Archives For FTC UMC Rulemaking

[The final post in Truth on the Market‘s digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition” comes from Joshua Wright, the executive director of the Global Antitrust Institute at George Mason University and the architect, in his time as a member of the Federal Trade Commission, of the FTC’s prior 2015 UMC statement. You can find all of the posts in this series at the symposium page here.]

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) recently released Policy Statement on unfair methods of competition (UMC) has a number of profound problems, which I will detail below. But first, some praise: if the FTC does indeed plan to bring many lawsuits challenging conduct as a standalone UMC (I am dubious it will), then the public ought to have notice about the change. Providing such notice is good government, and the new Statement surely provides that notice. And providing notice in this way was costly to the FTC: the contents of the statement make surviving judicial review harder, not easier (I will explain my reasons for this view below). Incurring that cost to provide notice deserves some praise.

Now onto the problems. I see four major ones.

First, the Statement seems to exist in a fantasy world; the FTC majority appears to wish away the past problems associated with UMC enforcement. Those problems have not, in fact, gone away and pretending they don’t exist—as this Statement does—is unlikely to help the Commission’s prospects for success in court.

Second, the Statement provides no guidance whatsoever about how a potential respondent might avoid UMC liability, which stands in sharp contrast to other statements and guidance documents issued by the Commission.

Third, the entire foundation of the statement is that, in 1914, Congress intended the FTC Act to have broader coverage than the Sherman Act. Fair enough. But the coverage of the Sherman Act isn’t fixed to what the Supreme Court thought it was in 1914: It’s a moving target that, in fact, has moved dramatically over the last 108 years. Congress in 1914 could not have intended UMC to be broader than how the courts would interpret the Sherman Act in the future (whether that future is 1918, much less 1970 or 2023).

And fourth, Congress has passed other statutes since it passed the FTC Act in 1914, one of which is the Administrative Procedure Act. The APA unambiguously and explicitly directs administrative agencies to engage in reasoned decision making. In a nutshell, this means that the actions of such agencies must be supported by substantial record evidence and can be set aside by a court on judicial review if they are arbitrary and capricious. “Congress intended to give the FTC broad authority in 1914” is not an argument to address the fact that, 32 years later, Congress also intended to limit the FTC’s authority (as well as other agencies’) by requiring reasoned decision making.

Each of these problems on its own would be enough to doom almost any case the Commission might bring to apply the statement. Together, they are a death knell.

A Record of Failure

As I have explained elsewhere, there are a number of reasons the FTC has pursued few standalone UMC cases in recent decades. The late-1970s effort to reinvigorate UMC enforcement via bringing cases was a total failure: the Commission did not lose the game on a last-second buzzer beater; it got blown out by 40 points. According to William Kovacic and Mark Winerman, in each of those UMC cases, “the tribunal recognized that Section 5 allows the FTC to challenge behavior beyond the reach of the other antitrust laws. In each instance, the court found that the Commission had failed to make a compelling case for condemning the conduct in question.”

Since these losses, the Commission hasn’t successfully litigated a UMC case in federal court. This, in my view, is because of a (very plausible) concern that, when presented with such a case, Article III courts would either define the Commission’s UMC authority on their own terms—i.e., restricting the Commission’s authority—or ultimately decide that the space beyond the Sherman Act that Congress in 1914 intended Section 5 to occupy exists only in theory and not in the real world, and declare the two statutes functionally equivalent. Those reasons—and not Chair Lina Khan’s preferred view that the Commission has been feckless, weak, or captured by special interests since 1981—explain why Section 5 has been used so sparingly over the last 40 years (and mostly just to extract settlements from parties under investigation). The majority’s effort to put all its eggs in the “1914 legislative history” basket simply ignores this reality.

Undefined Harms

The second problem is evident when one compares this statement with other policy statements or guidance documents issued by the Commission over the years. On the antitrust side of the house, these include the Horizontal Merger Guidelines, the (now-withdrawn by the FTC) Vertical Merger Guidelines, the Guidelines for Collaboration Among Competitors, the IP Licensing Guidelines, the Health Care Policy Statement, and the Antitrust Guidance for Human Resources Professionals.

Each of these documents is designed (at least in part) to help market participants understand what conduct might or might not violate one or more laws enforced by the FTC, and for that reason, each document provides specific examples of conduct that would violate the law, and conduct that would not.

The new UMC Policy Statement provides no such examples. Instead, we are left with the conclusory statement that, if the Commission can characterize the conduct as “coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve[s] the use of economic power” or “otherwise restrictive or exclusionary,” then the conduct can be a UMC.

What does this salad of words mean? I have no idea, and the Commission doesn’t even bother to try and define them. If a lawyer is asked, “based upon the Commission’s new UMC Statement, what conduct might be a violation?” the only defensible advice to give is “anything three Commissioners think.”

Ahistorical Jurisprudence

The third problem is the majority’s fictitious belief that Sherman Act jurisprudence is frozen in 1914—the year Congress passed the FTC Act. The Statement states that “Congress passed the FTC Act to push back against the judiciary’s open-ended rule of reason for analyzing Sherman Act claims” and cites the Supreme Court’s opinion in Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States from 1911.

It’s easy to understand why Congress in 1914 was dissatisfied with the opinion in Standard Oil; reading Standard Oil in 2022 is also a dissatisfying experience. The opinion takes up 106 pages in the U.S. Reporter, and individual paragraphs are routinely three pages long; it meanders between analyzing Section 1 and Section 2 of the Sherman Act without telling the reader; and is generally inscrutable. I have taught antitrust for almost 20 years and, though we cover Standard Oil because of its historical importance, I don’t teach the opinion, because the opinion does not help modern students understand how to practice antitrust law.

This stands in sharp contrast to Justice Louis Brandeis’s opinion in Chicago Board of Trade (issued four years after Congress passed the FTC Act), which I do teach consistently, because it articulates the beginning of the modern rule of reason. Although the majority of the FTC is on solid ground when it points out that Congress in 1914 intended the FTC’s UMC authority to have broader coverage than the Sherman Act, the coverage of the Sherman Act has changed since 1914.

This point is well-known, of course: Kovacic and Winerman explain that “[p]robably the most important” reason “Section 5 has played so small a role in the development of U.S. competition policy principles” “is that the Sherman Act proved to be a far more flexible tool for setting antitrust rules than Congress expected in the early 20th century.” The 10 pages in the Statement devoted to century-old legislative history just pretend like Sherman Act jurisprudence hasn’t changed in that same amount of time. The federal courts are going to see right through that.

What About the APA?

The fourth problem with the majority’s trip back to 1914 is that, since then, Congress has passed other statutes limiting the Commission’s authority. The most prominent of these is the Administrative Procedure Act, which was passed in 1946 (for those counting, 1946 is more than 30 years after 1914).

There are hundreds of opinions interpreting the APA, and indeed, an entire body of law has developed pursuant to those cases. These cases produce many lessons, but one of them is that it is not enough for an agency to have the legal authority to act: “Congress gave me this power. I am exercising this power. Therefore, my exercise of this power is lawful,” is, by definition, insufficient justification under the APA. An agency has the obligation to engage in reasoned decision making and must base its actions on substantial evidence. Its enforcement efforts will be set aside on judicial review if they are arbitrary and capricious.

By failing to explain how a company can avoid UMC liability—other than by avoiding conduct that is “coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve[s] the use of economic power” or “otherwise restrictive or exclusionary,” without defining those terms—the majority is basically shouting to the federal courts that its UMC enforcement program is going to be arbitrary and capricious. That’s going to fail for many reasons. A simple one is that 1946 is later in time than 1914, which is why the Commission putting all its eggs in the 1914 legislative history basket is not going to work once its actions are challenged in federal court.

Conclusion

These problems with the majority’s statement are so significant, so obvious, and so unlikely to be overcome, that I don’t anticipate that the Commission will pursue many UMC enforcement actions. Instead, I suspect UMC rulemaking is on the agenda, which has its own set of problems (not to mention the fact that the 1914 legislative history points away from Congress intending that the Commission has legislative rulemaking authority). Rather, I think the value of this statement is symbolic for Chair Khan and her supporters.

