since 2007.

Far from being an aberrant move away from sound telecom regulation, the FCC’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order is actually a step in the direction of sensible, antitrust-based telecom regulation — one that many parts of the world have long since undertaken.

How antitrust oversight of telecom markets has been implemented around the globe

In implementing the EU’s shift toward antitrust oversight of the telecom sector since 2003, agencies have adopted a number of different organizational reforms.

Some telecom regulators assumed new duties over competition — e.g., Ofcom in the UK. Other non-European countries, including, e.g., Mexico have also followed this model.

Other European Member States have eliminated their telecom regulator altogether. In a useful case study, Roslyn Layton and Joe Kane outline Denmark’s approach, which includes disbanding its telecom regulator and passing the regulation of the sector to various executive agencies.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands and Spain each elected to merge its telecom regulator into its competition authority. New Zealand has similarly adopted this framework.

A few brief case studies will illuminate these and other reforms:

The Netherlands

In 2013, the Netherlands merged its telecom, consumer protection, and competition regulators to form the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM). The ACM’s structure streamlines decision-making on pending industry mergers and acquisitions at the managerial level, eliminating the challenges arising from overlapping agency reviews and cross-agency coordination. The reform also unified key regulatory methodologies, such as creating a consistent calculation method for the weighted average cost of capital (WACC).

The Netherlands also claims that the ACM’s ex post approach is better able to adapt to “technological developments, dynamic markets, and market trends”:

The combination of strength and flexibility allows for a problem-based approach where the authority first engages in a dialogue with a particular market player in order to discuss market behaviour and ensure the well-functioning of the market.

The Netherlands also cited a significant reduction in the risk of regulatory capture as staff no longer remain in positions for long tenures but rather rotate on a project-by-project basis from a regulatory to a competition department or vice versa. Moving staff from team to team has also added value in terms of knowledge transfer among the staff. Finally, while combining the cultures of each regulator was less difficult than expected, the government reported that the largest cause of consternation in the process was agreeing on a single IT system for the ACM.

Spain

In 2013, Spain created the National Authority for Markets and Competition (CNMC), merging the National Competition Authority with several sectoral regulators, including the telecom regulator, to “guarantee cohesion between competition rulings and sectoral regulation.” In a report to the OECD, Spain stated that moving to the new model was necessary because of increasing competition and technological convergence in the sector (i.e., the ability for different technologies to offer the substitute services (like fixed and wireless Internet access)). It added that integrating its telecom regulator with its competition regulator ensures

a predictable business environment and legal certainty [i.e., removing “any threat of arbitrariness”] for the firms. These two conditions are indispensable for network industries — where huge investments are required — but also for the rest of the business community if investment and innovation are to be promoted.

Like in the Netherlands, additional benefits include significantly lowering the risk of regulatory capture by “preventing the alignment of the authority’s performance with sectoral interests.”

Denmark

In 2011, the Danish government unexpectedly dismantled the National IT and Telecom Agency and split its duties between four regulators. While the move came as a surprise, it did not engender national debate — vitriolic or otherwise — nor did it receive much attention in the press.

Since the dismantlement scholars have observed less politicization of telecom regulation. And even though the competition authority didn’t take over telecom regulatory duties, the Ministry of Business and Growth implemented a light touch regime, which, as Layton and Kane note, has helped to turn Denmark into one of the “top digital nations” according to the International Telecommunication Union’s Measuring the Information Society Report.

New Zealand

The New Zealand Commerce Commission (NZCC) is responsible for antitrust enforcement, economic regulation, consumer protection, and certain sectoral regulations, including telecommunications. By combining functions into a single regulator New Zealand asserts that it can more cost-effectively administer government operations. Combining regulatory functions also created spillover benefits as, for example, competition analysis is a prerequisite for sectoral regulation, and merger analysis in regulated sectors (like telecom) can leverage staff with detailed and valuable knowledge. Similar to the other countries, New Zealand also noted that the possibility of regulatory capture “by the industries they regulate is reduced in an agency that regulates multiple sectors or also has competition and consumer law functions.”

Advantages identified by other organizations

The GSMA, a mobile industry association, notes in its 2016 report, Resetting Competition Policy Frameworks for the Digital Ecosystem, that merging the sector regulator into the competition regulator also mitigates regulatory creep by eliminating the prodding required to induce a sector regulator to roll back regulation as technological evolution requires it, as well as by curbing the sector regulator’s temptation to expand its authority. After all, regulators exist to regulate.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that eliminating the telecom regulator has not gone off without a hitch in every case (most notably, in Spain). It’s important to understand, however, that the difficulties that have arisen in specific contexts aren’t endemic to the nature of competition versus telecom regulation. Nothing about these cases suggests that economic-based telecom regulations are inherently essential, or that replacing sector-specific oversight with antitrust oversight can’t work.

Contrasting approaches to net neutrality in the EU and New Zealand

Unfortunately, adopting a proper framework and implementing sweeping organizational reform is no guarantee of consistent decisionmaking in its implementation. Thus, in 2015, the European Parliament and Council of the EU went against two decades of telecommunications best practices by implementing ex ante net neutrality regulations without hard evidence of widespread harm and absent any competition analysis to justify its decision. The EU placed net neutrality under the universal service and user’s rights prong of the regulatory framework, and the resulting rules lack coherence and economic rigor.

BEREC’s net neutrality guidelines, meant to clarify the EU regulations, offered an ambiguous, multi-factored standard to evaluate ISP practices like free data programs. And, as mentioned in a previous TOTM post, whether or not they allow the practice, regulators (e.g., Norway’s Nkom and the UK’s Ofcom) have lamented the lack of regulatory certainty surrounding free data programs.

Notably, while BEREC has not provided clear guidance, a 2017 report commissioned by the EU’s Directorate-General for Competition weighing competitive benefits and harms of zero rating concluded “there appears to be little reason to believe that zero-rating gives rise to competition concerns.”

The report also provides an ex post framework for analyzing such deals in the context of a two-sided market by assessing a deal’s impact on competition between ISPs and between content and application providers.

The EU example demonstrates that where a telecom regulator perceives a novel problem, competition law, grounded in economic principles, brings a clear framework to bear.

