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The lifecycle of a law is a curious one; born to fanfare, a great solution to a great problem, but ultimately doomed to age badly as lawyers seek to shoehorn wholly inappropriate technologies and circumstances into its ambit. The latest chapter in the book of badly aging laws comes to us courtesy of yet another dysfunctional feature of our political system: the Supreme Court nomination and confirmation process.

In 1988, President Reagan nominated Judge Bork for a spot on the US Supreme Court. During the confirmation process following his nomination, a reporter was able to obtain a list of videos he and his family had rented from local video rental stores (You remember those, right?). In response to this invasion of privacy — by a reporter whose intention was to publicize and thereby (in some fashion) embarrass or “expose” Judge Bork — Congress enacted the Video Privacy Protection Act (“VPPA”).

In short, the VPPA makes it illegal for a “video tape service provider” to knowingly disclose to third parties any “personally identifiable information” in connection with the viewing habits of a “consumer” who uses its services. Left as written and confined to the scope originally intended for it, the Act seems more or less fine. However, over the last few years, plaintiffs have begun to use the Act as a weapon with which to attack common Internet business models in a manner wholly out of keeping with drafters’ intent.

And with a decision that promises to be a windfall for hungry plaintiff’s attorneys everywhere, the First Circuit recently allowed a plaintiff, Alexander Yershov, to make it past a 12(b)(6) motion on a claim that Gannett violated the VPPA with its  USA Today Android mobile app.

What’s in a name (or Android ID) ?

The app in question allowed Mr. Yershov to view videos without creating an account, providing his personal details, or otherwise subscribing (in the generally accepted sense of the term) to USA Today’s content. What Gannett did do, however, was to provide to Adobe Systems the Android ID and GPS location data associated with Mr. Yershov’s use of the app’s video content.

In interpreting the VPPA in a post-Blockbuster world, the First Circuit panel (which, apropos of nothing, included retired Justice Souter) had to wrestle with whether Mr. Yershov counts as a “subscriber,” and to what extent an Android ID and location information count as “personally identifying information” under the Act. Relying on the possibility that Adobe might be able to infer the identity of the plaintiff given its access to data from other web properties, and given the court’s rather gut-level instinct that an app user is a “subscriber,” the court allowed the plaintiff to survive the 12(b)(6) motion.

The PII point is the more arguable of the two, as the statutory language is somewhat vague. Under the Act, PIII “includes information which identifies a person as having requested or obtained specific video materials or services from a video tape service provider.” On this score the court decided that GPS data plus an Android ID (or each alone — it wasn’t completely clear) could constitute information protected under the Act (at least for purposes of a 12(b)(6) motion):

The statutory term “personally identifiable information” is awkward and unclear. The definition of that term… adds little clarity beyond training our focus on the question whether the information identifies the person who obtained the video…. Nevertheless, the language reasonably conveys the point that PII is not limited to information that explicitly names a person.

OK (maybe). But where the court goes off the rails is in its determination that an Android ID, GPS data, or a list of videos is, in itself, enough to identify anyone.

It might be reasonable to conclude that Adobe could use that information in combination with other information it collects from yet other third parties (fourth parties?) in order to build up a reliable, personally identifiable profile. But the statute’s language doesn’t hang on such a combination. Instead, the court’s reasoning finds potential liability by reading this exact sort of prohibition into the statute:

Adobe takes this and other information culled from a variety of sources to create user profiles comprised of a given user’s personal information, online behavioral data, and device identifiers… These digital dossiers provide Adobe and its clients with “an intimate look at the different types of materials consumed by the individual” … While there is certainly a point at which the linkage of information to identity becomes too uncertain, or too dependent on too much yet-to-be-done, or unforeseeable detective work, here the linkage, as plausibly alleged, is both firm and readily foreseeable to Gannett.

Despite its hedging about uncertain linkages, the court’s reasoning remains contingent on an awful lot of other moving parts — something not found in either the text of the law, nor the legislative history of the Act.

The information sharing identified by the court is in no way the sort of simple disclosure of PII that easily identifies a particular person in the way that, say, Blockbuster Video would have been able to do in 1988 with disclosure of its viewing lists.  Yet the court purports to find a basis for its holding in the abstract nature of the language in the VPPA:

Had Congress intended such a narrow and simple construction [as specifying a precise definition for PII], it would have had no reason to fashion the more abstract formulation contained in the statute.

Again… maybe. Maybe Congress meant to future-proof the provision, and didn’t want the statute construed as being confined to the simple disclosure of name, address, phone number, and so forth. I doubt, though, that it really meant to encompass the sharing of any information that might, at some point, by some unknown third parties be assembled into a profile that, just maybe if you squint at it hard enough, will identify a particular person and their viewing habits.

Passive Subscriptions?

What seems pretty clear, however, is that the court got it wrong when it declared that Mr. Yershov was a “subscriber” to USA Today by virtue of simply downloading an app from the Play Store.

The VPPA prohibits disclosure of a “consumer’s” PII — with “consumer” meaning “any renter, purchaser, or subscriber of goods or services from a video tape service provider.” In this case (as presumably will happen in most future VPPA cases involving free apps and websites), the plaintiff claims that he is a “subscriber” to a “video tape” service.

The court built its view of “subscriber” predominantly on two bases: (1) you don’t need to actually pay anything to count as a subscriber (with which I agree), and (2) that something about installing an app that can send you push notifications is different enough than frequenting a website, that a user, no matter how casual, becomes a “subscriber”:

When opened for the first time, the App presents a screen that seeks the user’s permission for it to “push” or display notifications on the device. After choosing “Yes” or “No,” the user is directed to the App’s main user interface.

The court characterized this connection between USA Today and Yershov as “seamless” — ostensibly because the app facilitates push notifications to the end user.

Thus, simply because it offers an app that can send push notifications to users, and because this app sometimes shows videos, a website or Internet service — in this case, an app portal for a newspaper company — becomes a “video tape service,” offering content to “subscribers.” And by sharing information in a manner that is nowhere mentioned in the statute and that on its own is not capable of actually identifying anyone, the company suddenly becomes subject to what will undoubtedly be an avalanche of lawsuits (at least in the first circuit).

Preposterous as this may seem on its face, it gets worse. Nothing in the court’s opinion is limited to “apps,” and the “logic” would seem to apply to the general web as well (whether the “seamless” experience is provided by push notifications or some other technology that facilitates tighter interaction with users). But, rest assured, the court believes that

[B]y installing the App on his phone, thereby establishing seamless access to an electronic version of USA Today, Yershov established a relationship with Gannett that is materially different from what would have been the case had USA Today simply remained one of millions of sites on the web that Yershov might have accessed through a web browser.

Thank goodness it’s “materially” different… although just going by the reasoning in this opinion, I don’t see how that can possibly be true.

What happens when web browsers can enable push notifications between users and servers? Well, I guess we’ll find out soon because major browsers now support this feature. Further, other technologies — like websockets — allow for continuous two-way communication between users and corporate sites. Does this change the calculus? Does it meet the court’s “test”? If so, the court’s exceedingly vague reasoning provides little guidance (and a whole lot of red meat for lawsuits).

To bolster its view that apps are qualitatively different than web sites with regard to their delivery to consumers, the court asks “[w]hy, after all, did Gannett develop and seek to induce downloading of the App?” I don’t know, because… cell phones?

And this bit of “reasoning” does nothing for the court’s opinion, in fact. Gannett undertook development of a web site in the first place because some cross-section of the public was interested in reading news online (and that was certainly the case for any electronic distribution pre-2007). No less, consumers have increasingly been moving toward using mobile devices for their online activities. Though it’s a debatable point, apps can often provide a better user experience than that provided by a mobile browser. Regardless, the line between “app” and “web site” is increasingly a blurry one, especially on mobile devices, and with the proliferation of HTML5 and frameworks like Google’s Progressive Web Apps, the line will only grow more indistinct. That Gannett was seeking to provide the public with an app has nothing to do with whether it intended to develop a more “intimate” relationship with mobile app users than it has with web users.