When one considers the record of the Khan Commission—many policy statements, few enforcement actions, and even fewer successful enforcement actions—it all makes more sense. The audience for this Statement is Chair Khan’s friends working on Capitol Hill and at think tanks, as well as her followers on Twitter. They might be impressed by it. The audience she should be concerned about is Article III judges, who surely won’t be. 

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

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Nov. 10 Policy Statement Regarding the Scope of Unfair Methods of Competition Under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act—adopted by a 3-1 vote, with Commissioner Christine Wilson issuing a dissenting statement—holds out the prospect of dramatic new enforcement initiatives going far beyond anything the FTC has done in the past. Of particular note, the statement abandons the antitrust “rule of reason,” rejects the “consumer welfare standard” that has long guided FTC competition cases, rejects economic analysis, rejects relevant precedent, misleadingly discusses legislative history, and cites inapposite and dated case law.

And what is the statement’s aim?  As Commissioner Wilson aptly puts it, the statement “announces that the Commission has the authority summarily to condemn essentially any business conduct it finds distasteful.” This sweeping claim, which extends far beyond the scope of prior Commission pronouncements, might be viewed as mere puffery with no real substantive effect: “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Various scholarly commentators have already explored the legal and policy shortcomings of this misbegotten statement (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Suffice it to say there is general agreement that, as Gus Hurwitz explains, the statement “is non-precedential and lacks the force of law.”

The statement’s almost certain lack of legal effect, however, does not mean it is of no consequence. Businesses are harmed by legal risk, even if they are eventually likely to prevail in court. Markets react negatively to antitrust lawsuits, and thus firms may be expected to shy away from efficient profitable behavior that may draw the FTC’s ire. The resources firms redirect to less-efficient conduct impose costs on businesses and ultimately consumers. (And when meritless FTC lawsuits still come, wasteful litigation-related costs will be coupled with unwarranted reputational harm to businesses.)

Moreover, as Wilson points out, uncertainty about what the Commission may characterize as unfair “does not allow businesses to structure their conduct to avoid possible liability. . . . [T]he Policy Statement . . . significantly increases uncertainty for businesses[,] which . . . . are left with no navigational tools to map the boundaries of lawful and unlawful conduct.” This will further disincentivize new and innovative (and easily misunderstood) business initiatives. In the perhaps-vain hope that a Commission majority will take note of these harms and have second thoughts about retention of the statement, I will briefly summarize the legal case against the statement’s effectiveness. The FTC actually would be better able to “push the Section 5 envelope” a bit through some carefully tailored innovative enforcement actions if it could jettison the legal baggage that the statement represents. To understand why, a brief review of FTC competition rulemaking and competition enforcement authority is warranted

FTC Competition Rulemaking

As I and others have written at great length (see, for examples, this compilation of essays on FTC rulemaking published by Concurrences), the case for substantive FTC competition rulemaking under Section 6(g) of the FTC Act is exceedingly weak. In particular (see my July 2022 Truth on the Market commentary):

First, the “nondelegation doctrine” suggests that, under section 6(g), Congress did not confer on the FTC the specific statutory authority required to issue rules that address particular competitive practices.

Second, principles of statutory construction strongly indicate that the FTC’s general statutory provision dealing with rulemaking refers to procedural rules of organization, not substantive rules bearing on competition.

Third, even assuming that proposed competition rules survived these initial hurdles, principles of administrative law would raise the risk that competition rules would be struck down as “arbitrary and capricious.”

Fourth, there is a substantial possibility that courts would not defer to the FTC’s construction through rulemaking of its “unfair methods of competition” as authorizing the condemnation of specific competitive practices.

The 2022 statement raises these four problems in spades.

First, the Supreme Court has stated that the non-delegation doctrine requires that a statutory delegation must be supported by an “intelligible principle” guiding its application. There is no such principle that may be drawn from the statement, which emphasizes that unfair business conduct “may be coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve the use of economic power of a similar nature.” The conduct also must tend “to negatively affect competitive conditions – whether by affecting consumers, workers, or other market participants.” Those descriptions are so broad and all-encompassing that they are the antithesis of an “intelligible principle.”

Second, the passing nod to rulemaking referenced in Section 6(g) is best understood as an aid to FTC processes and investigations, not a source of substantive policymaking. The Supreme Court’s unanimous April 2021 decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC (holding that the FTC could not obtain equitable monetary relief under its authority to seek injunctions) embodies a reluctance to read general non-specific language as conferring broad substantive powers on the FTC. This interpretive approach is in line with other Supreme Court case law that rejects finding “elephants in mouseholes.” While multiple federal courts had upheld the FTC’s authority to obtain injunctive monetary relief prior to its loss in the AMG case, only one nearly 50-year-old decision, National Petroleum Refiners, supports substantive competition-rulemaking authority, and its reasoning is badly dated. Nothing in the 2022 statement makes a convincing case for giving substantive import to Section 6(g).   

Third, given the extremely vague terms used to describe unfair method of competition in the 2022 statement (see first point, above), any effort to invoke them to find a source of authority to define new categories of competition-related violations would be sure to raise claims of agency arbitrariness and capriciousness under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Admittedly, the “arbitrary and capricious review” standard “has gone through numerous cycles since the enactment of the APA” and currently is subject to some uncertainty. Nevertheless, the statement’s untrammeled breadth and lack of clear definitions for unfair competitive conduct suggests that courts would likely employ a “hard look review,” which would make it relatively easy for novel Section 6(g) rules to be deemed arbitrary (especially in light of the skepticism of broad FTC claims of authority that is implicit in the Supreme Court’s unanimous AMG holding).

Fourth, given the economywide breadth of the phrase “unfair methods of competition,” it is quite possible (in fact, probably quite likely) that the Supreme Court would invoke the “major questions doctrine” and hold that unfair methods of competition rulemaking is “too important” to be left to the FTC. Under this increasingly invoked doctrine, “the Supreme Court has rejected agency claims of regulatory authority when (1) the underlying claim of authority concerns an issue of vast ‘economic and political significance,’ and (2) Congress has not clearly empowered the agency with authority over the issue.”

The fact that the 2022 statement plainly asserts vast authority to condemn a wide range of economically significant practices strengthens the already-strong case for condemning Section 5 competition rulemaking under this doctrine. Application of the doctrine would render moot the question of whether Section 6(g) rules would receive any Chevron deference. In any event, based on the 2022 Statement’s flouting of modern antitrust principles, including such core principles as consumer harm, efficiencies, and economic analysis, it appears unlikely that courts would accord such deference subsequent Section 6(g) rules. As Gus Hurwitz recently explained:

Administrative antitrust is a preferred vehicle for administering antitrust law, not for changing it. Should the FTC use its power aggressively, in ways that disrupt longstanding antitrust principles or seem more grounded in policy better created by Congress, it is likely to find itself on the losing side of the judicial opinion.

FTC Competition-Enforcement Authority

In addition to Section 6(g) competition-rulemaking initiatives, the 2022 statement, of course, aims to inform FTC Act Section 5(a) “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) enforcement actions. The FTC could bring a UMC suit before its own administrative tribunal or, in the alternative, seek to enjoin an alleged unfair method of competition in federal district court, pursuant to its authority under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The tenor of the 2022 statement undermines, rather than enhances, the likelihood that the FTC will succeed in “standalone Section 5(a)” lawsuits that challenge conduct falling beyond the boundaries of the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts.

In a June 2019 FTC report to Congress on using standalone Section 5 cases to combat high pharma prices, the FTC explained:

[C]ourts have confirmed that the unilateral exercise of lawfully acquired market power does not violate the antitrust laws. Therefore, the attempted use of standalone Section 5 to address high prices, untethered from accepted theories of antitrust liability under the Sherman Act, is unlikely to find success in the courts.

There have been no jurisprudential changes since 2019 to suggest that a UMC suit challenging the exploitation of lawfully obtained market power by raising prices is likely to find judicial favor. It follows, a fortiori (legalese that I seldom have the opportunity to trot out), that the more “far out” standalone suits implied by the statement’s analysis would likely generate embarrassing FTC judicial losses.