In New Zealand, if a net neutrality issue were to arise, the ISP’s behavior would be examined under the context of existing antitrust law, including a determination of whether the ISP is exercising market power, and by the Telecommunications Commissioner, who monitors competition and the development of telecom markets for the NZCC.

Currently, there is broad consensus among stakeholders, including a local content providers and networking equipment manufacturers, that there is no need for ex ante regulation of net neutrality. Wholesale ISP, Chorus, states, for example, that “in any event, the United States’ transparency and non-interference requirements [from the 2015 OIO] are arguably covered by the TCF Code disclosure rules and the provisions of the Commerce Act.”

The TCF Code is a mandatory code of practice establishing requirements concerning the information ISPs are required to disclose to consumers about their services. For example, ISPs must disclose any arrangements that prioritize certain traffic. Regarding traffic management, complaints of unfair contract terms — when not resolved by a process administered by an independent industry group — may be referred to the NZCC for an investigation in accordance with the Fair Trading Act. Under the Commerce Act, the NZCC can prohibit anticompetitive mergers, or practices that substantially lessen competition or that constitute price fixing or abuse of market power.

In addition, the NZCC has been active in patrolling vertical agreements between ISPs and content providers — precisely the types of agreements bemoaned by Title II net neutrality proponents.

In February 2017, the NZCC blocked Vodafone New Zealand’s proposed merger with Sky Network (combining Sky’s content and pay TV business with Vodafone’s broadband and mobile services) because the Commission concluded that the deal would substantially lessen competition in relevant broadband and mobile services markets. The NZCC was

unable to exclude the real chance that the merged entity would use its market power over premium live sports rights to effectively foreclose a substantial share of telecommunications customers from rival telecommunications services providers (TSPs), resulting in a substantial lessening of competition in broadband and mobile services markets.

Such foreclosure would result, the NZCC argued, from exclusive content and integrated bundles with features such as “zero rated Sky Sport viewing over mobile.” In addition, Vodafone would have the ability to prevent rivals from creating bundles using Sky Sport.

The substance of the Vodafone/Sky decision notwithstanding, the NZCC’s intervention is further evidence that antitrust isn’t a mere smokescreen for regulators to do nothing, and that regulators don’t need to design novel tools (such as the Internet conduct rule in the 2015 OIO) to regulate something neither they nor anyone else knows very much about: “not just the sprawling Internet of today, but also the unknowable Internet of tomorrow.” Instead, with ex post competition enforcement, regulators can allow dynamic innovation and competition to develop, and are perfectly capable of intervening — when and if identifiable harm emerges.

Conclusion

Unfortunately for Title II proponents — who have spent a decade at the FCC lobbying for net neutrality rules despite a lack of actionable evidence — the FCC is not acting without precedent by enabling the FTC’s antitrust and consumer protection enforcement to police conduct in Internet access markets. For two decades, the object of telecommunications regulation globally has been to transition away from sector-specific ex ante regulation to ex post competition review and enforcement. It’s high time the U.S. got on board.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The antitrust issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Yelp Claim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The privacy issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s really going on in Jefferson City?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I explain in my new book, How to Regulate, sound regulation requires thinking like a doctor.  When addressing some “disease” that reduces social welfare, policymakers should catalog the available “remedies” for the problem, consider the implementation difficulties and “side effects” of each, and select the remedy that offers the greatest net benefit.

If we followed that approach in deciding what to do about the way Internet Service Providers (ISPs) manage traffic on their networks, we would conclude that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is exactly right:  The FCC should reverse its order classifying ISPs as common carriers (Title II classification) and leave matters of non-neutral network management to antitrust, the residual regulator of practices that may injure competition.

Let’s walk through the analysis.

Diagnose the Disease.  The primary concern of net neutrality advocates is that ISPs will block some Internet content or will slow or degrade transmission from content providers who do not pay for a “fast lane.”  Of course, if an ISP’s non-neutral network management impairs the user experience, it will lose business; the vast majority of Americans have access to multiple ISPs, and competition is growing by the day, particularly as mobile broadband expands.

But an ISP might still play favorites, despite the threat of losing some subscribers, if it has a relationship with content providers.  Comcast, for example, could opt to speed up content from HULU, which streams programming of Comcast’s NBC subsidiary, or might slow down content from Netflix, whose streaming video competes with Comcast’s own cable programming.  Comcast’s losses in the distribution market (from angry consumers switching ISPs) might be less than its gains in the content market (from reducing competition there).

It seems, then, that the “disease” that might warrant a regulatory fix is an anticompetitive vertical restraint of trade: a business practice in one market (distribution) that could restrain trade in another market (content production) and thereby reduce overall output in that market.

Catalog the Available Remedies.  The statutory landscape provides at least three potential remedies for this disease.

The simplest approach would be to leave the matter to antitrust, which applies in the absence of more focused regulation.  In recent decades, courts have revised the standards governing vertical restraints of trade so that antitrust, which used to treat such restraints in a ham-fisted fashion, now does a pretty good job separating pro-consumer restraints from anti-consumer ones.

A second legally available approach would be to craft narrowly tailored rules precluding ISPs from blocking, degrading, or favoring particular Internet content.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act empowered the FCC to adopt targeted net neutrality rules, even if ISPs are not classified as common carriers.  The court insisted the that rules not treat ISPs as common carriers (if they are not officially classified as such), but it provided a road map for tailored net neutrality rules. The FCC pursued this targeted, rules-based approach until President Obama pushed for a third approach.

In November 2014, reeling from a shellacking in the  midterm elections and hoping to shore up his base, President Obama posted a video calling on the Commission to assure net neutrality by reclassifying ISPs as common carriers.  Such reclassification would subject ISPs to Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, giving the FCC broad power to assure that their business practices are “just and reasonable.”  Prodded by the President, the nominally independent commissioners abandoned their targeted, rules-based approach and voted to regulate ISPs like utilities.  They then used their enhanced regulatory authority to impose rules forbidding the blocking, throttling, or paid prioritization of Internet content.

Assess the Remedies’ Limitations, Implementation Difficulties, and Side Effects.   The three legally available remedies — antitrust, tailored rules under Section 706, and broad oversight under Title II — offer different pros and cons, as I explained in How to Regulate:

The choice between antitrust and direct regulation generally (under either Section 706 or Title II) involves a tradeoff between flexibility and determinacy. Antitrust is flexible but somewhat indeterminate; it would condemn non-neutral network management practices that are likely to injure consumers, but it would permit such practices if they would lower costs, improve quality, or otherwise enhance consumer welfare. The direct regulatory approaches are rigid but clearer; they declare all instances of non-neutral network management to be illegal per se.