The 11th Circuit, at least, understands this. In Ellis v. Cartoon Network, it held that a mere user of an app — without more — could not count as a “subscriber” under the VPPA:

The dictionary definitions of the term “subscriber” we have quoted above have a common thread. And that common thread is that “subscription” involves some type of commitment, relationship, or association (financial or otherwise) between a person and an entity. As one district court succinctly put it: “Subscriptions involve some or [most] of the following [factors]: payment, registration, commitment, delivery, [expressed association,] and/or access to restricted content.”

The Eleventh Circuit’s point is crystal clear, and I’m not sure how the First Circuit failed to appreciate it (particularly since it was the district court below in the Yershov case that the Eleventh Circuit was citing). Instead, the court got tied up in asking whether or not a payment was required to constitute a “subscription.” But that’s wrong. What’s needed is some affirmative step – something more than just downloading an app, and certainly something more than merely accessing a web site.

Without that step — a “commitment, relationship, or association (financial or otherwise) between a person and an entity” — the development of technology that simply offers a different mode of interaction between users and content promises to transform the VPPA into a tremendously powerful weapon in the hands of eager attorneys, and a massive threat to the advertising-based business models that have enabled the growth of the web.

How could this possibly not apply to websites?

In fact, there is no way this opinion won’t be picked up by plaintiff’s attorneys in suits against web sites that allow ad networks to collect any information on their users. Web sites may not have access to exact GPS data (for now), but they do have access to fairly accurate location data, cookies, and a host of other data about their users. And with browser-based push notifications and other technologies being developed to create what the court calls a “seamless” experience for users, any user of a web site will count as a “subscriber” under the VPPA. The potential damage to the business models that have funded the growth of the Internet is hard to overstate.

There is hope, however.

Hulu faced a similar challenge over the last few years arising out of its collection of viewer data on its platform and the sharing of that data with third-party ad services in order to provide better targeted and, importantly, more user-relevant marketing. Last year it actually won a summary judgment motion on the basis that it had no way of knowing that Facebook (the third-party with which it was sharing data) would reassemble the data in order to identify particular users and their viewing habits. Nevertheless, Huu has previously lost motions on the subscriber and PII issues.

Hulu has, however, previously raised one issue in its filings on which the district court punted, but that could hold the key to putting these abusive litigations to bed.

The VPPA provides a very narrowly written exception to the prohibition on information sharing when such sharing is “incident to the ordinary course of business” of the “video tape service provider.” “Ordinary course of business” in this context means  “debt collection activities, order fulfillment, request processing, and the transfer of ownership.” In one of its motions, Hulu argued that

the section shows that Congress took into account that providers use third parties in their business operations and “‘allows disclosure to permit video tape service providers to use mailing houses, warehouses, computer services, and similar companies for marketing to their customers. These practices are called ‘order fulfillment’ and ‘request processing.’

The district court didn’t grant Hulu summary judgment on the issue, essentially passing on the question. But in 2014 the Seventh Circuit reviewed a very similar set of circumstances in Sterk v. Redbox and found that the exception applied. In that case Redbox had a business relationship with Stream, a third party that provided Redbox with automated customer service functions. The Seventh Circuit found that information sharing in such a relationship fell within Redbox’s “ordinary course of business”, and so Redbox was entitled to summary judgment on the VPPA claims against it.

This is essentially the same argument that Hulu was making. Third-party ad networks most certainly provide a service to corporations that serve content over the web. Hulu, Gannett and every other publisher on the web surely could provide their own ad platforms on their own properties. But by doing so they would lose the economic benefits that come from specialization and economies of scale. Thus, working with a third-party ad network pretty clearly replaces the “order fulfillment” and “request processing” functions of a content platform.

The Big Picture

And, stepping back for a moment, it’s important to take in the big picture. The point of the VPPA was to prevent public disclosures that would chill speech or embarrass individuals; the reporter in 1987 set out to expose or embarrass Judge Bork.  This is the situation the VPPA’s drafters had in mind when they wrote the Act. But the VPPA was most emphatically not designed to punish Internet business models — especially of a sort that was largely unknown in 1988 — that serve the interests of consumers.

The 1988 Senate report on the bill, for instance, notes that “[t]he bill permits the disclosure of personally identifiable information under appropriate and clearly defined circumstances. For example… companies may sell mailing lists that do not disclose the actual selections of their customers.”  Moreover, the “[Act] also allows disclosure to permit video tape service providers to use mailing houses, warehouses, computer services, and similar companies for marketing to their customers. These practices are called ‘order fulfillment’ and ‘request processing.’”

Congress plainly contemplated companies being able to monetize their data. And this just as plainly includes the common practice in automated tracking systems on the web today that use customers’ viewing habits to serve them with highly personalized web experiences.

Sites that serve targeted advertising aren’t in the business of embarrassing consumers or abusing their information by revealing it publicly. And, most important, nothing in the VPPA declares that information sharing is prohibited if third party partners could theoretically construct a profile of users. The technology to construct these profiles simply didn’t exist in 1988, and there is nothing in the Act or its legislative history to support the idea that the VPPA should be employed against the content platforms that outsource marketing to ad networks.

What would make sense is to actually try to fit modern practice in with the design and intent of the VPPA. If, for instance, third-party ad networks were using the profiles they created to extort, blackmail, embarrass, or otherwise coerce individuals, the practice certainly falls outside of course of business, and should be actionable.

But as it stands, much like the TCPA, the VPPA threatens to become a costly technological anachronism. Future courts should take the lead of the Eleventh and Seventh circuits, and make the law operate in the way it was actually intended. Gannett still has the opportunity to appeal for an en banc hearing, and after that for cert before the Supreme Court. But the circuit split this presents is the least of our worries. If this issue is not resolved in a way that permits platforms to continue to outsource their marketing efforts as they do today, the effects on innovation could be drastic.

Web platforms — which includes much more than just online newspapers — depend upon targeted ads to support their efforts. This applies to mobile apps as well. The “freemium” model has eclipsed the premium model for apps — a fact that expresses the preferences of both consumers at large as well as producers. Using the VPPA as a hammer to smash these business models will hurt everyone except, of course, for plaintiff’s attorneys.

Yesterday a federal district court in Washington state granted the FTC’s motion for summary judgment against Amazon in FTC v. Amazon — the case alleging unfair trade practices in Amazon’s design of the in-app purchases interface for apps available in its mobile app store. The headlines score the decision as a loss for Amazon, and the FTC, of course, claims victory. But the court also granted Amazon’s motion for partial summary judgment on a significant aspect of the case, and the Commission’s win may be decidedly pyrrhic.

While the district court (very wrongly, in my view) essentially followed the FTC in deciding that a well-designed user experience doesn’t count as a consumer benefit for assessing substantial harm under the FTC Act, it rejected the Commission’s request for a permanent injunction against Amazon. It also called into question the FTC’s calculation of monetary damages. These last two may be huge. 

The FTC may have “won” the case, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent why it doesn’t want to take these cases to trial. First in Wyndham, and now in Amazon, courts have begun to chip away at the FTC’s expansive Section 5 discretion, even while handing the agency nominal victories.

The Good News

The FTC largely escapes judicial oversight in cases like these because its targets almost always settle (Amazon is a rare exception). These settlements — consent orders — typically impose detailed 20-year injunctions and give the FTC ongoing oversight of the companies’ conduct for the same period. The agency has wielded the threat of these consent orders as a powerful tool to micromanage tech companies, and it currently has at least one consent order in place with Twitter, Google, Apple, Facebook and several others.

As I wrote in a WSJ op-ed on these troubling consent orders:

The FTC prefers consent orders because they extend the commission’s authority with little judicial oversight, but they are too blunt an instrument for regulating a technology company. For the next 20 years, if the FTC decides that Google’s product design or billing practices don’t provide “express, informed consent,” the FTC could declare Google in violation of the new consent decree. The FTC could then impose huge penalties—tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars—without establishing that any consumer had actually been harmed.