Applying three of the four principles assessed in the analysis of FTC competition rulemaking (the second principle, referring to statutory authority for rulemaking, is inapplicable), the negative influence of the statement on FTC litigation outcomes is laid bare.

First, as is the case with rules, the unconstrained laundry list of “unfair” business practices fails to produce an “intelligible principle” guiding the FTC’s exercise of enforcement discretion. As such, courts could well conclude that, if the statement is to be taken seriously, the non-delegation doctrine applies, and the FTC does not possess delegated UMC authority. Even if such authority were found to have been properly delegated, some courts might separately conclude, on due process grounds, that the UMC prohibition is “void for vagueness” and therefore cannot support an enforcement action. (While the “void for vagueness” doctrine is controversial, related attacks on statutes based on “impossibility of compliance” may have a more solid jurisprudential footing, particularly in the case of civil statutes (see here). The breadth and uncertainty of the statement’s references to disfavored conduct suggests “impossibility of compliance” as a possible alternative critique of novel Section 5 competition cases.) These concerns also apply equally to possible FTC Section 13(b) injunctive actions filed in federal district court.

Second, there is a not insubstantial risk that an appeals court would hold that a final Section 5 competition-enforcement decision by the Commission would be “arbitrary and capricious” if it dealt with behavior far outside the scope of the Sherman or Clayton Acts, based on vague policy pronouncements found in the 2022 statement.

Third, and of greatest risk to FTC litigation prospects, it is likely that appeals courts (and federal district courts in Section 13(b) injunction cases) would give no deference to new far-reaching non-antitrust-based theories alluded to in the statement. As discussed above, this could be based on invocation of the major questions doctrine or, separately, on the (likely) failure to accord Chevron deference to theories that are far removed from recognized antitrust causes of action under modern jurisprudence.

What Should the FTC Do About the Statement?

In sum, the startling breadth and absence of well-defined boundaries that plagues the statement’s discussion of potential Section 5 UMC violations means that the statement’s issuance materially worsens the FTC’s future litigation prospects—both in defending UMC rulemakings and in seeking to affirm case-specific Commission findings of UMC violations.

What, then, should the FTC do?

It should, put simply, withdraw the 2022 statement and craft a new UMC policy statement (NPS) that avoids the major pitfalls inherent in the statement. The NPS should carefully delineate the boundaries of standalone UMC rulemakings and cases, so as (1) to minimize uncertainty in application; and (2) to harmonize UMC actions with the pro-consumer welfare goal (as enunciated by the Supreme Court) of the antitrust laws. In drafting the NPS, the FTC would do well to be mindful of the part of Commissioner Wilson’s dissenting statement that highlights the deficiencies in the 2022 statement that detract from its persuasiveness to courts:

First, . . . the Policy Statement does not provide clear guidance to businesses seeking to comply with the law.

Second, the Policy Statement does not establish an approach for the term “unfair” in the competition context that matches the economic and analytical rigor that Commission policy offers for the same term, “unfair,” in the consumer protection context.

Third, the Policy Statement does not provide a framework that will result in credible enforcement. Instead, Commission actions will be subject to the vicissitudes of prevailing political winds.

Fourth, the Policy Statement does not address the legislative history that both demands economic content for the term “unfair” and cautions against an expansive approach to enforcing Section 5.

Consistent with avoiding these deficiencies, a new PS could carefully identify activities that are beyond the reach of the antitrust laws yet advance the procompetitive consumer-welfare-oriented goal that is the lodestar of antitrust policy. The NPS should also be issued for public comment (as recommended by Commissioner Wilson), an action that could give it additional “due process luster” in the eyes of federal judges.

More specifically, the NPS could state that standalone UMC actions should be directed at private conduct that undermines the competitive process, but is not subject to the reach of the antitrust laws (say, because of the absence of contracts). Such actions might include, for example: (1) invitations to collude; (2)  facilitating practices (“activities that tend to promote interdependence by reducing rivals’ uncertainty or diminishing incentives to deviate from a coordinated strategy”—see here); (3) exchanges of competitively sensitive information among competitors that do not qualify as Sherman Act “agreements” (see here); and (4) materially deceptive conduct (lacking efficiency justifications) that likely contributes to obtaining or increasing market power, as in the standard-setting context (see here); and (5) non-compete clauses in labor employment agreements that lack plausible efficiency justifications (say, clauses in contracts made with low-skill, low-salary workers) or otherwise plainly undermine labor-market competition (say, clauses presented to workers only after they have signed an initial contract, creating a “take-it-or-leave-it scenario” based on asymmetric information).

After promulgating a list of examples, the NPS could explain that additional possible standalone UMC actions would be subject to the same philosophical guardrails: They would involve conduct inconsistent with competition on the merits that is likely to harm consumers and that lacks strong efficiency justifications. 

A revised NPS along the lines suggested would raise the probability of successful UMC judicial outcomes for the Commission. It would do this by strengthening the FTC’s arguments that there is an intelligible principle underlying congressional delegation; that specificity of notice is sufficient to satisfy due process (arbitrariness and capriciousness) concerns; that the Section 5 delegation is insufficiently broad to trigger the major questions doctrine; and that Chevron deference may be accorded determinations stemming from precise NPS guidance.     

In the case of rules, of course, the FTC would still face the substantial risk that a court would deem that Section 6(g) does not apply to substantive rulemakings. And it is far from clear to what extent an NPS along the lines suggested would lead courts to render more FTC-favorable rulings on non-delegation, due process, the major questions doctrine, and Chevron deference. Moreover, even if they entertained UMC suits, the courts could, of course, determine in individual cases that, on the facts, the Commission had failed to show a legal violation. (The FTC has never litigated invitation-to-collude cases, and it lost a variety of facilitating practices cases during the 1980s and 1990s; see here).

Nonetheless, if I were advising the FTC as general counsel, I would tell the commissioners that the choice is between having close to a zero chance of litigation or rulemaking success under the 2022 statement, and some chance of success (greater in the case of litigation than in rulemaking) under the NPS.

Conclusion

The FTC faces a future of total UMC litigation futility if it plows ahead under the 2022 statement. Promulgating an NPS as described would give the FTC at least some chance of success in litigating cases beyond the legal limits of the antitrust laws, assuming suggested principles and guardrails were honored. The outlook for UMC rulemaking (which turns primarily on how the courts view the structure of the FTC Act) remains rather dim, even under a carefully crafted NPS.

If the FTC decides against withdrawing the 2022 statement, it could still show some wisdom by directing more resources to competition advocacy and challenging clearly anticompetitive conduct that falls within the accepted boundaries of the antitrust laws. (Indeed, to my mind, error-cost considerations suggest that the Commission should eschew UMC causes of action that do not also constitute clear antitrust offenses.) It need not undertake almost sure-to-fail UMC initiatives just because it has published the 2022 statement.

In short, treating the 2022 statement as a purely symbolic vehicle to showcase the FTC’s fondest desires—like a new, never-to-be-driven Lamborghini that merely sits in the driveway to win the admiring glances of neighbors—could well be the optimal Commission strategy, given the zeitgeist. That assumes, of course, that the FTC cares about protecting its institutional future and (we also hope) promoting economic well-being.

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

When Congress created the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 1914, it charged the agency with condemning “unfair methods of competition.” That’s not the language Congress used in writing America’s primary antitrust statute, the Sherman Act, which prohibits “monopoliz[ation]” and “restraint[s] of trade.”

Ever since, the question has lingered whether the FTC has the authority to go beyond the Sherman Act to condemn conduct that is unfair, but not necessarily monopolizing or trade-restraining.

According to a new policy statement, the FTC’s current leadership seems to think that the answer is “yes.” But the peculiar strand of progressivism that is currently running the agency lacks the intellectual foundation needed to tell us what conduct that is unfair but not monopolizing might actually be—and misses an opportunity to bring about an expansion of its powers that courts might actually accept.

Better to Keep the Rule of Reason but Eliminate the Monopoly-Power Requirement

The FTC’s policy statement reads like a thesaurus. What is unfair competition? Answer: conduct that is “coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve[s] the use of economic power of a similar nature.”