Determinacy and flexibility influence decision and error costs.  Because they are more determinate, ex ante rules should impose lower decision costs than would antitrust. But direct regulation’s inflexibility—automatic condemnation, no questions asked—will generate higher error costs. That’s because non-neutral network management is often good for end users. For example, speeding up the transmission of content for which delivery lags are particularly detrimental to the end-user experience (e.g., an Internet telephone call, streaming video) at the expense of content that is less lag-sensitive (e.g., digital photographs downloaded from a photo-sharing website) can create a net consumer benefit and should probably be allowed. A per se rule against non-neutral network management would therefore err fairly frequently. Antitrust’s flexible approach, informed by a century of economic learning on the output effects of contractual restraints between vertically related firms (like content producers and distributors), would probably generate lower error costs.

Although both antitrust and direct regulation offer advantages vis-à-vis each other, this isn’t simply a wash. The error cost advantage antitrust holds over direct regulation likely swamps direct regulation’s decision cost advantage. Extensive experience with vertical restraints on distribution have shown that they are usually good for consumers. For that reason, antitrust courts in recent decades have discarded their old per se rules against such practices—rules that resemble the FCC’s direct regulatory approach—in favor of structured rules of reason that assess liability based on specific features of the market and restraint at issue. While these rules of reason (standards, really) may be less determinate than the old, error-prone per se rules, they are not indeterminate. By relying on past precedents and the overarching principle that legality turns on consumer welfare effects, business planners and adjudicators ought to be able to determine fairly easily whether a non-neutral network management practice passes muster. Indeed, the fact that the FCC has uncovered only four instances of anticompetitive network management over the commercial Internet’s entire history—a period in which antitrust, but not direct regulation, has governed ISPs—suggests that business planners are capable of determining what behavior is off-limits. Direct regulation’s per se rule against non-neutral network management is thus likely to add error costs that exceed any reduction in decision costs. It is probably not the remedy that would be selected under this book’s recommended approach.

In any event, direct regulation under Title II, the currently prevailing approach, is certainly not the optimal way to address potentially anticompetitive instances of non-neutral network management by ISPs. Whereas any ex ante   regulation of network management will confront the familiar knowledge problem, opting for direct regulation under Title II, rather than the more cabined approach under Section 706, adds adverse public choice concerns to the mix.

As explained earlier, reclassifying ISPs to bring them under Title II empowers the FCC to scrutinize the “justice” and “reasonableness” of nearly every aspect of every arrangement between content providers, ISPs, and consumers. Granted, the current commissioners have pledged not to exercise their Title II authority beyond mandating network neutrality, but public choice insights would suggest that this promised forbearance is unlikely to endure. FCC officials, who remain self-interest maximizers even when acting in their official capacities, benefit from expanding their regulatory turf; they gain increased power and prestige, larger budgets to manage, a greater ability to “make or break” businesses, and thus more opportunity to take actions that may enhance their future career opportunities. They will therefore face constant temptation to exercise the Title II authority that they have committed, as of now, to leave fallow. Regulated businesses, knowing that FCC decisions are key to their success, will expend significant resources lobbying for outcomes that benefit them or impair their rivals. If they don’t get what they want because of the commissioners’ voluntary forbearance, they may bring legal challenges asserting that the Commission has failed to assure just and reasonable practices as Title II demands. Many of the decisions at issue will involve the familiar “concentrated benefits/diffused costs” dynamic that tends to result in underrepresentation by those who are adversely affected by a contemplated decision. Taken together, these considerations make it unlikely that the current commissioners’ promised restraint will endure. Reclassification of ISPs so that they are subject to Title II regulation will probably lead to additional constraints on edge providers and ISPs.

It seems, then, that mandating net neutrality under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act is the least desirable of the three statutorily available approaches to addressing anticompetitive network management practices. The Title II approach combines the inflexibility and ensuing error costs of the Section 706 direct regulation approach with the indeterminacy and higher decision costs of an antitrust approach. Indeed, the indeterminacy under Title II is significantly greater than that under antitrust because the “just and reasonable” requirements of the Communications Act, unlike antitrust’s reasonableness requirements (no unreasonable restraint of trade, no unreasonably exclusionary conduct) are not constrained by the consumer welfare principle. Whereas antitrust always protects consumers, not competitors, the FCC may well decide that business practices in the Internet space are unjust or unreasonable solely because they make things harder for the perpetrator’s rivals. Business planners are thus really “at sea” when it comes to assessing the legality of novel practices.

All this implies that Internet businesses regulated by Title II need to court the FCC’s favor, that FCC officials have more ability than ever to manipulate government power to private ends, that organized interest groups are well-poised to secure their preferences when the costs are great but widely dispersed, and that the regulators’ dictated outcomes—immune from market pressures reflecting consumers’ preferences—are less likely to maximize net social welfare. In opting for a Title II solution to what is essentially a market power problem, the powers that be gave short shrift to an antitrust approach, even though there was no natural monopoly justification for direct regulation. They paid little heed to the adverse consequences likely to result from rigid per se rules adopted under a highly discretionary (and politically manipulable) standard. They should have gone back to basics, assessing the disease to be remedied (market power), the full range of available remedies (including antitrust), and the potential side effects of each. In other words, they could’ve used this book.

How to Regulate‘s full discussion of net neutrality and Title II is here:  Net Neutrality Discussion in How to Regulate.

Unexpectedly, on the day that the white copy of the upcoming repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order was published, a mobile operator in Portugal with about 7.5 million subscribers is garnering a lot of attention. Curiously, it’s not because Portugal is a beautiful country (Iker Casillas’ Instagram feed is dope) nor because Portuguese is a beautiful romance language.

Rather it’s because old-fashioned misinformation is being peddled to perpetuate doomsday images that Portuguese ISPs have carved the Internet into pieces — and if the repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order passes, the same butchery is coming to an AT&T store near you.