Yesterday’s decision makes that outcome less likely. Companies will be much less willing to succumb to the FTC’s 20-year oversight demands if they know that courts may refuse the FTC’s injunction request and accept companies’ own, independent and market-driven efforts to address consumer concerns — without any special regulatory micromanagement.

In the same vein, while the court did find that Amazon was liable for repayment of unauthorized charges made without “express, informed authorization,” it also found the FTC’s monetary damages calculation questionable and asked for further briefing on the appropriate amount. If, as seems likely, it ultimately refuses to simply accept the FTC’s damages claims, that, too, will take some of the wind out of the FTC’s sails. Other companies have settled with the FTC and agreed to 20-year consent decrees in part, presumably, because of the threat of excessive damages if they litigate. That, too, is now less likely to happen.

Collectively, these holdings should help to force the FTC to better target its complaints to cases of still-ongoing and truly-harmful practices — the things the FTC Act was really meant to address, like actual fraud. Tech companies trying to navigate ever-changing competitive waters by carefully constructing their user interfaces and payment mechanisms (among other things) shouldn’t be treated the same way as fraudulent phishing scams.

The Bad News

The court’s other key holding is problematic, however. In essence, the court, like the FTC, seems to believe that regulators are better than companies’ product managers, designers and engineers at designing app-store user interfaces:

[A] clear and conspicuous disclaimer regarding in-app purchases and request for authorization on the front-end of a customer’s process could actually prove to… be more seamless than the somewhat unpredictable password prompt formulas rolled out by Amazon.

Never mind that Amazon has undoubtedly spent tremendous resources researching and designing the user experience in its app store. And never mind that — as Amazon is certainly aware — a consumer’s experience of a product is make-or-break in the cut-throat world of online commerce, advertising and search (just ask Jet).

Instead, for the court (and the FTC), the imagined mechanism of “affirmatively seeking a customer’s authorized consent to a charge” is all benefit and no cost. Whatever design decisions may have informed the way Amazon decided to seek consent are either irrelevant, or else the user-experience benefits they confer are negligible.

As I’ve written previously:

Amazon has built its entire business around the “1-click” concept — which consumers love — and implemented a host of notification and security processes hewing as much as possible to that design choice, but nevertheless taking account of the sorts of issues raised by in-app purchases. Moreover — and perhaps most significantly — it has implemented an innovative and comprehensive parental control regime (including the ability to turn off all in-app purchases) — Kindle Free Time — that arguably goes well beyond anything the FTC required in its Apple consent order.

Amazon is not abdicating its obligation to act fairly under the FTC Act and to ensure that users are protected from unauthorized charges. It’s just doing so in ways that also take account of the costs such protections may impose — particularly, in this case, on the majority of Amazon customers who didn’t and wouldn’t suffer such unauthorized charges.

Amazon began offering Kindle Free Time in 2012 as an innovative solution to a problem — children’s access to apps and in-app purchases — that affects only a small subset of Amazon’s customers. To dismiss that effort without considering that Amazon might have made a perfectly reasonable judgment that balanced consumer protection and product design disregards the cost-benefit balancing required by Section 5 of the FTC Act.

Moreover, the FTC Act imposes liability for harm only when they are not “reasonably avoidable.” Kindle Free Time is an outstanding example of an innovative mechanism that allows consumers at risk of unauthorized purchases by children to “reasonably avoid” harm. The court’s and the FTC’s disregard for it is inconsistent with the statute.

Conclusion

The court’s willingness to reinforce the FTC’s blackboard design “expertise” (such as it is) to second guess user-interface and other design decisions made by firms competing in real markets is unfortunate. But there’s a significant silver lining. By reining in the FTC’s discretion to go after these companies as if they were common fraudsters, the court has given consumers an important victory. After all, it is consumers who otherwise bear the costs (both directly and as a result of reduced risk-taking and innovation) of the FTC’s largely unchecked ability to extract excessive concessions from its enforcement targets.

On Friday the the International Center for Law & Economics filed comments with the FCC in response to Chairman Wheeler’s NPRM (proposed rules) to “unlock” the MVPD (i.e., cable and satellite subscription video, essentially) set-top box market. Plenty has been written on the proposed rulemaking—for a few quick hits (among many others) see, e.g., Richard Bennett, Glenn Manishin, Larry Downes, Stuart Brotman, Scott Wallsten, and me—so I’ll dispense with the background and focus on the key points we make in our comments.

Our comments explain that the proposal’s assertion that the MVPD set-top box market isn’t competitive is a product of its failure to appreciate the dynamics of the market (and its disregard for economics). Similarly, the proposal fails to acknowledge the complexity of the markets it intends to regulate, and, in particular, it ignores the harmful effects on content production and distribution the rules would likely bring about.

“Competition, competition, competition!” — Tom Wheeler

“Well, uh… just because I don’t know what it is, it doesn’t mean I’m lying.” — Claude Elsinore

At root, the proposal is aimed at improving competition in a market that is already hyper-competitive. As even Chairman Wheeler has admitted,

American consumers enjoy unprecedented choice in how they view entertainment, news and sports programming. You can pretty much watch what you want, where you want, when you want.

Of course, much of this competition comes from outside the MVPD market, strictly speaking—most notably from OVDs like Netflix. It’s indisputable that the statute directs the FCC to address the MVPD market and the MVPD set-top box market. But addressing competition in those markets doesn’t mean you simply disregard the world outside those markets.

The competitiveness of a market isn’t solely a function of the number of competitors in the market. Even relatively constrained markets like these can be “fully competitive” with only a few competing firms—as is the case in every market in which MVPDs operate (all of which are presumed by the Commission to be subject to “effective competition”).

The truly troubling thing, however, is that the FCC knows that MVPDs compete with OVDs, and thus that the competitiveness of the “MVPD market” (and the “MVPD set-top box market”) isn’t solely a matter of direct, head-to-head MVPD competition.

How do we know that? As I’ve recounted before, in a recent speech FCC General Counsel Jonathan Sallet approvingly explained that Commission staff recommended rejecting the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger precisely because of the alleged threat it posed to OVD competitors. In essence, Sallet argued that Comcast sought to undertake a $45 billion merger primarily—if not solely—in order to ameliorate the competitive threat to its subscription video services from OVDs:

Simply put, the core concern came down to whether the merged firm would have an increased incentive and ability to safeguard its integrated Pay TV business model and video revenues by limiting the ability of OVDs to compete effectively.…

Thus, at least when it suits it, the Chairman’s office appears not only to believe that this competitive threat is real, but also that Comcast, once the largest MVPD in the country, believes so strongly that the OVD competitive threat is real that it was willing to pay $45 billion for a mere “increased ability” to limit it.

UPDATE 4/26/2016

And now the FCC has approved the Charter/Time Warner Cable, imposing conditions that, according to Wheeler,

focus on removing unfair barriers to video competition. First, New Charter will not be permitted to charge usage-based prices or impose data caps. Second, New Charter will be prohibited from charging interconnection fees, including to online video providers, which deliver large volumes of internet traffic to broadband customers. Additionally, the Department of Justice’s settlement with Charter both outlaws video programming terms that could harm OVDs and protects OVDs from retaliation—an outcome fully supported by the order I have circulated today.

If MVPDs and OVDs don’t compete, why would such terms be necessary? And even if the threat is merely potential competition, as we note in our comments (citing to this, among other things),

particularly in markets characterized by the sorts of technological change present in video markets, potential competition can operate as effectively as—or even more effectively than—actual competition to generate competitive market conditions.

/UPDATE

Moreover, the proposal asserts that the “market” for MVPD set-top boxes isn’t competitive because “consumers have few alternatives to leasing set-top boxes from their MVPDs, and the vast majority of MVPD subscribers lease boxes from their MVPD.”

But the MVPD set-top box market is an aftermarket—a secondary market; no one buys set-top boxes without first buying MVPD service—and always or almost always the two are purchased at the same time. As Ben Klein and many others have shown, direct competition in the aftermarket need not be plentiful for the market to nevertheless be competitive.