In other words: the FTC has no idea. Presumably, the agency thinks, like Justice Potter Stewart did of obscenity, it will know it when it sees it. Given the courts’ long history of humiliating the FTC by rejecting its cases, even when the agency is able to provide a highly developed account of why challenged conduct is bad for America, one shudders to think of the reception such an approach to fairness will receive.

The one really determinate proposal in the policy statement is to attack bad conduct regardless whether the defendant has monopoly power. “Section 5 does not require a separate showing of market power or market definition when the evidence indicates that such conduct tends to negatively affect competitive conditions,” writes the FTC.

If only the agency had proposed this change alone, instead of cracking open the thesaurus to try to redefine bad conduct as well. Dropping the monopoly-power requirement would, by itself, greatly increase the amount of conduct subject to the FTC’s writ without forcing the agency to answer the metaphysical question: what is fair?

Under the present rule-of-reason approach, the courts let consumers answer the question of what constitutes bad conduct. Or to be precise, the courts assume that the only thing consumers care about is the product—its quality and price—and they try to guess whether consumers prefer the changes that the defendant’s conduct had on products in the market. If a court thinks consumers don’t prefer the changes, then the court condemns the conduct. But only if the defendant happens to have monopoly power in the market for those products.

Preserving this approach to identifying bad conduct would let the courts continue to maintain the pretense that they are doing the bidding of consumers—a role they will no doubt prefer to deciding what is fair as an absolute matter.

The FTC can safely discard the monopoly-power requirement without disturbing the current test for bad conduct because—as I argue in a working paper and as Timothy J. Brennen has long insisted—the monopoly-power requirement is directed at the wrong level of the supply chain: the market in which the defendant has harmed competition rather than the input market through which the defendant causes harm.

Power, not just in markets but in all social life, is rooted in one thing only: control over what others need. Harm to competition depends not on how much a defendant can produce relative to competitors but on whether a defendant controls an input that competitors need, but which the defendant can deny to them.

What others need, they do not buy from the market for which they produce. They buy what they need from other markets: input markets. It follows that the only power that should matter for antitrust—the only power that determines whether a firm can harm competition—is power over input markets, not power in the market in which competition is harmed.

And yet, apart from vertical-merger and contracting cases, where an inquiry into foreclosure of inputs still occasionally makes an appearance, antitrust today never requires systematic proof of power in input markets. The efforts of economists are wasted on the proof of power at the wrong level of the supply chain.

That represents an opportunity for the FTC, which can at one stroke greatly expand its authority to encompass conduct by firms having little power in the markets in which they harm competition.

To be sure, really getting the rule of reason right would require that proof of monopoly power continue to be required, only now at the input level instead of in the downstream market in which competition is harmed. But the courts have traditionally required only informal proof of power over inputs. The FTC could probably eliminate the economics-intensive process of formal proof of monopoly power entirely, instead of merely kicking it up one level in the supply chain.

That is surely an added plus for a current leadership so fearful of computation that it was at pains in the policy statement specifically to forswear “numerical” cost-benefit analysis.

Whatever Happened to No Fault?  

The FTC’s interest in expanding enforcement by throwing off the monopoly-power requirement is a marked departure from progressive antimonopolisms of the past. Mid-20th century radicals did not attack the monopoly-power side of antitrust’s two-part test, but rather the anticompetitive-conduct side.

For more than two decades, progressives mooted establishing a “no-fault” monopolization regime in which the only requirement for liability was size. By contrast, the present movement has sought to focus on conduct, rather than size, its own anti-concentration rhetoric notwithstanding.

Anti-Economism

That might, in part, be a result of the movement’s hostility toward economics. Proof of monopoly power is a famously economics-heavy undertaking.

The origin of contemporary antimonopolism is in activism by journalists against the social-media companies that are outcompeting newspapers for ad revenue, not in academia. As a result, the best traditions of the left, which involve intellectually outflanking opponents by showing how economic theory supports progressive positions, are missing here.

Contemporary antimonopolism has no “Capital” (Karl Marx), no “Progress and Poverty” (Henry George), and no “Freedom through Law” (Robert Hale). The most recent installment in this tradition of left-wing intellectual accomplishment is “Capital in the 21st Century” (Thomas Piketty). Unfortunately for progressive antimonopolists, it states: “pure and perfect competition cannot alter . . . inequality[.]’”

The contrast with the last revolution to sweep antitrust—that of the Chicago School—could not be starker. That movement was born in academia and its triumph was a triumph of ideas, however flawed they may in fact have been.

If one wishes to understand how Chicago School thinking put an end to the push for “no-fault” monopolization, one reads the Airlie House conference volume. In the conversations reproduced therein, one finds the no-faulters slowly being won over by the weight of data and theory deployed against them in support of size.

No equivalent watershed moment exists for contemporary antimonopolism, which bypassed academia (including the many progressive scholars doing excellent work therein) and went straight to the press and the agencies.

There is an ongoing debate about whether recent increases in markups result from monopolization or scarcity. It has not been resolved.

Rather than occupy economics, contemporary antimonopolists—and, perhaps, current FTC leadership—recoil from it. As one prominent antimonopolist lamented to a New York Times reporter, merger cases should be a matter of counting to four, and “[w]e don’t need economists to help us count to four.”

As the policy statement puts it: “The unfair methods of competition framework explicitly contemplates a variety of non-quantifiable harms, and justifications and purported benefits may be unquantifiable as well.”

Moralism

Contemporary antimonopolism’s focus on conduct might also be due to moralism—as reflected in the litany of synonyms for “bad” in the FTC’s policy statement.

For earlier progressives, antitrust was largely a means to an end—a way of ensuring that wages were high, consumer prices were low, and products were safe and of good quality. The fate of individual business entities within markets was of little concern, so long as these outcomes could be achieved.

What mattered were people. While contemporary antimonopolism cares about people, too, it differs from earlier antimonopolisms in that it personifies the firm.

If the firm dies, we are to be sad. If the firm is treated roughly by others, starved of resources or denied room to grow and reach its full potential, we are to be outraged, just as we would be if a child were starved. And, just as in the case of a child, we are to be outraged even if the firm would not have grown up to contribute anything of worth to society.

The irony, apparently lost on antimonopolists, is that the same personification of the firm as a rights-bearing agent, operating in other areas of law, undermines progressive policies.

The firm personified not only has a right to be treated gently by competing firms but also to be treated well by other people. But that means that people no longer come first relative to firms. When the Supreme Court holds that a business firm has a First Amendment right to influence politics, the Court takes personification of the firm to its logical extreme.

The alternative is not to make the market a morality play among firms, but to focus instead on market outcomes that matter to people—wages, prices, and product quality. We should not care whether a firm is “coerc[ed], exploitat[ed], collu[ded against], abus[ed], dece[ived], predate[ed], or [subjected to] economic power of a similar nature” except insofar as such treatment fails to serve people.

If one firm wishes to hire away the talent of another, for example, depriving the target of its lifeblood and killing it, so much the better if the result is better products, lower prices, or higher wages.

Antitrust can help maintain this focus on people only in part—by stopping unfair conduct that degrades products. I have argued elsewhere that the rest is for price regulation, taxation, and direct regulation to undertake.  

Can We Be Fairer and Still Give Product-Improving Conduct a Pass?

The intellectual deficit in contemporary antimonopolism is also evident in the care that the FTC’s policy statement puts into exempting behavior that creates superior products.

For one cannot expand the FTC’s powers to reach bad conduct without condemning product-improving conduct when the major check on enforcement today under the rule of reason (apart from the monopoly-power requirement) is precisely that conduct that improves products is exempt.

Under the rule of reason, bad conduct is a denial of inputs to a competitor that does not help consumers, meaning that the denial degrades the competitor’s products without improving the defendant’s products. Bad conduct is, in other words, unfairness that does not improve products.

If the FTC’s goal is to increase fairness relative to a regime that already pursues it, except when unfairness improves products, the additional fairness must come at the cost of product improvement.

The reference to superior products in the policy statement may be an attempt to compromise with the rule of reason. Unlike the elimination of the monopoly-power requirement, it is not a coherent compromise.

The FTC doesn’t need an economist to grasp this either.  