Much ado about data

This tempest in the teacup is about mobile data plans, specifically the ability of mobile subscribers to supplement their data plan (typically ranging from 200 MB to 3 GB per month) with additional 10 GB data packages containing specific bundles of apps – messaging apps, social apps, video apps, music apps, and email and cloud apps. Each additional 10 GB data package costs EUR 6.99 per month and Meo (the mobile operator) also offers its own zero rated apps. Similar plans have been offered in Portugal since at least 2012.

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These data packages are a clear win for mobile subscribers, especially pre-paid subscribers who tend to be at a lower income level than post-paid subscribers. They allow consumers to customize their plan beyond their mobile broadband subscription, enabling them to consume data in ways that are better attuned to their preferences. Without access to these data packages, consuming an additional 10 GB of data would cost each user an additional EUR 26 per month and require her to enter into a two year contract.

These discounted data packages also facilitate product differentiation among mobile operators that offer a variety of plans. Keeping with the Portugal example, Vodafone Portugal offers 20 GB of additional data for certain apps (Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, and Skype, among others) with the purchase of a 3 GB mobile data plan. Consumers can pick which operator offers the best plan for them.

In addition, data packages like the ones in question here tend to increase the overall consumption of content, reduce users’ cost of obtaining information, and allow for consumers to experiment with new, less familiar apps. In short, they are overwhelmingly pro-consumer.

Even if Portugal actually didn’t have net neutrality rules, this would be the furthest thing from the apocalypse critics make it out to be.

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Net Neutrality in Portugal

But, contrary to activists’ misinformation, Portugal does have net neutrality rules. The EU implemented its net neutrality framework in November 2015 as a regulation, meaning that the regulation became the law of the EU when it was enacted, and national governments, including Portugal, did not need to transpose it into national legislation.

While the regulation was automatically enacted in Portugal, the regulation and the 2016 EC guidelines left the decision of whether to allow sponsored data and zero rating plans (the Regulation likely classifies data packages at issue here to be zero rated plans because they give users a lot of data for a low price) in the hands of national regulators. While Portugal is still formulating the standard it will use to evaluate sponsored data and zero rating under the EU’s framework, there is little reason to think that this common practice would be disallowed in Portugal.

On average, in fact, despite its strong net neutrality regulation, the EU appears to be softening its stance toward zero rating. This was evident in a recent EC competition policy authority (DG-Comp) study concluding that there is little reason to believe that such data practices raise concerns.

The activists’ willful misunderstanding of clearly pro-consumer data plans and purposeful mischaracterization of Portugal as not having net neutrality rules are inflammatory and deceitful. Even more puzzling for activists (but great for consumers) is their position given there is nothing in the 2015 Open Internet Order that would prevent these types of data packages from being offered in the US so long as ISPs are transparent with consumers.

The FTC will hold an “Informational Injury Workshop” in December “to examine consumer injury in the context of privacy and data security.” Defining the scope of cognizable harm that may result from the unauthorized use or third-party hacking of consumer information is, to be sure, a crucial inquiry, particularly as ever-more information is stored digitally. But the Commission — rightly — is aiming at more than mere definition. As it notes, the ultimate objective of the workshop is to address questions like:

How do businesses evaluate the benefits, costs, and risks of collecting and using information in light of potential injuries? How do they make tradeoffs? How do they assess the risks of different kinds of data breach? What market and legal incentives do they face, and how do these incentives affect their decisions?

How do consumers perceive and evaluate the benefits, costs, and risks of sharing information in light of potential injuries? What obstacles do they face in conducting such an evaluation? How do they evaluate tradeoffs?

Understanding how businesses and consumers assess the risk and cost “when information about [consumers] is misused,” and how they conform their conduct to that risk, entails understanding not only the scope of the potential harm, but also the extent to which conduct affects the risk of harm. This, in turn, requires an understanding of the FTC’s approach to evaluating liability under Section 5 of the FTC Act.

The problem, as we discuss in comments submitted by the International Center for Law & Economics to the FTC for the workshop, is that the Commission’s current approach troublingly mixes the required separate analyses of risk and harm, with little elucidation of either.

The core of the problem arises from the Commission’s reliance on what it calls a “reasonableness” standard for its evaluation of data security. By its nature, a standard that assigns liability for only unreasonable conduct should incorporate concepts resembling those of a common law negligence analysis — e.g., establishing a standard of due care, determining causation, evaluating the costs of and benefits of conduct that would mitigate the risk of harm, etc. Unfortunately, the Commission’s approach to reasonableness diverges from the rigor of a negligence analysis. In fact, as it has developed, it operates more like a strict liability regime in which largely inscrutable prosecutorial discretion determines which conduct, which firms, and which outcomes will give rise to liability.

Most troublingly, coupled with the Commission’s untenably lax (read: virtually nonexistent) evidentiary standards, the extremely liberal notion of causation embodied in its “reasonableness” approach means that the mere storage of personal information, even absent any data breach, could amount to an unfair practice under the Act — clearly not a “reasonable” result.

The notion that a breach itself can constitute injury will, we hope, be taken up during the workshop. But even if injury is limited to a particular type of breach — say, one in which sensitive, personal information is exposed to a wide swath of people — unless the Commission’s definition of what it means for conduct to be “likely to cause” harm is fixed, it will virtually always be the case that storage of personal information could conceivably lead to the kind of breach that constitutes injury. In other words, better defining the scope of injury does little to cabin the scope of the agency’s discretion when conduct creating any risk of that injury is actionable.

Our comments elaborate on these issues, as well as providing our thoughts on how the subjective nature of informational injuries can fit into Section 5, with a particular focus on the problem of assessing informational injury given evolving social context, and the need for appropriately assessing benefits in any cost-benefit analysis of conduct leading to informational injury.

ICLE’s full comments are available here.

The comments draw upon our article, When ‘Reasonable’ Isn’t: The FTC’s Standard-Less Data Security Standard, forthcoming in the Journal of Law, Economics and Policy.

In a recent post at the (appallingly misnamed) ProMarket blog (the blog of the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business — George Stigler is rolling in his grave…), Marshall Steinbaum keeps alive the hipster-antitrust assertion that lax antitrust enforcement — this time in the labor market — is to blame for… well, most? all? of what’s wrong with “the labor market and the broader macroeconomic conditions” in the country.

In this entry, Steinbaum takes particular aim at the US enforcement agencies, which he claims do not consider monopsony power in merger review (and other antitrust enforcement actions) because their current consumer welfare framework somehow doesn’t recognize monopsony as a possible harm.