Whether consumers are fully informed or uninformed, consumers will pay a competitive package price as long as sufficient competition exists among sellers in the [primary] market.

The competitiveness of the MVPD market in which the antecedent choice of provider is made incorporates consumers’ preferences regarding set-top boxes, and makes the secondary market competitive.

The proposal’s superficial and erroneous claim that the set-top box market isn’t competitive thus reflects bad economics, not competitive reality.

But it gets worse. The NPRM doesn’t actually deny the importance of OVDs and app-based competitors wholesale — it only does so when convenient. As we note in our Comments:

The irony is that the NPRM seeks to give a leg up to non-MVPD distribution services in order to promote competition with MVPDs, while simultaneously denying that such competition exists… In order to avoid triggering [Section 629’s sunset provision,] the Commission is forced to pretend that we still live in the world of Blockbuster rentals and analog cable. It must ignore the Netflix behind the curtain—ignore the utter wealth of video choices available to consumers—and focus on the fact that a consumer might have a remote for an Apple TV sitting next to her Xfinity remote.

“Yes, but you’re aware that there’s an invention called television, and on that invention they show shows?” — Jules Winnfield

The NPRM proposes to create a world in which all of the content that MVPDs license from programmers, and all of their own additional services, must be provided to third-party device manufacturers under a zero-rate compulsory license. Apart from the complete absence of statutory authority to mandate such a thing (or, I should say, apart from statutory language specifically prohibiting such a thing), the proposed rules run roughshod over the copyrights and negotiated contract rights of content providers:

The current rulemaking represents an overt assault on the web of contracts that makes content generation and distribution possible… The rules would create a new class of intermediaries lacking contractual privity with content providers (or MVPDs), and would therefore force MVPDs to bear the unpredictable consequences of providing licensed content to third-parties without actual contracts to govern those licenses…

Because such nullification of license terms interferes with content owners’ right “to do and to authorize” their distribution and performance rights, the rules may facially violate copyright law… [Moreover,] the web of contracts that support the creation and distribution of content are complicated, extensively negotiated, and subject to destabilization. Abrogating the parties’ use of the various control points that support the financing, creation, and distribution of content would very likely reduce the incentive to invest in new and better content, thereby rolling back the golden age of television that consumers currently enjoy.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find any serious acknowledgement in the NPRM that its rules could have any effect on content providers, apart from this gem:

We do not currently have evidence that regulations are needed to address concerns raised by MVPDs and content providers that competitive navigation solutions will disrupt elements of service presentation (such as agreed-upon channel lineups and neighborhoods), replace or alter advertising, or improperly manipulate content…. We also seek comment on the extent to which copyright law may protect against these concerns, and note that nothing in our proposal will change or affect content creators’ rights or remedies under copyright law.

The Commission can’t rely on copyright to protect against these concerns, at least not without admitting that the rules require MVPDs to violate copyright law and to breach their contracts. And in fact, although it doesn’t acknowledge it, the NPRM does require the abrogation of content owners’ rights embedded in licenses negotiated with MVPD distributors to the extent that they conflict with the terms of the rule (which many of them must).   

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” — Inigo Montoya

Finally, the NPRM derives its claimed authority for these rules from an interpretation of the relevant statute (Section 629 of the Communications Act) that is absurdly unreasonable. That provision requires the FCC to enact rules to assure the “commercial availability” of set-top boxes from MVPD-unaffiliated vendors. According to the NPRM,

we cannot assure a commercial market for devices… unless companies unaffiliated with an MVPD are able to offer innovative user interfaces and functionality to consumers wishing to access that multichannel video programming.

This baldly misconstrues a term plainly meant to refer to the manner in which consumers obtain their navigation devices, not how those devices should function. It also contradicts the Commission’s own, prior readings of the statute:

As structured, the rules will place a regulatory thumb on the scale in favor of third-parties and to the detriment of MVPDs and programmers…. [But] Congress explicitly rejected language that would have required unbundling of MVPDs’ content and services in order to promote other distribution services…. Where Congress rejected language that would have favored non-MVPD services, the Commission selectively interprets the language Congress did employ in order to accomplish exactly what Congress rejected.

And despite the above noted problems (and more), the Commission has failed to do even a cursory economic evaluation of the relative costs of the NPRM, instead focusing narrowly on one single benefit it believes might occur (wider distribution of set-top boxes from third-parties) despite the consistent failure of similar FCC efforts in the past.

All of the foregoing leads to a final question: At what point do the costs of these rules finally outweigh the perceived benefits? On the one hand are legal questions of infringement, inducements to violate agreements, and disruptions of complex contractual ecosystems supporting content creation. On the other hand are the presence of more boxes and apps that allow users to choose who gets to draw the UI for their video content…. At some point the Commission needs to take seriously the costs of its actions, and determine whether the public interest is really served by the proposed rules.

Our full comments are available here.

Today’s Canadian Competition Bureau (CCB) Google decision marks yet another regulator joining the chorus of competition agencies around the world that have already dismissed similar complaints relating to Google’s Search or Android businesses (including the US FTC, the Korea FTC, the Taiwan FTC, and AG offices in Texas and Ohio).

A number of courts around the world have also rejected competition complaints against the company, including courts in the US, France, the UK, Germany, and Brazil.

After an extensive, three-year investigation into Google’s business practices in Canada, the CCB

did not find sufficient evidence that Google engaged in [search manipulation, preferential treatment of Google services, syndication agreements, distribution agreements, exclusion of competitors from its YouTube mobile app, or tying of mobile ads with those on PCs and tablets] for an anti-competitive purpose, and/or that the practices resulted in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in any relevant market.

Like the US FTC, the CCB did find fault with Google’s use of restriction on its AdWords API — but Google had already revised those terms worldwide following the FTC investigation, and has committed to the CCB to maintain the revised terms for at least another 5 years.

Other than a negative ruling from Russia’s competition agency last year in favor of Yandex — essentially “the Russian Google,” and one of only a handful of Russian tech companies of significance (surely a coincidence…) — no regulator has found against Google on the core claims brought against it.

True, investigations in a few jurisdictions, including the EU and India, are ongoing. And a Statement of Objections in the EU’s Android competition investigation appears imminent. But at some point, regulators are going to have to take a serious look at the motivations of the entities that bring complaints before wasting more investigatory resources on their behalf.

Competitor after competitor has filed complaints against Google that amount to, essentially, a claim that Google’s superior services make it too hard to compete. But competition law doesn’t require that Google or any other large firm make life easier for competitors. Without a finding of exclusionary harm/abuse of dominance (and, often, injury to consumers), this just isn’t anticompetitive conduct — it’s competition. And the overwhelming majority of competition authorities that have examined the company have agreed.

Exactly when will regulators be a little more skeptical of competitors trying to game the antitrust laws for their own advantage?

Canada joins the chorus

The Canadian decision mirrors the reasoning that regulators around the world have employed in reaching the decision that Google hasn’t engaged in anticompetitive conduct.

Two of the more important results in the CCB’s decision relate to preferential treatment of Google’s services (e.g., promotion of its own Map or Shopping results, instead of links to third-party aggregators of the same services) — the tired “search bias” claim that started all of this — and the distribution agreements that Google enters into with device manufacturers requiring inclusion of Google search as a default installation on Google Android phones.

On these key issues the CCB was unequivocal in its conclusions.

On search bias:

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

And on search distribution agreements:

Google competes with other search engines for the business of hardware manufacturers and software developers. Other search engines can and do compete for these agreements so they appear as the default search engine…. Consumers can and do change the default search engine on their desktop and mobile devices if they prefer a different one to the pre-loaded default…. Google’s distribution agreements have not resulted in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in Canada.

And here is the crucial point of the CCB’s insight (which, so far, everyone but Russia seems to appreciate): Despite breathless claims from rivals alleging they can’t compete in the face of their placement in Google’s search results, data barriers to entry, or default Google search on mobile devices, Google does actually face significant competition. Both the search bias and Android distribution claims were dismissed essentially because, whatever competitors may prefer Google do, its conduct doesn’t actually preclude access to competing services.