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

On Nov. 10, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a new statement explaining how it will exercise its standalone FTC Act Section 5 authority. Despite the length of the statement and the accompanying commentaries from most of the commissioners, there is less guidance than one might expect from so many words. One thing is clear, however: Expect more antitrust enforcement from the FTC in ways we have not seen in years, if ever.

The FTC enforces the antitrust laws through Section 5’s prohibition of unfair methods of competition (UMC). Courts and commentators alike have long agreed that Section 5’s prohibition covers everything covered by the other antitrust laws, such as the Sherman and Clayton Act, plus something more.

How far that extra standalone authority extends has been a point of contention for decades. In the early 1980s, several appellate courts admonished the FTC for an expansive interpretation of that authority, leaving parties uncertain of which actions would be challenged. Or, as the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put it: “the Commission owes a duty to define the conditions under which conduct … would be unfair so that businesses will have an inkling as to what they can lawfully do rather than be left in a state of complete unpredictability.”

In recent decades, the FTC has interpreted its authority much more narrowly. In 2015, a bipartisan collection of commissioners approved a short statement saying that the FTC would interpret its standalone authority consistently with the consumer welfare standard of the other antitrust laws and use the well-known rule of reason to judge any actions. Last year, the Democratic majority of commissioners voted to rescind that 2015 statement. Last week’s statement is the replacement.

Antitrust Fun, Little Guidance

The 16 pages of guidance and the accompanying commentary from three commissioners—two Democrats in support, one Republican in opposition—can be a fun read for antitrust geeks. There is plenty of well-written antitrust history. I learned something. Also, there are arguments about old FTC and appellate court cases that I had not read in 30 years.

But that history lesson did not give as much guidance about future enforcement as it should have. Most of the seven pages the guidance spends on its historical review is dedicated to showing that the FTC’s standalone authority extends beyond the Sherman and Clayton Acts. But that contention is in little dispute.

The more helpful historical question for parties today is how this Commission plans to respond to appellate court cases such as Boise Cascade, OAG, and the above-cited Ethyl that criticized the old Commission for, to paraphrase the statement, insufficient facts of unfairness, oppressiveness, or negative effects on the market. Chair Lina Khan’s commentary does mention the “trifecta” of cases, describing them as cases where courts found that the Commission “had not met its factual or evidentiary burden.” What would have been more helpful is some “inkling” of what kinds of facts this Commission will rely on to avoid the same types of “stinging” losses suffered by those earlier Commissions. Instead, we get multiple references to the Commission as a body of experts with the unstated assumption that, in the future, at least three commissioners will offer enough facts of some kind to convince any appellate court.

After the history section, the statement offers plenty of words on what the FTC majority think will be a standalone violation. All of those words add up, however, to much less guidance than the very brief 2015 statement. That prior statement said that the FTC would use its Section 5 standalone authority to pursue a single goal—consumer welfare—and would use a well-known analytical method to pursue it: the rule of reason. While even that statement left some ambiguity for businesses, and freedom for the Commission, at least it pursued only one goal with an analysis used in decades worth of antitrust cases.

The new statement does not list one goal but instead several, namely that it will challenge conduct that is “coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve[s] the use of economic power of a similar nature … that negatively affect[s] competitive conditions [and thereby negatively affects] consumers, workers, or other market participants.”

But mathematically, you cannot maximize more than one variable. Nowhere in this statement is there any attempt to explain the analytical method to be used to balance pursuit of these different goals. What if a challenged action helps workers but harms consumers? What if an action helps workers at some competitors but not others? What if an action helps all competitors but harms workers at some of them? Merely combining all those goals into a single term, “competitive conditions,” does not provide any guidance as to how the FTC will balance all these named (and any unnamed) elements of “competitive conditions.” Again, there is an unstated assumption that three commissioners will expertly balance those competing goals.

Incomplete Lessons from the Past

The new statement does try to provide some guidance at the end of the document when it points to past cases that, perhaps, will be the types of cases that the Commission will now bring under Section 5. One such large category is actions that do not meet the standards for antitrust illegality now but, somehow, violate the “spirit of the antitrust laws.” The statement lists several examples.

To take one, what if a tying case does not meet the standards embodied in Jefferson Parish and its progeny? How will the Commission determine what the statement calls “de facto tying”? Which one or more of the elements expounded in Jefferson Parish will be eased? How? Will the same action by the same parties be subject to different substantive standards if a private plaintiff—or the U.S. Justice Department—is the plaintiff? If so, then parties wanting to avoid any antitrust challenge will need to default to the law of tying laid down by the then-current FTC, not by dozens of court cases over decades. And how will the FTC determine what violates the “spirit” of its own particular law of tying? Again, the unstated assumption is that the decisions of three expert commissioners will set the new law, at least until three new expert commissioners gain control.

Conclusion

To be (slightly) fairer to the new statement, it does confirm what has seemed obvious since the Biden administration started staffing the FTC: this Commission will more aggressively pursue antitrust challenges and will use any tool, including Section 5 standalone authority, to do it. Also, while the statement injects uncertainty into the thinking of businesses, which likely will lead to fewer and less-aggressive business actions, that result would be seen as a feature, not a bug, by the statement’s authors.

Finally, the statement does correctly point out that Section 5 was written at a time when Congress might have thought that the decisions of three expert commissioners would lead to “better” results for the economy, however defined, than decisions of dozens of juries and judges in dozens of cases. That Progressive Era confidence in the decisions of a few government-employed experts has not always worked out for the best, as some would claim from study of the Whiz Kids (Robert McNamara, not Robin Roberts) or recent pandemic policy.

Like it or not, the statement is another step toward a government of men (and women), not laws, and an economy dictated by a handful of experts in Washington, not millions of consumers across the country. Expect aggressive antitrust enforcement from the FTC in ways that many businesses and antitrust practitioners have only read about — about that, the new statement’s guidance is clear.

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

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan has just sent her holiday wishlist to Santa Claus. It comes in the form of a policy statement on unfair methods of competition (UMC) that the FTC approved last week by a 3-1 vote. If there’s anything to be gleaned from the document, it’s that Khan and the agency’s majority bloc wish they could wield the same powers as Margrethe Vestager does in the European Union. Luckily for consumers, U.S. courts are unlikely to oblige.

Signed by the commission’s three Democratic commissioners, the UMC policy statement contains language that would be completely at home in a decision of the European Commission. It purports to reorient UMC enforcement (under Section 5 of the FTC Act) around typically European concepts, such as “competition on the merits.” This is an unambiguous repudiation of the rule of reason and, with it, the consumer welfare standard.

Unfortunately for its authors, these European-inspired aspirations are likely to fall flat. For a start, the FTC almost certainly does not have the power to enact such sweeping changes. More fundamentally, these concepts have been tried in the EU, where they have proven to be largely unworkable. On the one hand, critics (including the European judiciary) have excoriated the European Commission for its often economically unsound policymaking—enabled by the use of vague standards like “competition on the merits.” On the other hand, the Commission paradoxically believes that its competition powers are insufficient, creating the need for even stronger powers. The recently passed Digital Markets Act (DMA) is designed to fill this need.

As explained below, there is thus every reason to believe the FTC’s UMC statement will ultimately go down as a mistake, brought about by the current leadership’s hubris.

A Statement Is Just That

The first big obstacle to the FTC’s lofty ambitions is that its leadership does not have the power to rewrite either the FTC Act or courts’ interpretation of it. The agency’s leadership understands this much. And with that in mind, they ostensibly couch their statement in the case law of the U.S. Supreme Court:

Consistent with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the FTC Act in at least twelve decisions, this statement makes clear that Section 5 reaches beyond the Sherman and Clayton Acts to encompass various types of unfair conduct that tend to negatively affect competitive conditions.

It is telling, however, that the cases cited by the agency—in a naked attempt to do away with economic analysis and the consumer welfare standard—are all at least 40 years old. Antitrust and consumer-protection laws have obviously come a long way since then, but none of that is mentioned in the statement. Inconvenient case law is simply shrugged off. To make matters worse, even the cases the FTC cites provide, at best, exceedingly weak support for its proposed policy.