This will probably come as news to the agencies themselves, whose Horizontal Merger Guidelines devote an entire (albeit brief) section (section 12) to monopsony, noting that:

Mergers of competing buyers can enhance market power on the buying side of the market, just as mergers of competing sellers can enhance market power on the selling side of the market. Buyer market power is sometimes called “monopsony power.”

* * *

Market power on the buying side of the market is not a significant concern if suppliers have numerous attractive outlets for their goods or services. However, when that is not the case, the Agencies may conclude that the merger of competing buyers is likely to lessen competition in a manner harmful to sellers.

Steinbaum fails to mention the HMGs, but he does point to a US submission to the OECD to make his point. In that document, the agencies state that

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) [] do not consider employment or other non-competition factors in their antitrust analysis. The antitrust agencies have learned that, while such considerations “may be appropriate policy objectives and worthy goals overall… integrating their consideration into a competition analysis… can lead to poor outcomes to the detriment of both businesses and consumers.” Instead, the antitrust agencies focus on ensuring robust competition that benefits consumers and leave other policies such as employment to other parts of government that may be specifically charged with or better placed to consider such objectives.

Steinbaum, of course, cites only the first sentence. And he uses it as a launching-off point to attack the notion that antitrust is an improper tool for labor market regulation. But if he had just read a little bit further in the (very short) document he cites, Steinbaum might have discovered that the US antitrust agencies have, in fact, challenged the exercise of collusive monopsony power in labor markets. As footnote 19 of the OECD submission notes:

Although employment is not a relevant policy goal in antitrust analysis, anticompetitive conduct affecting terms of employment can violate the Sherman Act. See, e.g., DOJ settlement with eBay Inc. that prevents the company from entering into or maintaining agreements with other companies that restrain employee recruiting or hiring; FTC settlement with ski equipment manufacturers settling charges that companies illegally agreed not to compete for one another’s ski endorsers or employees. (Emphasis added).

And, ironically, while asserting that labor market collusion doesn’t matter to the agencies, Steinbaum himself points to “the Justice Department’s 2010 lawsuit against Silicon Valley employers for colluding not to hire one another’s programmers.”

Steinbaum instead opts for a willful misreading of the first sentence of the OECD submission. But what the OECD document refers to, of course, are situations where two firms merge, no market power is created (either in input or output markets), but people are laid off because the merged firm does not need all of, say, the IT and human resources employees previously employed in the pre-merger world.

Does Steinbaum really think this is grounds for challenging the merger on antitrust grounds?

Actually, his post suggests that he does indeed think so, although he doesn’t come right out and say it. What he does say — as he must in order to bring antitrust enforcement to bear on the low- and unskilled labor markets (e.g., burger flippers; retail cashiers; Uber drivers) he purports to care most about — is that:

Employers can have that control [over employees, as opposed to independent contractors] without first establishing themselves as a monopoly—in fact, reclassification [of workers as independent contractors] is increasingly standard operating procedure in many industries, which means that treating it as a violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act should not require that outright monopolization must first be shown. (Emphasis added).

Honestly, I don’t have any idea what he means. Somehow, because firms hire independent contractors where at one time long ago they might have hired employees… they engage in Sherman Act violations, even if they don’t have market power? Huh?

I get why he needs to try to make this move: As I intimated above, there is probably not a single firm in the world that hires low- or unskilled workers that has anything approaching monopsony power in those labor markets. Even Uber, the example he uses, has nothing like monopsony power, unless perhaps you define the market (completely improperly) as “drivers already working for Uber.” Even then Uber doesn’t have monopsony power: There can be no (or, at best, virtually no) markets in the world where an Uber driver has no other potential employment opportunities but working for Uber.

Moreover, how on earth is hiring independent contractors evidence of anticompetitive behavior? ”Reclassification” is not, in fact, “standard operating procedure.” It is the case that in many industries firms (unilaterally) often decide to contract out the hiring of low- and unskilled workers over whom they do not need to exercise direct oversight to specialized firms, thus not employing those workers directly. That isn’t “reclassification” of existing workers who have no choice but to accept their employer’s terms; it’s a long-term evolution of the economy toward specialization, enabled in part by technology.

And if we’re really concerned about what “employee” and “independent contractor” mean for workers and employment regulation, we should reconsider those outdated categories. Firms are faced with a binary choice: hire workers or independent contractors. Neither really fits many of today’s employment arrangements very well, but that’s the choice firms are given. That they sometimes choose “independent worker” over “employee” is hardly evidence of anticompetitive conduct meriting antitrust enforcement.

The point is: The notion that any of this is evidence of monopsony power, or that the antitrust enforcement agencies don’t care about monopsony power — because, Bork! — is absurd.

Even more absurd is the notion that the antitrust laws should be used to effect Steinbaum’s preferred market regulations — independent of proof of actual anticompetitive effect. I get that it’s hard to convince Congress to pass the precise laws you want all the time. But simply routing around Congress and using the antitrust statutes as a sort of meta-legislation to enact whatever happens to be Marshall Steinbaum’s preferred regulation du jour is ridiculous.

Which is a point the OECD submission made (again, if only Steinbaum had read beyond the first sentence…):

[T]wo difficulties with expanding the scope of antitrust analysis to include employment concerns warrant discussion. First, a full accounting of employment effects would require consideration of short-term effects, such as likely layoffs by the merged firm, but also long-term effects, which could include employment gains elsewhere in the industry or in the economy arising from efficiencies generated by the merger. Measuring these effects would [be extremely difficult.]. Second, unless a clear policy spelling out how the antitrust agency would assess the appropriate weight to give employment effects in relation to the proposed conduct or transaction’s procompetitive and anticompetitive effects could be developed, [such enforcement would be deeply problematic, and essentially arbitrary].

To be sure, the agencies don’t recognize enough that they already face the problem of reconciling multidimensional effects — e.g., short-, medium-, and long-term price effects, innovation effects, product quality effects, etc. But there is no reason to exacerbate the problem by asking them to also consider employment effects. Especially not in Steinbaum’s world in which certain employment effects are problematic even without evidence of market power or even actual anticompetitive harm, just because he says so.