The True North strong and free [of meritless competitor complaints]

Exclusionary conduct must, well, exclude. But surfacing Google’s own “subjective” search results, even if they aren’t as high quality, doesn’t exclude competitors, according to the CCB and the other regulatory agencies that have also dismissed such claims. Similarly, consumers’ ability to switch search engines (“competition is just a click away,” remember), as well as OEMs’ ability to ship devices with different search engine defaults, ensure that search competitors can access consumers.

Former FTC Commissioner Josh Wright’s analysis of “search bias” in Google’s results applies with equal force to these complaints:

It is critical to recognize that bias alone is not evidence of competitive harm and it must be evaluated in the appropriate antitrust economic context of competition and consumers, rather [than] individual competitors and websites… [but these results] are not useful from an antitrust policy perspective because they erroneously—and contrary to economic theory and evidence—presume natural and procompetitive product differentiation in search rankings to be inherently harmful.

The competitors that bring complaints to antitrust authorities seek to make a demand of Google that is rarely made of any company: that it must provide access to its competitors on equal terms. But one can hardly imagine a valid antitrust complaint arising because McDonald’s refuses to sell a Whopper. The law on duties to deal is heavily circumscribed for good reason, as Josh Wright and I have pointed out:

The [US Supreme] Court [in Trinko] warned that the imposition of a duty to deal would threaten to “lessen the incentive for the monopolist, the rival, or both to invest in… economically beneficial facilities.”… Because imposition of a duty to deal with rivals threatens to decrease the incentive to innovate by creating new ways of producing goods at lower costs, satisfying consumer demand, or creating new markets altogether, courts and antitrust agencies have been reluctant to expand the duty.

Requiring Google to link to other powerful and sophisticated online search companies, or to provide them with placement on Google Android mobile devices, on the precise terms it does its own products would reduce the incentives of everyone to invest in their underlying businesses to begin with.

This is the real threat to competition. And kudos to the CCB for recognizing it.

The CCB’s investigation was certainly thorough, and its decision appears to be well-reasoned. Other regulators should take note before moving forward with yet more costly investigations.

Netflix’s latest net neutrality hypocrisy (yes, there have been others. See here and here, for example) involves its long-term, undisclosed throttling of its video traffic on AT&T’s and Verizon’s wireless networks, while it lobbied heavily for net neutrality rules from the FCC that would prevent just such throttling by ISPs.

It was Netflix that coined the term “strong net neutrality,” in an effort to import interconnection (the connections between ISPs and edge provider networks) into the net neutrality fold. That alone was a bastardization of what net neutrality purportedly stood for, as I previously noted:

There is a reason every iteration of the FCC’s net neutrality rules, including the latest, have explicitly not applied to backbone interconnection agreements: Interconnection over the backbone has always been open and competitive, and it simply doesn’t give rise to the kind of discrimination concerns net neutrality is meant to address.

That Netflix would prefer not to pay for delivery of its content isn’t surprising. But net neutrality regulations don’t — and shouldn’t — have anything to do with it.

But Netflix did something else with “strong net neutrality.” It tied it to consumer choice:

This weak net neutrality isn’t enough to protect an open, competitive Internet; a stronger form of net neutrality is required. Strong net neutrality additionally prevents ISPs from charging a toll for interconnection to services like Netflix, YouTube, or Skype, or intermediaries such as Cogent, Akamai or Level 3, to deliver the services and data requested by ISP residential subscribers. Instead, they must provide sufficient access to their network without charge. (Emphasis added).

A focus on consumers is laudable, of course, but when the focus is on consumers there’s no reason to differentiate between ISPs (to whom net neutrality rules apply) and content providers entering into contracts with ISPs to deliver their content (to whom net neutrality rules don’t apply).

And Netflix has just showed us exactly why that’s the case.

Netflix can and does engage in management of its streams in order (presumably) to optimize consumer experience as users move between networks, devices and viewers (e.g., native apps vs Internet browser windows) with very different characteristics and limitations. That’s all well and good. But as we noted in our Policy Comments in the FCC’s Open Internet Order proceeding,

In this circumstance, particularly when the content in question is Netflix, with 30% of network traffic, both the network’s and the content provider’s transmission decisions may be determinative of network quality, as may the users’ device and application choices.

As a 2011 paper by a group of network engineers studying the network characteristics of video streaming data from Netflix and YouTube noted:

This is a concern as it means that a sudden change of application or container in a large population might have a significant impact on the network traffic. Considering the very fast changes in trends this is a real possibility, the most likely being a change from Flash to HTML5 along with an increase in the use of mobile devices…. [S]treaming videos at high resolutions can result in smoother aggregate traffic while at the same time linearly increase the aggregate data rate due to video streaming.

Again, a concern with consumers is admirable, but Netflix isn’t concerned with consumers. It’s concerned at most with consumers of Netflix, while they are consuming Netflix. But the reality is that Netflix’s content management decisions can adversely affect consumers overall, including its own subscribers when they aren’t watching Netflix.

And here’s the huge irony. The FCC’s net neutrality rules are tailor-made to guarantee that Netflix will never have any incentive to take these externalities into account in its own decisions. What’s more, they ensure that ISPs are severely hamstrung in managing their networks for the benefit of all consumers, not least because their interconnection deals with large content providers like Netflix are now being closely scrutinized.

It’s great that Netflix thinks it should manage its video delivery to optimize viewing under different network conditions. But net neutrality rules ensure that Netflix bears no cost for overwhelming the network in the process. Essentially, short of building new capacity — at great expense to all ISP subscribers, of course — ISPs can’t do much about it, either, under the rules. And, of course, the rules also make it impossible for ISPs to negotiate for financial help from Netflix (or its heaviest users) in paying for those upgrades.

On top of this, net neutrality advocates have taken aim at usage-based billing and other pricing practices that would help with the problem by enabling ISPs to charge their heaviest users more in order to alleviate the inherent subsidy by normal users that flat-rate billing entails. (Netflix itself, as one of the articles linked above discusses at length, is hypocritically inconsistent on this score).

As we also noted in our OIO Policy Comments:

The idea that consumers and competition generally are better off when content providers face no incentive to take account of congestion externalities in their pricing (or when users have no incentive to take account of their own usage) runs counter to basic economic logic and is unsupported by the evidence. In fact, contrary to such claims, usage-based pricing, congestion pricing and sponsored content, among other nonlinear pricing models, would, in many circumstances, further incentivize networks to expand capacity (not create artificial scarcity).

Some concern for consumers. Under Netflix’s approach consumers get it coming and going: Either their non-Netflix traffic is compromised for the sake of Netflix’s traffic, or they have to pay higher subscription fees to ISPs for the privilege of accommodating Netflix’s ever-expanding traffic loads (4K videos, anyone?) — whether they ever use Netflix or not.

Sometimes, apparently, Netflix throttles its own traffic in order to “help” a few consumers. (That it does so without disclosing the practice is pretty galling, especially given the enhanced transparency rules in the Open Internet Order — something Netflix also advocated for, and which also apply only to ISPs and not to content providers). But its self-aggrandizing advocacy for the FCC’s latest net neutrality rules reveals that its first priority is to screw over consumers, so long as it can shift the blame and the cost to others.

On February 18, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted three-to-two in favor of a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) fancifully entitled “Expanding Consumers’ Video Navigation Choices, MB Docket No. 16-42; Commercial Availability of Navigation Devices, CS Docket No. 97-80”.  The NPRM, in the words of the FCC’s press release, will “create a framework for providing innovators, device manufacturers, and app developers the information they need to develop new technologies, reflecting the many ways consumers access their subscription video programming today.”  In reality, far from “creating a framework” to spawn new technologies, this NPRM promotes uncalled-for regulatory intrusion into an increasingly dynamic and efficient market, and (as Free State Foundation President Randy May aptly put it) represents FCC “regulatory policy run amok.”  (A November 2015 article by Heritage Foundation scholar James Gattuso provides a broader and more detailed critical assessment of FCC regulation of the video programming market.)