For instance, as Commissioner Christine Wilson aptly notes in her dissenting statement, “the policy statement ignores precedent regarding the need to demonstrate anticompetitive effects.” Chief among these is the Boise Cascade Corp. v. FTC case, where the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rebuked the FTC for failing to show actual anticompetitive effects:

In truth, the Commission has provided us with little more than a theory of the likely effect of the challenged pricing practices. While this general observation perhaps summarizes all that follows, we offer  the following specific points in support of our conclusion.

There is a complete absence of meaningful evidence in the record that price levels in the southern plywood industry reflect an anticompetitive effect.

In short, the FTC’s statement is just that—a statement. Gus Hurwitz summarized this best in his post:

Today’s news that the FTC has adopted a new UMC Policy Statement is just that: mere news. It doesn’t change the law. It is non-precedential and lacks the force of law. It receives the benefit of no deference. It is, to use a term from the consumer-protection lexicon, mere puffery.

Lina’s European Dream

But let us imagine, for a moment, that the FTC has its way and courts go along with its policy statement. Would this be good for the American consumer? In order to answer this question, it is worth looking at competition enforcement in the European Union.

There are, indeed, striking similarities between the FTC’s policy statement and European competition law. Consider the resemblance between the following quotes, drawn from the FTC’s policy statement (“A” in each example) and from the European competition sphere (“B” in each example).

Example 1 – Competition on the merits and the protection of competitors:

A. The method of competition must be unfair, meaning that the conduct goes beyond competition on the merits.… This may include, for example, conduct that tends to foreclose or impair the opportunities of market participants, reduce competition between rivals, limit choice, or otherwise harm consumers. (here)

B. The emphasis of the Commission’s enforcement activity… is on safeguarding the competitive process… and ensuring that undertakings which hold a dominant position do not exclude their competitors by other means than competing on the merits… (here)

Example 2 – Proof of anticompetitive harm:

A. “Unfair methods of competition” need not require a showing of current anticompetitive harm or anticompetitive intent in every case. … [T]his inquiry does not turn to whether the conduct directly caused actual harm in the specific instance at issue. (here)

B. The Commission cannot be required… systematically to establish a counterfactual scenario…. That would, moreover, oblige it to demonstrate that the conduct at issue had actual effects, which…  is not required in the case of an abuse of a dominant position, where it is sufficient to establish that there are potential effects. (here)

    Example 3 – Multiple goals:

    A. Given the distinctive goals of Section 5, the inquiry will not focus on the “rule of reason” inquiries more common in cases under the Sherman Act, but will instead focus on stopping unfair methods of competition in their incipiency based on their tendency to harm competitive conditions. (here)

    B. In its assessment the Commission should pursue the objectives of preserving and fostering innovation and the quality of digital products and services, the degree to which prices are fair and competitive, and the degree to which quality or choice for business users and for end users is or remains high. (here)

    Beyond their cosmetic resemblances, these examples reflect a deeper similarity. The FTC is attempting to introduce three core principles that also undergird European competition enforcement. The first is that enforcers should protect “the competitive process” by ensuring firms compete “on the merits,” rather than a more consequentialist goal like the consumer welfare standard (which essentially asks how a given practice affects economic output). The second is that enforcers should not be required to establish that conduct actually harms consumers. Instead, they need only show that such an outcome is (or will be) possible. The third principle is that competition policies pursue multiple, sometimes conflicting, goals.

    In short, the FTC is trying to roll back U.S. enforcement to a bygone era predating the emergence of the consumer welfare standard (which is somewhat ironic for the agency’s progressive leaders). And this vision of enforcement is infused with elements that appear to be drawn directly from European competition law.

    Europe Is Not the Land of Milk and Honey

    All of this might not be so problematic if the European model of competition enforcement that the FTC now seeks to emulate was an unmitigated success, but that could not be further from the truth. As Geoffrey Manne, Sam Bowman, and I argued in a recently published paper, the European model has several shortcomings that militate against emulating it (the following quotes are drawn from that paper). These problems would almost certainly arise if the FTC’s statement was blessed by courts in the United States.

    For a start, the more open-ended nature of European competition law makes it highly vulnerable to political interference. This is notably due to its multiple, vague, and often conflicting goals, such as the protection of the “competitive process”:

    Because EU regulators can call upon a large list of justifications for their enforcement decisions, they are free to pursue cases that best fit within a political agenda, rather than focusing on the limited practices that are most injurious to consumers. In other words, there is largely no definable set of metrics to distinguish strong cases from weak ones under the EU model; what stands in its place is political discretion.

    Politicized antitrust enforcement might seem like a great idea when your party is in power but, as Milton Friedman wisely observed, the mark of a strong system of government is that it operates well with the wrong person in charge. With this in mind, the FTC’s current leadership would do well to consider what their political opponents might do with these broad powers—such as using Section 5 to prevent online platforms from moderating speech.

    A second important problem with the European model is that, because of its competitive-process goal, it does not adequately distinguish between exclusion resulting from superior efficiency and anticompetitive foreclosure:

    By pursuing a competitive process goal, European competition authorities regularly conflate desirable and undesirable forms of exclusion precisely on the basis of their effect on competitors. As a result, the Commission routinely sanctions exclusion that stems from an incumbent’s superior efficiency rather than welfare-reducing strategic behavior, and routinely protects inefficient competitors that would otherwise rightly be excluded from a market.

    This vastly enlarges the scope of potential antitrust liability, leading to risks of false positives that chill innovative behavior and create nearly unwinnable battles for targeted firms, while increasing compliance costs because of reduced legal certainty. Ultimately, this may hamper technological evolution and protect inefficient firms whose eviction from the market is merely a reflection of consumer preferences.

    Finally, the European model results in enforcers having more discretion and enjoying greater deference from the courts:

    [T]he EU process is driven by a number of laterally equivalent, and sometimes mutually exclusive, goals.… [A] large problem exists in the discretion that this fluid arrangement of goals yields.

    The Microsoft case illustrates this problem well. In Microsoft, the Commission could have chosen to base its decision on a number of potential objectives. It notably chose to base its findings on the fact that Microsoft’s behavior reduced “consumer choice”. The Commission, in fact, discounted arguments that economic efficiency may lead to consumer welfare gains because “consumer choice” among a variety of media players was more important.

    In short, the European model sorely lacks limiting principles. This likely explains why the European Court of Justice has started to pare back the commission’s powers in a series of recent cases, including Intel, Post Danmark, Cartes Bancaires, and Servizio Elettrico Nazionale. These rulings appear to be an explicit recognition that overly broad competition enforcement not only fails to benefit consumers but, more fundamentally, is incompatible with the rule of law.

    It is unfortunate that the FTC is trying to emulate a model of competition enforcement that—even in the progressively minded European public sphere—is increasingly questioned and cast aside as a result of its multiple shortcomings.

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

    In a 3-2 July 2021 vote, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rescinded the nuanced statement it had issued in 2015 concerning the scope of unfair methods of competition under Section 5 of the FTC Act. At the same time, the FTC rejected the applicability of the balancing test set forth in the rule of reason (and with it, several decades of case law, agency guidance, and legal and economic scholarship).

    The July 2021 statement not only rejected these long-established guiding principles for Section 5 enforcement but left in its place nothing but regulatory fiat. In the statement the FTC issued Nov. 10, 2022 (again, by a divided 3-1 vote), the agency has now adopted this “just trust us” approach as a permanent operating principle.

    The November 2022 statement purports to provide a standard under which the agency will identify unfair methods of competition under Section 5. As Commissioner Christine Wilson explains in her dissent, however, it clearly fails to do so. Rather, it delivers a collection of vaguely described principles and pejorative rhetoric that encompass loosely defined harms to competition, competitors, workers and a catch-all group of “other market participants.”  

    The methodology for identifying these harms is comparably vague. The agency not only again rejects the rule of reason but asserts the authority to take action against a variety of “non-quantifiable harms,” all of which can be addressed at the most “incipient” stages. Moreover, and perhaps most remarkably, the statement specifically rejects any form of “net efficiencies” or “numerical cost-benefit analysis” to guide its enforcement decisions or provide even a modicum of predictability to the business community.  