Consider how this might play out:

Suppose that Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper… and every other soft drink company in the world attempted to merge, creating a monopoly soft drink manufacturer. In what possible employment market would even this merger create a monopsony in which anticompetitive harm could be tied to the merger? In the market for “people who know soft drink secret formulas?” Yet Steinbaum would have the Sherman Act enforced against such a merger not because it might create a product market monopoly, but because the existence of a product market monopoly means the firm must be able to bad things in other markets, as well. For Steinbaum and all the other scolds who see concentration as the source of all evil, the dearth of evidence to support such a claim is no barrier (on which, see, e.g., this recent, content-less NYT article (that, naturally, quotes Steinbaum) on how “big business may be to blame” for the slowing rate of startups).

The point is, monopoly power in a product market does not necessarily have any relationship to monopsony power in the labor market. Simply asserting that it does — and lambasting the enforcement agencies for not just accepting that assertion — is farcical.

The real question, however, is what has happened to the University of Chicago that it continues to provide a platform for such nonsense?

On July 24, as part of their newly-announced “Better Deal” campaign, congressional Democrats released an antitrust proposal (“Better Deal Antitrust Proposal” or BDAP) entitled “Cracking Down on Corporate Monopolies and the Abuse of Economic and Political Power.”  Unfortunately, this antitrust tract is really an “Old Deal” screed that rehashes long-discredited ideas about “bigness is badness” and “corporate abuses,” untethered from serious economic analysis.  (In spirit it echoes the proposal for a renewed emphasis on “fairness” in antitrust made by then Acting Assistant Attorney General Renata Hesse in 2016 – a recommendation that ran counter to sound economics, as I explained in a September 2016 Truth on the Market commentary.)  Implementation of the BDAP’s recommendations would be a “worse deal” for American consumers and for American economic vitality and growth.

The BDAP’s Portrayal of the State of Antitrust Enforcement is Factually Inaccurate, and it Ignores the Real Problems of Crony Capitalism and Regulatory Overreach

The Better Deal Antitrust Proposal begins with the assertion that antitrust has failed in recent decades:

Over the past thirty years, growing corporate influence and consolidation has led to reductions in competition, choice for consumers, and bargaining power for workers.  The extensive concentration of power in the hands of a few corporations hurts wages, undermines job growth, and threatens to squeeze out small businesses, suppliers, and new, innovative competitors.  It means higher prices and less choice for the things the American people buy every day. . .  [This is because] [o]ver the last thirty years, courts and permissive regulators have allowed large companies to get larger, resulting in higher prices and limited consumer choice in daily expenses such as travel, cable, and food and beverages.  And because concentrated market power leads to concentrated political power, these companies deploy armies of lobbyists to increase their stranglehold on Washington.  A Better Deal on competition means that we will revisit our antitrust laws to ensure that the economic freedom of all Americans—consumers, workers, and small businesses—come before big corporations that are getting even bigger.

This statement’s assertions are curious (not to mention problematic) in multiple respects.

First, since Democratic administrations have held the White House for sixteen of the past thirty years, the BDAP appears to acknowledge that Democratic presidents have overseen a failed antitrust policy.

Second, the broad claim that consumers have faced higher prices and limited consumer choice with regard to their daily expenses is baseless.  Indeed, internet commerce and new business models have sharply reduced travel and entertainment costs for the bulk of American consumers, and new “high technology” products such as smartphones and electronic games have been characterized by dramatic improvements in innovation, enhanced variety, and relatively lower costs.  Cable suppliers face vibrant competition from competitive satellite providers, fiberoptic cable suppliers (the major telcos such as Verizon), and new online methods for distributing content.  Consumer price inflation has been extremely low in recent decades, compared to the high inflationary, less innovative environment of the 1960s and 1970s – decades when federal antitrust law was applied much more vigorously.  Thus, the claim that weaker antitrust has denied consumers “economic freedom” is at war with the truth.

Third, the claim that recent decades have seen the creation of “concentrated market power,” safe from antitrust challenge, ignores the fact that, over the last three decades, apolitical government antitrust officials under both Democratic and Republican administrations have applied well-accepted economic tools (wielded by the scores of Ph.D. economists in the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission) in enforcing the antitrust laws.  Antitrust analysis has used economics to focus on inefficient business conduct that would maintain or increase market power, and large numbers of cartels have been prosecuted and questionable mergers (including a variety of major health care and communications industry mergers) have been successfully challenged.  The alleged growth of “concentrated market power,” untouched by incompetent antitrust enforcers, is a myth.  Furthermore, claims that mere corporate size and “aggregate concentration” are grounds for antitrust concern (“big is bad”) were decisively rejected by empirical economic research published in the 1970s, and are no more convincing today.  (As I pointed out in a January 2017 blog posting at this site, recent research by highly respected economists debunks a few claims that federal antitrust enforcers have been “excessively tolerant” of late in analyzing proposed mergers.)

More interesting is the BDAP’s claim that “armies of [corporate] lobbyists” manage to “increase their stranglehold on Washington.”  This is not an antitrust concern, however, but, rather, a complaint against crony capitalism and overregulation, which became an ever more serious problem under the Obama Administration.  As I explained in my October 2016 critique of the American Antitrust Institute’s September 2008 National Competition Policy Report (a Report which is very similar in tone to the BDAP), the rapid growth of excessive regulation during the Obama years has diminished competition by creating new regulatory schemes that benefit entrenched and powerful firms (such as Dodd-Frank Act banking rules that impose excessive burdens on smaller banks).  My critique emphasized that, “as Dodd-Frank and other regulatory programs illustrate, large government rulemaking schemes often are designed to favor large and wealthy well-connected rent-seekers at the expense of smaller and more dynamic competitors.”  And, more generally, excessive regulatory burdens undermine the competitive process, by distorting business decisions in a manner that detracts from competition on the merits.

It follows that, if the BDAP really wanted to challenge “unfair” corporate advantages, it would seek to roll back excessive regulation (see my November 2012 article on Trump Administration competition policy).  Indeed, the Trump Administration’s regulatory reform program (which features agency-specific regulatory reform task forces) seeks to do just that.  Perhaps then the BDAP could be rewritten to focus on endorsing President Trump’s regulatory reform initiative, rather than emphasizing a meritless “big is bad” populist antitrust policy that was consigned to the enforcement dustbin decades ago.