In particular, as one legal analyst summarizes, the NPRM would require “multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) providers to make ‘three core information streams’ available to companies developing devices or applications that might compete with MVPDs’ set-top boxes.”  (MVPDs are providers of pay television services, such as cable television, direct broadcast satellite, fiberoptic cable (e.g., Verizon FIOS), and competitive local exchange companies.)  Specifically:

The NPRM would require the MVPDs to supply the following to potential competitors: 1) information about what programming is available to the consumer, such as the channel listing and video-on-demand lineup; 2) information about what a device is allowed to do with content, such as recording; and 3) the content itself.

This new regulatory requirement makes no sense and threatens to undermine competition and innovation.  As telecommunications scholar Randy May recently emphasized, the FCC itself adopted a rule in June 2015 establishing a presumption that local video markets, on a nationwide basis, are subject to “effective competition.”  Indeed, May noted that the FCC conceded in a February 2 appellate brief that there has been a “transformation” of the multichannel video marketplace, that “consumers have alternatives to cable,” and that “cable’s market share has sharply declined.”  (May embellished the point in stating that today “consumers  may choose among a multitude of services and devices, such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast, Apple TV, and Roku.  And they are doing so in exponentially increasing numbers.”)  This means that regulation in this area is inappropriate, since it is well accepted that economic regulation of competitive markets is unjustifiable.  (Indeed, even imperfectly competitive markets and monopolies should not be regulated unless regulation is likely to yield welfare outcomes that are superior to reliance on market forces, a test that is not easily met – a point made by such renowned economists as James Buchanan and A.E. Kahn.)  What’s more, FCC regulation, which tends to slow innovation, is likely to prove especially harmful in the MVPD sector, given that market’s record of rapid and continuous welfare-enhancing introduction of new and improved services.

The February 18 dissenting statements by Commissioner Ajit Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly further explored the NPRM’s serious deficiencies.

After summarizing the harm caused by prior FCC regulation of video set-top boxes, Commissioner Pai stated:

[W]e are en route to eliminating the need for a set-top box. An app can turn your iPad or Android phone into a navigation device. MVPDs have deployed these apps and are in the process of developing more advanced ones.  The Commission should be encouraging these efforts.  

But this proposal would do precisely the opposite.  It would divert the industry’s energies away from app development and toward the long-term slog of complying with the Commission’s new regulatory scheme for unwanted hardware.  And the Notice goes further; it actually proposes imposing a number of regulations that would discourage the development and deployment of MVPD apps.  That’s not what the American people want. I’m confident that most consumers would rather eliminate the set-top box altogether than embrace a complex regulatory scheme that will require them to have another box in their home and won’t take effect for at least three years.

Commissioner O’Rielly focused on the economic and technical harm imposed by the NPRM, as well as its legal deficiencies:

[The proposal] could open multichannel video programming distributor (“MVPD”) networks to serious security vulnerabilities, exposing them to potential network damage and content theft.  It could strip content producers of their rights to control the distribution and presentation of their content.  It could ultimately subject over-the-top (“OTT”) providers to the same regime. . . .  Worst of all, it would certainly devalue the content produced by programmers large and small, by enabling anyone capable of writing a compliant app to turn on a free stream of video content painstakingly cobbled together by an MVPD at great expense – the ultimate free-rider problem.  MVPDs, broadcasters, and independent programmers alike would all lose some incentives to keep doing what they do, and some would opt for the sidelines, leaving consumers with fewer video options. . . .

The statutory authority on which this fantasy rests is equally as far-fetched. The section that discusses authority will long live as a testament to the level of absurdity that can be achieved in four short paragraphs when two defenseless statutes fall down a rabbit hole into a land where words have no meaning.  While billed as an attempt to enhance competition in the set top box market, the item shoots miles beyond that narrow frame on the very first page, redefining statutory terms plainly referring to hardware, such as “navigation device,” “interactive communications equipment,” and “other equipment” to mean either hardware or software (including apps). I don’t know how much clearer the terms “device” or “equipment” could be in their intent to reference tangible, physical hardware. If those words don’t work to restrict the Commission, are there any that ever could? And I don’t think that anyone here believes for a second that [the statutory language discussed] could ever have made it out of a single Congressional committee in 2014 if the members had known it would be interpreted to allow the FCC to force MVPDs to stream all of their content for free to any app developer willing to jump through a few hoops.

In sum, the FCC’s February 18 NPRM flies in the face of sound economics, video programming distribution history, and reasonable statutory construction.  If finalized, it will further reduce innovation, economic efficiency, and consumer welfare.  The three commissioners who voted for this misbegotten proposal should rethink their position and act to end this unwarranted proposed regulatory intrusion into a competitive and innovative marketplace.

By William Kolasky

Jon Jacobson in his initial posting claims that it would be “hard to find an easier case” than Apple e-Books, and David Balto and Chris Sagers seem to agree. I suppose that would be true if, as Richard Epstein claims, “the general view is that horizontal arrangements are per se unlawful.”

That, however, is not the law, and has not been since William Howard Taft’s 1898 opinion in Addyston Pipe. In his opinion, borrowing from an earlier dissenting opinion by Justice Edward Douglas White in Trans-Missouri Freight Ass’n, Taft surveyed the common law of restraints of trade. He showed that it was already well established in 1898 that even horizontal restraints of trade were not necessarily unlawful if they were ancillary to some legitimate business transaction or arrangement.

Building on that opinion, the Supreme Court, in what is now a long series of decisions beginning with BMI and continuing through Actavis, has made it perfectly clear that even a horizontal restraint cannot be condemned as per se unlawful unless it is a “naked” restraint that, on its face, could not serve any “plausible” procompetitive business purpose. That there are many horizontal arrangements that are not per se unlawful is shown by the DOJ’s own Competitor Collaboration Guidelines, which provide many examples, including joint sales agents.

As I suggested in my initial posting, Apple may have dug its own grave by devoting so much effort to denying the obvious—namely, that it had helped facilitate a horizontal agreement among the publishers, just as the lower courts found. Apple might have had more success had it instead spent more time explaining why it needed a horizontal agreement among the publishers as to the terms on which they would designate Apple as their common sales agent in order for it to successfully enter the e-book market, and why those terms did not amount to a naked horizontal price fixing agreement. Had it done so, Apple likely could have made a stronger case for why a rule of reason review was necessary than it did by trying to fit a square peg into a round hole by insisting that its agreements were purely vertical.

By Morgan Reed

In Philip K. Dick’s famous short story that inspired the Total Recall movies, a company called REKAL could implant “extra-factual memories” into the minds of anyone. That technology may be fictional, but the Apple eBooks case suggests that the ability to insert extra-factual memories into the courts already exists.

The Department of Justice, the Second Circuit majority, and even the Solicitor General’s most recent filing opposing cert. all assert that the large publishing houses invented a new “agency” business model as a way to provide leverage to raise prices, and then pushed it on Apple.

The basis of the government’s claim is that Apple had “just two months to develop a business model” once Steve Jobs had approved the “iBookstore” ebook marketplace. The government implies that Apple was a company so obviously old, inept, and out-of-ideas that it had to rely on the big publishers for an innovative business model to help it enter the market. And the court bought it “wholesale,” as it were. (Describing Apple’s “a-ha” moment when it decided to try the agency model, the court notes, “[n]otably, the possibility of an agency arrangement was first mentioned by Hachette and HarperCollins as a way ‘to fix Amazon pricing.'”)

The claim has no basis in reality, of course. Apple had embraced the agency model long before, as it sought to disrupt the way software was distributed. In just the year prior, Apple had successfully launched the app store, a ground-breaking example of the agency model that started with only 500 apps but had grown to more than 100,000 in 12 months. This was an explosion of competition — remember, nearly all of those apps represented a new publisher: 100,000 new potential competitors.