    The November 2022 statement amounts to regulatory fiat on overdrive, presented with a thin veneer of legality derived from a medley of dormant judicial decisions, incomplete characterizations of precedent, and truncated descriptions of legislative history. Under the agency’s dubious understanding of Section 5, Congress in 1914 elected to provide the FTC with the authority to declare any business practice “unfair” subject to no principle other than the agency’s subjective understanding of that term (and, apparently, never to be informed by “numerical cost-benefit analysis”).

    Moreover, any enforcement action that targeted a purportedly “unfair” practice would then be adjudicated within the agency and appealable in the first instance to the very same commissioners who authorized the action. This institutional hall of mirrors would establish the FTC as the national “fairness” arbiter subject to virtually no constraining principles under which the exercise of such powers could ever be deemed to have exceeded its scope. The license for abuse is obvious and the departure from due process inherent.

    The views reflected in the November 2022 statement would almost certainly lead to a legal dead-end.  If the agency takes action under its idiosyncratic understanding of the scope of unfair methods of competition under Section 5, it would elicit a legal challenge that would likely lead to two possible outcomes, both being adverse to the agency. 

    First, it is likely that a judge would reject the agency’s understanding of Section 5, since it is irreconcilable with a well-developed body of case law requiring that the FTC (just like any other administrative agency) act under principles that provide businesses with, as described by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, at least “an inkling as to what they can lawfully do rather than be left in a state of complete unpredictability.”

    Any legally defensible interpretation of the scope of unfair methods of competition under Section 5 must take into account not only legislative intent at the time the FTC Act was enacted but more than a century’s worth of case law that courts have developed to govern the actions of administrative powers. Contrary to suggestions made in the November 2022 statement, neither the statute nor the relevant body of case law mandates unqualified deference by courts to the presumed wisdom of expert regulators.

    Second, even if a court accepted the agency’s interpretation of the statute (or did so provisionally), there is a strong likelihood that it would then be compelled to strike down Section 5 as an unconstitutional delegation of lawmaking powers from the legislative to the executive branch. Given the concern that a majority of the Supreme Court has increasingly expressed over actions by regulatory agencies—including the FTC, specifically, in AMG Capital Management LLC v. FTC (2021)and now again in the pending case, Axon Enterprise Inc. v. FTCthat do not clearly fall within the legislatively specified scope of an agency’s authority (as in the AMG decision and other recent Court decisions concerning the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the United States Patent and Trademark Office), this would seem to be a high-probability outcome.

    In short: any enforcement action taken under the agency’s newly expanded understanding of Section 5 is unlikely to withstand judicial scrutiny, either as a matter of statutory construction or as a matter of constitutional principle. Given this legal forecast, the November 2022 statement could be viewed as mere theatrics that is unlikely to have a long legal life or much practical impact (although, until judicial intervention, it could impose significant costs on firms that must defend against agency-enforcement actions brought under the unilaterally expanded scope of Section 5). 

    Even if that were the case, however, the November 2022 statement and, in particular, its expanded understanding of the harms that the agency is purportedly empowered to target, is nonetheless significant because it should leave little doubt concerning the lack of any meaningful commitment by agency leadership to the FTC’s historical mission to preserve market competition. Rather, it has become increasingly clear that agency leadership seeks to deploy the powerful remedies of the FTC Act (and the rest of the antitrust-enforcement apparatus) to displace a market-driven economy governed by the free play of competitive forces with an administered economy in which regulators continuously intervene to reengineer economic outcomes on grounds of fairness to favored constituencies, rather than to preserve the competitive process.

    Reengineering Section 5 of the FTC Act as a “shadow” antitrust statute that operates outside the rule of reason (or any other constraining objective principle) provides a strategic detour around the inconvenient evidentiary and other legal obstacles that the agency would struggle to overcome when seeking to achieve these policy objectives under the Sherman and Clayton Acts. This intentionally unstructured and inherently politicized approach to antitrust enforcement threatens not only the institutional preconditions for a market economy but ultimately the rule of law itself.

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

    Just over a decade ago, in a speech at the spring meeting of the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Law Section, then-recently appointed Commissioner Joshua Wright of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced his hope that the FTC would adopt a policy statement on the use of its unfair methods of competition (UMC) authority:

    [The Commission] can and should issue a policy statement clearly setting forth its views on what constitutes an unfair method of competition as we have done with respect to our consumer protection mission … I will soon informally and publicly distribute a proposed Section 5 Unfair Methods Policy Statement more fully articulating my views and perhaps even providing a useful starting point for a fruitful discussion among the enforcement agencies, the antitrust bar, consumer groups, and the business community.

    Just over a decade ago, in a speech at the spring meeting of the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Law Section, then-recently appointed Commissioner Joshua Wright of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced his hope that the FTC would adopt a policy statement on the use of its unfair methods of competition (UMC) authority:

    [The Commission] can and should issue a policy statement clearly setting forth its views on what constitutes an unfair method of competition as we have done with respect to our consumer protection mission…. I will soon informally and publicly distribute a proposed Section 5 Unfair Methods Policy Statement more fully articulating my views and perhaps even providing a useful starting point for a fruitful discussion among the enforcement agencies, the antitrust bar, consumer groups, and the business community.

    Responding to this, I wrote a post here on Truth on the Market explaining that “a policy statement is not enough.” That post is copied in its entirety below. In it, I explained that: “In a contentious policy environment—that is, one where the prevailing understanding of an ambiguous law changes with the consensus of a three-commissioner majority—policy statements are worth next to nothing.”

    Needless to say, that characterization proved apt when Lina Khan took the helm of the current FTC and promptly, unceremoniously, dispatched with the UMC policy statement that Commissioner Wright successfully championed prior to his departure from the FTC in 2015.

    Today’s news that the FTC has adopted a new UMC Policy Statement is just that: mere news. It doesn’t change the law. It is non-precedential and lacks the force of law. It receives the benefit of no deference. It is, to use a term from the consumer-protection lexicon, mere puffery.

    The greatest difference between this policy statement and the 2015 policy statement will likely not be in how the FTC’s authority is interpreted, but how its interpretations are credited by the courts. The 2015 policy statement encapsulated long-established law and precedent as understood and practiced by the FTC, U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), courts, and enforcers around the world. It was a credibility-enhancing commitment to consistency and stability in the law, along with providing credible, if non-binding, guidance for industry.

    Today’s policy statement is the opposite, marking a clear rejection of and departure from decades of established precedent and relying on long-fallow caselaw to do so. When it comes time for this policy to be judicially tested, it will carry no weight. More importantly, it will give the courts pause in crediting the FTC’s interpretations of the law; any benefit of the doubt or inclination toward deference will likely be found in default.

    And it seems likely that that judicial fate will, in fact, be met. This FTC adopted the statement not to bind itself to the mast of precedent against the tempting shoals of indiscretion, but rather to chart a course toward the jagged barrier rocks lining the shores of unbounded authority.

    Of course, the purpose of this statement—as with so much of Chair Khan’s agenda—is not to use the law effectively. It is quite plainly to make a statement—a political and hortatory one about what she wishes the law to be. With this statement, that statement has been made. It has been made again. And again. It has been heard loudly and clearly. In her treatment of antitrust law, “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

    Administrative law really is a strange beast. My last post explained this a bit, in the context of Chevron. In this post, I want to make this point in another context, explaining how utterly useless a policy statement can be. Our discussion today has focused on what should go into a policy statement – there seems to be general consensus that one is a good idea. But I’m not sure that we have a good understanding of how little certainty a policy statement offers.

    Administrative Stare Decisis?

    I alluded in my previous post to the absence of stare decisis in the administrative context. This is one of the greatest differences between judicial and administrative rulemaking: agencies are not bound by either prior judicial interpretations of their statutes, or even by their own prior interpretations. These conclusions follow from relatively recent opinions – Brand-X in 2005 and Fox I in 2007 – and have broad implications for the relationship between courts and agencies.

    In Brand-X, the Court explained that a “court’s prior judicial construction of a statute trumps an agency construction otherwise entitled to Chevron deference only if the prior court decision holds that its construction follows from the unambiguous terms of the statute and thus leaves no room for agency discretion.” This conclusion follows from a direct application of Chevron: courts are responsible for determining whether a statute is ambiguous; agencies are responsible for determining the (reasonable) meaning of a statute that is ambiguous.