The BDAP’s Specific Proposals Would Harm the Economy and Reduce Consumer Welfare

Unfortunately, the BDAP does more than wax nostalgic about old-time “big is bad” antitrust policy.  It affirmatively recommends policy changes that would harm the economy.

First, the BDAP would require “a broader, longer-term view and strong presumptions that market concentration can result in anticompetitive conduct.”  Specifically, it would create “new standards to limit large mergers that unfairly consolidate corporate power,” including “mergers [that] reduce wages, cut jobs, lower product quality, limit access to services, stifle innovation, or hinder the ability of small businesses and entrepreneurs to compete.”  New standards would also “explicitly consider the ways in which control of consumer data can be used to stifle competition or jeopardize consumer privacy.”

Unlike current merger policy, which evaluates likely competitive effects, centered on price and quality, estimated in economically relevant markets, these new standards are open-ended.  They could justify challenges based on such a wide variety of factors that they would incentivize direct competitors not to merge, even in cases where the proposed merged entity would prove more efficient and able to enhance quality or innovation.  Certain less efficient competitors – say small businesses – could argue that they would be driven out of business, or that some jobs in the industry would disappear, in order to prompt government challenges.  But such challenges would tend to undermine innovation and business improvements, and the inevitable redistribution of assets to higher-valued uses that is a key benefit of corporate reorganizations and acquisitions.  (Mergers might focus instead, for example, on inefficient conglomerate acquisitions among companies in unrelated industries, which were incentivized by the overly strict 1960s rules that prohibited mergers among direct competitors.)  Such a change would represent a retreat from economic common sense, and be at odds with consensus economically-sound merger enforcement guidance that U.S. enforcers have long recommended other countries adopt.  Furthermore, questions of consumer data and privacy are more appropriately dealt with as consumer protection questions, which the Federal Trade Commission has handled successfully for years.

Second, the BDAP would require “frequent, independent [after-the-fact] reviews of mergers” and require regulators “to take corrective measures if they find abusive monopolistic conditions where previously approved [consent decree] measures fail to make good on their intended outcomes.”

While high profile mergers subject to significant divestiture or other remedial requirements have in appropriate circumstances included monitoring requirements, the tone of this recommendation is to require that far more mergers be subjected to detailed and ongoing post-acquisition reviews.  The cost of such monitoring is substantial, however, and routine reliance on it (backed by the threat of additional enforcement actions based merely on changing economic conditions) could create excessive caution in the post-merger management of newly-consolidated enterprises.  Indeed, potential merged parties might decide in close cases that this sort of oversight is not worth accepting, and therefore call off potentially efficient transactions that would have enhanced economic welfare.  (The reality of enforcement error cost, and the possibility of misdiagnosis of post-merger competitive conditions, is not acknowledged by the BDAP.)

Third, a newly created “competition advocate” independent of the existing federal antitrust enforcers would be empowered to publicly recommend investigations, with the enforcers required to justify publicly why they chose not to pursue a particular recommended investigation.  The advocate would ensure that antitrust enforcers are held “accountable,” assure that complaints about “market exploitation and anticompetitive conduct” are heard, and publish data on “concentration and abuses of economic power” with demographic breakdowns.

This third proposal is particularly egregious.  It is at odds with the long tradition of prosecutorial discretion that has been enjoyed by the federal antitrust enforcers (and law enforcers in general).  It would also empower a special interest intervenor to promote the complaints of interest groups that object to efficiency-seeking business conduct, thereby undermining the careful economic and legal analysis that is consistently employed by the expert antitrust agencies.  The references to “concentration” and “economic power” clarify that the “advocate” would have an untrammeled ability to highlight non-economic objections to transactions raised by inefficient competitors, jealous rivals, or self-styled populists who object to excessive “bigness.”  This would strike at the heart of our competitive process, which presumes that private parties will be allowed to fulfill their own goals, free from government micromanagement, absent indications of a clear and well-defined violation of law.  In sum, the “competition advocate” is better viewed as a “special interest” advocate empowered to ignore normal legal constraints and unjustifiably interfere in business transactions.  If empowered to operate freely, such an advocate (better viewed as an albatross) would undoubtedly chill a wide variety of business arrangements, to the detriment of consumers and economic innovation.

Finally, the BDAP refers to a variety of ills that are said to affect specific named industries, in particular airlines, cable/telecom, beer, food prices, and eyeglasses.  Airlines are subject to a variety of capacity limitations (limitations on landing slots and the size/number of airports) and regulatory constraints (prohibitions on foreign entry or investment) that may affect competitive conditions, but airlines mergers are closely reviewed by the Justice Department.  Cable and telecom companies face a variety of federal, state, and local regulations, and their mergers also are closely scrutinized.  The BDAP’s reference to the proposed AT&T/Time Warner merger ignores the potential efficiencies of this “vertical” arrangement involving complementary assets (see my coauthored commentary here), and resorts to unsupported claims about wrongful “discrimination” by “behemoths” – issues that in any event are examined in antitrust merger reviews.  Unsupported references to harm to competition and consumer choice are thrown out in the references to beer and agrochemical mergers, which also receive close economically-focused merger scrutiny under existing law.  Concerns raised about the price of eyeglasses ignore the role of potentially anticompetitive regulation – that is, bad government – in harming consumer welfare in this sector.  In short, the alleged competitive “problems” the BDAP raises with respect to particular industries are no more compelling than the rest of its analysis.  The Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission are hard at work applying sound economics to these sectors.  They should be left to do their jobs, and the BDAP’s industry-specific commentary (sadly, like the rest of its commentary) should be accorded no weight.

Conclusion

Congressional Democrats would be well-advised to ditch their efforts to resurrect the counterproductive antitrust policy from days of yore, and instead focus on real economic problems, such as excessive and inappropriate government regulation, as well as weak protection for U.S. intellectual property rights, here and abroad (see here, for example).  Such a change in emphasis would redound to the benefit of American consumers and producers.

 

 

My new book, How to Regulate: A Guide for Policymakers, will be published in a few weeks.  A while back, I promised a series of posts on the book’s key chapters.  I posted an overview of the book and a description of the book’s chapter on externalities.  I then got busy on another writing project (on horizontal shareholdings—more on that later) and dropped the ball.  Today, I resume my book summary with some thoughts from the book’s chapter on public goods.