So why would the government create such an absurd fiction?

Because without that fiction, Apple moves from “conspirator” to “competitor.” Instead of anticompetitive scourge, it becomes a disruptor, bringing new competition to an existing market with a single dominant player (Amazon Kindle), and shattering the control held by the existing publishing industry.

More than a decade before the App Store, software developers had observed that the wholesale model for distribution created tremendous barriers for entry, increased expense, and incredible delays in getting to market. Developers were beholden to a tiny number of physical stores that sold shelf space and required kickbacks (known as spiffs). Today, there are legions of developers producing App content, and developers have earned more than $10 billion in sales through Apple’s App Store. Anyone with an App idea or, moreover, an idea for a book, can take it straight to consumers rather than having to convince a publisher, wholesaler or retailer that it is worth purchasing and marketing.

This disintermediation is of critical benefit to consumers — and yet the Second Circuit missed it. The court chose instead to focus on the claim that if the horizontal competitors conspired, then Apple, which had approached the publishers to ensure initial content would exist at time of launch, was complicit. Somehow Apple could be a horizontal competitor even through it wasn’t part of the publishing industry!

There was another significant consumer and competitive benefit from Apple’s entry into the market and the shift to the agency model. Prior to the Apple iPad, truly interactive books were mostly science fiction, and the few pilot projects that existed had little consumer traction. Amazon, which held 90% of the electronic books market, chose to focus on creating technology that mirrored the characteristics of reading on paper: a black and white screen and the barest of annotation capabilities.

When the iPad was released, Apple sent up a signal flag that interactivity would be a focal point of the technology by rolling out tools that would allow developers to access the iPad’s accelerometer and touch sensitive screen to create an immersive experience. The result? Products that help children with learning disabilities, and competitors fighting back with improved products.

Finally, Apple’s impact on consumers and competition was profound. Amazon switched, as well, and the nascent world of self publishing exploded. Books like Hugh Howey’s Wool series (soon to be a major motion picture) were released as smaller chunks for only 99 cents. And “the Martian,” which is up for several Academy Awards found a home and an audience long before any major publisher came calling.

We all need to avoid the trip to REKAL and remember what life was like before the advent of the agency model. Because if the Second Circuit decision is allowed to stand, the implication for any outside competitor looking to disrupt a market is as grim and barren as the surface of Mars.

By Thomas Hazlett

The Apple e-books case is throwback to Dr. Miles, the 1911 Supreme Court decision that managed to misinterpret the economics of competition and so thwart productive activity for over a century. The active debate here at TOTM reveals why.

The District Court and Second Circuit have employed a per se rule to find that the Apple e-books agreement with five major publishers constituted a violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Citing the active cooperation in contract negotiations involving multiple horizontal competitors (publishers) and the Apple offer, which appears to have raised prices paid for e-books, the conclusion that this is a case of horizontal collusion appears a slam dunk to some. “Try as one may,” writes Jonathan Jacobson, “it is hard to find an easier antitrust case than United States v. Apple.”

I’m guessing that that is what Charles Evans Hughes thought about the Dr. Miles case in 1911.

Upon scrutiny, the apparent simplicity in either instance evaporates. Dr. Miles has been revised as per GTE Sylvania, Leegin, and (thanks, Keith Hylton) Business Electronics v. Sharp Electronics. Let’s here look at the pending Apple dispute.

First, the Second Circuit verdict was not only a split decision on application of the per se rule, the dissent ably stated a case for why the Apple e-books deal should be regarded as pro-competitive and, thus, legal.

Second, the price increase cited as determinative occurred in a two-sided market; the fact asserted does not establish a monopolistic restriction of output. Further analysis, as called for under the rule of reason, is needed to flesh out the totality of the circumstances and the net impact of the Apple-publisher agreement on consumer welfare. That includes evidence regarding what happens to total revenues as market structure and prices change.

Third, a new entrant emerged as per the actions undertaken — the agreements pointedly did not “lack…. any redeeming virtue” (Northwest Wholesale Stationers, 1985), the justification for per se illegality. The fact that a new platform — Apple challenging Amazon’s e-book dominance — was both cause and effect of the alleged anti-competitive behavior is a textbook example of ancillarity. The “naked restraints” that publishers might have imposed had Apple not brought new products and alternative content distribution channels into the mix thus dressed up. It is argued by some that the clothes were skimpy. But that fashion statement is what a rule of reason analysis is needed to determine.

Fourth, the successful market foray that came about in the two-sided e-book market is a competitive victory not to be trifled. As the Supreme Court determined in Leegin: A “per se rule cannot be justified by the possibility of higher prices absent a further showing of anticompetitive conduct. The antitrust laws are designed to protect interbrand competition from which lower prices can later result.” The Supreme Court need here overturn U.S. v. Apple as decided by the Second Circuit in order that the “later result” be reasonably examined.

Fifth, lock-in is avoided with a rule of reason. As the Supreme Court said in Leegin:

As courts gain experience considering the effects of these restraints by applying the rule of reason… they can establish the litigation structure to ensure the rule operates to eliminate anticompetitive restraints….

The lock-in, conversely, comes with per se rules that nip the analysis in the bud, assuming simplicity where complexity obtains.

Sixth, Judge Denise Cote, who issued the District Court ruling against Apple, shows why the rule of reason is needed to counter her per se approach:

Here we have every necessary component: with Apple’s active encouragement and assistance, the Publisher Defendants agreed to work together to eliminate retail price competition and raise e-book prices, and again with Apple’s knowing and active participation, they brought their scheme to fruition.

But that cannot be “every necessary component.” It is not in Apple’s interest to raise prices, but to lower prices paid. Something more has to be going on. Indeed, in raising prices the judge unwittingly cites an unarguable pro-competitive aspect of Apple’s foray: It is competing with Amazon and bidding resources from a rival. Indeed, the rival is, arguably, an incumbent with market power. This cannot be the end of the analysis. That it is constitutes a throwback to the anti-competitive per se rule of Dr. Miles.

Seventh, in oral arguments at the Second Circuit, Judge Raymond J. Lohier, Jr. directed a question to Justice Department counsel, asking how Apple and the publishers “could have broken Amazon’s monopoly of the e-book market without violating antitrust laws.” The DOJ attorney responded, according to an article in The New Yorker, by advising that

Apple could have let the competition among companies play out naturally without pursuing explicit strategies to push prices higher—or it could have sued, or complained to the Justice Department and to federal regulatory authorities.

But the DOJ itself brought no complaint against Amazon — it, instead, sued Apple. And the admonition that an aggressive innovator should sit back and let things “play out naturally” is exactly what will kill efficiency enhancing “creative destruction.” Moreover, the government’s view that Apple “pursued an explicit strategy to push prices higher” fails to acknowledge that Apple was the buyer. Such as it was, Apple’s effort was to compete, luring content suppliers from a rival. The response of the government is to recommend, on the one hand, litigation it will not itself pursue and, on the other, passive acceptance that avoids market disruption. It displays the error, as Judge Jacobs’ Second Circuit dissent puts it, “That antitrust law is offended by gloves off competition.” Why might innovation not be well served by this policy?

Eighth, the choice of rule of reason does not let Apple escape scrutiny, but applies it to both sides of the argument. It adds important policy symmetry. Dr. Miles impeded efficient market activity for nearly a century. The creation of new platforms in Internet markets ought not to have such handicaps. It should be recalled that, in introducing its iTunes platform and its vertically linked iPod music players, circa 2002, the innovative Apple likewise faced attack from competition policy makers (more in Europe, indeed, than the U.S.). Happily, progress in the law had loosened barriers to business model innovation, and the revolutionary ecosystem was allowed to launch. Key to that progressive step was the bulk bargain struck with music labels. Richard Epstein thinks that such industry-wide dealing now endangers Apple’s more recent platform launch. Perhaps. But there is no reason to jump to that conclusion, and much to find out before we embrace it.