    Not only are agencies not bound by a court’s prior interpretations of an ambiguous statute – they’re not even bound by their own prior interpretations!

    In Fox I, the Court held that an agency’s own interpretation of an ambiguous statute impose no special obligations should the agency subsequently change its interpretation.[1] It may be necessary to acknowledge the prior policy; and factual findings upon which the new policy is based that contradict findings upon which the prior policy was based may need to be explained.[2] But where a statute may be interpreted in multiple ways – that is, in any case where the statute is ambiguous – Congress, and by extension its agencies, is free to choose between those alternative interpretations. The fact that an agency previously adopted one interpretation does not necessarily render other possible interpretations any less reasonable; the mere fact that one was previously adopted therefore, on its own, cannot act as a bar to subsequent adoption of a competing interpretation.

    What Does This Mean for Policy Statements?

    In a contentious policy environment – that is, one where the prevailing understanding of an ambiguous law changes with the consensus of a three-Commissioner majority – policy statements are worth next to nothing. Generally, the value of a policy statement is explaining to a court the agency’s rationale for its preferred construction of an ambiguous statute. Absent such an explanation, a court is likely to find that the construction was not sufficiently reasoned to merit deference. That is: a policy statement makes it easier for an agency to assert a given construction of a statute in litigation.

    But a policy statement isn’t necessary to make that assertion, or for an agency to receive deference. Absent a policy statement, the agency needs to demonstrate to the court that its interpretation of the statute is sufficiently reasoned (and not merely a strategic interpretation adopted for the purposes of the present litigation).

    And, more important, a policy statement in no way prevents an agency from changing its interpretation. Fox I makes clear that an agency is free to change its interpretations of a given statute. Prior interpretations – including prior policy statements – are not a bar to such changes. Prior interpretations also, therefore, offer little assurance to parties subject to any given interpretation.

    Are Policy Statements Entirely Useless?

    Policy statements may not be entirely useless. The likely front on which to challenge an unexpected change in agency interpretation of its statute is on Due Process or Notice grounds. The existence of a policy statement may make it easier for a party to argue that a changed interpretation runs afoul of Due Process or Notice requirements. See, e.g., Fox II.

    So there is some hope that a policy statement would be useful. But, in the context of Section 5 UMC claims, I’m not sure how much comfort this really affords. Regulatory takings jurisprudence gives agencies broad power to seemingly contravene Due Process and Notice expectations. This is largely because of the nature of relief available to the FTC: injunctive relief, such as barring certain business practices, even if it results in real economic losses, is likely to survive a regulatory takings challenge, and therefore also a Due Process challenge. Generally, the Due Process and Notice lines of argument are best suited against fines and similar retrospective remedies; they offer little comfort against prospective remedies like injunctions.

    Conclusion

    I’ll conclude the same way that I did my previous post, with what I believe is the most important takeaway from this post: however we proceed, we must do so with an understanding of both antitrust and administrative law. Administrative law is the unique, beautiful, and scary beast that governs the FTC – those who fail to respect its nuances do so at their own peril.


    [1] Fox v. FCC, 556 U.S. 502, 514–516 (2007) (“The statute makes no distinction [] between initial agency action and subsequent agency action undoing or revising that action. … And of course the agency must show that there are good reasons for the new policy. But it need not demonstrate to a court’s satisfaction that the reasons for the new policy are better than the reasons for the old one; it suffices that the new policy is permissible under the statute, that there are good reasons for it, and that the agency believes it to be better, which the conscious change of course adequately indicates.”).

    [2] Id. (“To be sure, the requirement that an agency provide reasoned explanation for its action would ordinarily demand that it display awareness that it is changing position. … This means that the agency need not always provide a more detailed justification than what would suffice for a new policy created on a blank slate. Sometimes it must—when, for example, its new policy rests upon factual findings that contradict those which underlay its prior policy; or when its prior policy has engendered serious reliance interests that must be taken into account. It would be arbitrary or capricious to ignore such matters. In such cases it is not that further justification is demanded by the mere fact of policy change; but that a reasoned explanation is needed for disregarding facts and circumstances that underlay or were engendered by the prior policy.”).

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

    The current Federal Trade Commission (FTC) appears to have one overarching goal: find more ways to sue companies. The three Democratic commissioners (with the one Republican dissenting) issued a new policy statement earlier today that brings long-abandoned powers back into the FTC’s toolkit. Under Chair Lina Khan’s leadership, the FTC wants to bring challenges against “unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce.” If that sounds extremely vague, that’s because it is. 

    For the past few decades, antitrust violations have fallen into two categories. Actions like price-fixing with competitors are assumed to be illegal. Other actions are only considered illegal if they are proven to sufficiently restrain trade. This latter approach is called the “rule of reason.”

    The FTC now wants to return to a time when they could also challenge conduct it viewed as unfair. The policy statement says the commission will go after behavior that is “coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve the use of economic power of a similar nature.” Who could argue against stopping coercive behavior? The problem is what it means in practice for actual antitrust cases. No one knows: businesses or courts. It’s up to the whims of the FTC.

    This is how antitrust used to be. In 1984, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals admonished the FTC and argued that “the Commission owes a duty to define the conditions under which conduct … would be unfair so that businesses will have an inkling as to what they can lawfully do rather than be left in a state of complete unpredictability.” Fairness, as the Clayton Act puts forward, proved unworkable as an antitrust standard.

    The FTC’s movement to clarify what “unfair” means led to a 2015 policy statement, which the new statement supersedes. In the 2015 statement, the Obama-era FTC, with bipartisan support, issued new rules laying out what would qualify as unfair methods of competition. In doing so, they rolled “unfair methods” under the rule of reason. The consequences of the action matter.

    The 2015 statement is part of a longer-run trend of incorporating more economic analysis into antitrust. For the past few decades, courts have followed in antitrust law is called the “consumer welfare standard.”  The basic idea is that the goal of antitrust decisions should be to choose whatever outcome helps consumers, or as economists would put it, whatever increases “consumer welfare.” Once those are the terms of the dispute, economic analysis can help the courts sort out whether an action is anticompetitive.

    Beyond helping to settle particular cases, these features of modern antitrust—like the consumer welfare standard and the rule of reason—give market participants some sense of what is illegal and what is not. That’s necessary for the rule of law to prevail and for markets to function.

    The new FTC rules explicitly reject any appeal to consumer benefits or welfare. Efficiency gains from the action—labeled “pecuniary gains” to suggest they are merely about money—do not count as a defense. The FTC makes explicit that parties cannot justify behavior based on efficiencies or cost-benefit analysis.

    Instead, as Commissioner Christine S. Wilson points out in her dissent, “the Policy Statement adopts an ‘I know it when I see it’ approach premised on a list of nefarious-sounding adjectives.” If the FTC claims some conduct is unfair, why worry about studying the consequences of the conduct?

    The policy statement is an attempt to roll back the clock on antitrust and return to the incoherence of 1950s and 1960s antitrust. The FTC seeks to protect other companies, not competition or consumers. As Khan herself said, “for a lot of businesses it comes down to whether they’re going to be able to sink or swim.”

    But President Joe Biden’s antitrust enforcers have struggled to win traditional antitrust cases. On mergers, for example, they have challenged a smaller percentage of mergers and were less successful than the FTC and DOJ under President Donald Trump.

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

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

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

    The Hippocratic Oath of Regulatory Intervention

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

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

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

    Assessing Market Failure in the Use of Consumer Data

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

    The ANPR’s Oversights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Data Protection v. Data-Reliant Functionality

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Private-Ordering Approaches to Consumer-Data Regulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Bottom-Up v. Top-Down Regulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Hybrid Policy Approaches

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

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

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

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

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

    Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The ANPRM and Section 5(n)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Conclusion

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

    Summary of the ANPRM  

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

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

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

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

    Commissioner Statements in Support of the ANPR

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

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

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

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

    Commissioner Statements Opposed to the ANPRM

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

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

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

    Implications for Regulated Entities and Others Concerned with Potential Agency Overreach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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