With most goods, the owner can keep others from enjoying what she owns, and, if one person enjoys the good, no one else can do so.  Consider your coat or your morning cup of Starbucks.  You can prevent me from wearing your coat or drinking your coffee, and if you choose to let me wear the coat or drink the coffee, it’s not available to anyone else.

There are some amenities, though, that are “non-excludable,” meaning that the owner can’t prevent others from enjoying them, and “non-rivalrous,” meaning that one person’s consumption of them doesn’t prevent others from enjoying them as well.  National defense and local flood control systems (levees, etc.) are like this.  So are more mundane things like public art projects and fireworks displays.  Amenities that are both non-excludable and non-rivalrous are “public goods.”

[NOTE:  Amenities that are either non-excludable or non-rivalrous, but not both, are “quasi-public goods.”  Such goods include excludable but non-rivalrous “club goods” (e.g., satellite radio programming) and non-excludable but rivalrous “commons goods” (e.g., public fisheries).  The public goods chapter of How to Regulate addresses both types of quasi-public goods, but I won’t discuss them here.]

The primary concern with public goods is that they will be underproduced.  That’s because the producer, who must bear all the cost of producing the good, cannot exclude benefit recipients who do not contribute to the good’s production and thus cannot capture many of the benefits of his productive efforts.

Suppose, for example, that a levee would cost $5 million to construct and would create $10 million of benefit by protecting 500 homeowners from expected losses of $20,000 each (i.e., the levee would eliminate a 10% chance of a big flood that would cause each homeowner a $200,000 loss).  To maximize social welfare, the levee should be built.  But no single homeowner has an incentive to build the levee.  At least 250 homeowners would need to combine their resources to make the levee project worthwhile for participants (250 * $20,000 in individual benefit = $5 million), but most homeowners would prefer to hold out and see if their neighbors will finance the levee project without their help.  The upshot is that the levee never gets built, even though its construction is value-enhancing.

Economists have often jumped from the observation that public goods are susceptible to underproduction to the conclusion that the government should tax people and use the revenues to provide public goods.  Consider, for example, this passage from a law school textbook by several renowned economists:

It is apparent that public goods will not be adequately supplied by the private sector. The reason is plain: because people can’t be excluded from using public goods, they can’t be charged money for using them, so a private supplier can’t make money from providing them. … Because public goods are generally not adequately supplied by the private sector, they have to be supplied by the public sector.

[Howell E. Jackson, Louis Kaplow, Steven Shavell, W. Kip Viscusi, & David Cope, Analytical Methods for Lawyers 362-63 (2003) (emphasis added).]

That last claim seems demonstrably false.   Continue Reading…

On July 10, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced a new rule to ban financial service providers, such as banks or credit card companies, from using mandatory arbitration clauses to deny consumers the opportunity to participate in a class action (“Arbitration Rule”).  The Arbitration Rule’s summary explains:

First, the final rule prohibits covered providers of certain consumer financial products and services from using an agreement with a consumer that provides for arbitration of any future dispute between the parties to bar the consumer from filing or participating in a class action concerning the covered consumer financial product or service. Second, the final rule requires covered providers that are involved in an arbitration pursuant to a pre-dispute arbitration agreement to submit specified arbitral records to the Bureau and also to submit specified court records. The Bureau is also adopting official interpretations to the regulation.

The Arbitration Rule’s effective date is 60 days following its publication in the Federal Register (which is imminent), and it applies to contracts entered into more than 180 days after that.

Cutting through the hyperbole that the Arbitration Rule protects consumers from “unfairness” that would deny them “their day in court,” this Rule is in fact highly anti-consumer and harmful to innovation.  As Competitive Enterprise Senior Fellow John Berlau put it, in promulgating this Rule, “[t]he CFPB has disregarded vast data showing that arbitration more often compensates consumers for damages faster and grants them larger awards than do class action lawsuits. This regulation could have particularly harmful effects on FinTech innovations, such as peer-to-peer lending.”  Moreover, in a coauthored paper, Professors Jason Johnston of the University of Virginia Law School and Todd Zywicki of the Scalia Law School debunked a CFPB study that sought to justify the agency’s plans to issue the Arbitration Rule.  They concluded:

The CFPB’s [own] findings show that arbitration is relatively fair and successful at resolving a range of disputes between consumers and providers of consumer financial products, and that regulatory efforts to limit the use of arbitration will likely leave consumers worse off . . . .  Moreover, owing to flaws in the report’s design and a lack of information, the report should not be used as the basis for any legislative or regulatory proposal to limit the use of consumer arbitration.    

Unfortunately, the Arbitration Rule is just the latest of many costly regulatory outrages perpetrated by the CFPB, an unaccountable bureaucracy that offends the Constitution’s separation of powers and should be eliminated by Congress, as I explained in a 2016 Heritage Foundation report.

Legislative elimination of an agency, however, takes time.  Fortunately, in the near term, Congress can apply the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to prevent the Arbitration Rule from taking effect, and to block the CFPB from passing rules similar to it in the future.

As Heritage Senior Legal Fellow Paul Larkin has explained:

[The CRA is] Congress’s most recent effort to trim the excesses of the modern administrative state.  The act requires the executive branch to report every “rule” — a term that includes not only the regulations an agency promulgates, but also its interpretations of the agency’s governing laws — to the Senate and House of Representatives so that each chamber can schedule an up-or-down vote on the rule under the statute’s fast-track procedure.  The act was designed to enable Congress expeditiously to overturn agency regulations by avoiding the delays occasioned by the Senate’s filibuster rules and practices while also satisfying the [U.S. Constitution’s] Article I Bicameralism and Presentment requirements, which force the Congress and President to collaborate to enact, revise, or repeal a law.  Under the CRA, a joint resolution of disapproval signed into law by the President invalidates the rule and bars an agency from thereafter adopting any substantially similar rule absent a new act of Congress.

Although the CRA was almost never invoked before 2017, in recent months it has been used extensively as a tool by Congress and the Trump Administration to roll back specific manifestations Obama Administration regulatory overreach (for example, see here and here).

Application of the CRA to expunge the Arbitration Rule (and any future variations on it) would benefit consumers, financial services innovation, and the overall economy.  Senator Tom Cotton has already gotten the ball rolling to repeal that Rule.  Let us hope that Congress follows his lead and acts promptly.