By Chris Sagers

United States v. Apple has fascinated me continually ever since the instantly-sensational complaint was made public, more than three years ago. Just one small, recent manifestation of the larger theme that makes it so interesting is the improbable range of folks who apparently consider certiorari rather likely—not least some commenters here, and even SCOTUSblog, which listed the case on their “Petitions We’re Watching.” It seems improbable, I say, not because reasonable people couldn’t differ on the policy issues. In this day and age somebody pops up to doubt every antitrust case brought against anybody no matter what. Rather, on the traditional criteria, the case just seems really ill-suited for cert.[*]

But it is in keeping with the larger story that people might expect the Court to take this basically hum-drum fact case in which there’s no circuit split. People have been savaging this case since its beginnings, despite the fact that to almost all antitrust lawyers it was such a legal slam dunk that so long as the government could prove its facts, it couldn’t lose.

And so I’m left with questions I’ve been asking since the case came out. Why, given the straightforward facts, nicely fitting a per se standard generally thought to be well-settled, involving conduct that on the elaborate trial record had no plausible effect except a substantial price increase,[**] do so many people hate this case? Why, more specifically, do so many people think there is something special about it, such that it shouldn’t be subject to the same rules that would apply to anybody else who did what these defendants did?

To be clear, I think the case is interesting. Big time. But what is interesting is not its facts or the underlying conduct or anything about book publishing or technological change or any of that. In other words, I don’t think the case is special. Like Jonathan Jacobson, I think it is simple.  What is remarkable is the reactions it has generated, across the political spectrum.

In the years of its pendency, on any number of panels and teleconferences and brown-bags and so on we’ve heard BigLaw corporate defense lawyers talking about the case like they’re Louis Brandeis. The problem, you see, is not a naked horizontal producer cartel coordinated by a retail entrant with a strong incentive to discipline its retail rival. No, no, no. The problem was actually Amazon, and the problem with Amazon was that it is big. Moreover, this case is about entry, they say, and entry is what antitrust is all about. Entry must be good, because numerosity in and of itself is competition. Consider too the number of BigLaw antitrust partners who’ve publicly argued that Amazon is in fact a monopolist, and that it engaged in predatory pricing, of all things.

When has anyone ever heard this group of people talk like that?

For another example, consider how nearly identical have been the views of left-wing critics like the New America Foundation’s Barry Lynn to those of the Second Circuit dissenter in Apple, the genteel, conservative Bush appointee, Judge Dennis Jacobs. They both claim, as essentially their only argument, that Amazon is a powerful firm, which can be tamed only if publishers can set their own retail prices (even if they do so collusively).

And there are so many other examples. The government’s case was condemned by no less than a Democrat and normally pro-enforcement member of the Senate antitrust committee, as it was by two papers as otherwise divergent as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Meanwhile, the damnedest thing about the case, as I’ll show in a second, is that it frequently causes me to talk like Robert Bork.

So what the hell is going on?

I have a theory.  We in America have almost as our defining character, almost uniquely among developed nations, a commitment to markets, competition, and individual enterprise. But we tend to forget until a case like Apple reminds us that markets, when they work as they are supposed to, are machines for producing pain. Firms fail, people lose jobs, valuable institutions—like, perhaps, the paper book—are sometimes lost. And it can be hard to believe that such a free, decentralized mess will somehow magically optimize organization, distribution, and innovation. I think the reason people find a case like Apple hard to support is that, because we find all that loss and anarchy so hard to swallow, we as a people do not actually believe in competition at all.

I think it helps in making this point to work through the individual arguments that the Apple defendants and their supporters have made, in court and out. For my money, what we find is not only that most of the arguments are not really that strong, but that they are the same arguments that all defendants make, all the time. As it turns out, there has never been an antitrust defendant that didn’t think its market was special.

Taking the arguments I’ve heard, roughly in increasing order of plausibility:

  • Should it matter that discipline of Amazon’s aggressive pricing might help keep the publisher defendants in business? Hardly. While the lamentations of the publishers seem overblown—they may be forced to adapt, and it may not be painless, but that is much more likely at the moment than their insolvency—if they are forced out because they cannot compete on a price basis, then that is exactly what is supposed to happen. Econ 101.
  • Was Apple’s entry automatically good just because it was entry? Emphatically no. There is no rule in antitrust that entry is inherently good, and a number of strong rules to the contrary (consider, for example, the very foundation of the Brook Group predation standard, which is that we should provide no legal protection to less efficient competitors, including entrants). That is for a simple reason: entry is good when causes quality-adjusted price to go down. The opposite occurred in Apple[***]
  • Is Amazon the real villain, so obviously that we should allow its suppliers to regulate its power through horizontal cartel? I rather think not. While I have no doubt that Amazon is a dangerous entity, that probably will merit scrutiny on any number of grounds now or in the future, it seems implausible that it priced e-books predatorily, surely not on the legal standard that currently prevails in the United States. In fact, an illuminating theme in The Everything Store, Brad Stone’s comprehensive study of the company, was the ubiquity of supplier allegations of Amazon’s predation in all kinds of products, complaints that have gone on throughout the company’s two-decade existence. I don’t believe Amazon is any hero or that it poses no threats, but what it’s done in these cases is just charge lower prices. It’s been able to do so in a sustained manner mainly through innovation in distribution. And in any case, whether Amazon is big and bad or whatever, the right tool to constrain it is not a price fixing cartel. No regulator cares less about the public interest.
  • Does it make the case special in some way that a technological change drove the defendants to their conspiracy? No. The technological change afoot was in effect just a change in costs. It is much cheaper to deliver content electronically than in hard copy, not least because as things have unfolded, consumers have actually paid for and own most of the infrastructure. To that extent there’s nothing different about Apple than any case in which an innovation in production or distribution has given one player a cost advantage. In fact, the publishers’ primary need to defend against pricing of e-books at some measure of their actual cost is that the publishers’ whole structure is devoted to an expensive intermediating function that becomes largely irrelevant with digital distribution.
  • Is there reason to believe that a horizontal cartel orchestrated by a powerful distributor will achieve better quality-adjusted prices, which I take to be Geoff Manne’s overall theme? I mean, come on. This is essentially a species of destructive competition argument, that otherwise healthy markets can be so little trusted efficiently to supply products that customers want that we’ll put the government to a full rule of reason challenge to attack a horizontal cartel? Do we believe in competition at all?
  • Should it matter that valuable cultural institutions may be at risk, including the viability of paper books, independent bookstores, and perhaps the livelihoods of writers or even literature itself? This seems more troubling than the other points, but hardly is unique to the case or a particularly good argument for self-help by cartel. Consider, if you will, another, much older case. The sailing ship industry was thousands of years old and of great cultural and human significance when it met its demise in the 1870s at the hands of the emerging steamship industry. Ships that must await the fickle winds cannot compete with those that can offer the reliable, regular departures that shipper customers desire. There followed a period of desperate price war following which the sail industry was destroyed. That was sad, because tall-masted sailing ships are very swashbuckling and fun, and were entwined in our literature and culture. But should we have allowed the two industries to fix their prices, to preserve sailing ships as a living technology?

There are other arguments, and we could keep working through them one by one, but the end result is the same. The arguments mostly are weak, and even those with a bit more heft do nothing more than pose the problem inherent in that very last point. Healthy markets sometimes produce pain, with genuinely regrettable consequences.  But that just forces us to ask: do we believe in competition or don’t we?

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[*] Except possibly for one narrow issue, Apple is at this point emphatically a fact case, and the facts were resolved on an extensive record by an esteemed trial judge, in a long and elaborate opinion, and left undisturbed on appeal (even in the strongly worded dissent). The one narrow issue that is actually a legal one, and that Apple mainly stresses in its petition—whether in the wake of Leegin the hub in a hub-and-spoke arrangement can face per se liability—is one on which I guess people could plausibly disagree. But even when that is the case this Court virtually never grants cert. in the absence of a significant circuit split, and here there isn’t one.

Apple points only to one other Circuit decision, the Third Circuit’s Toledo Mack. It is true as Apple argues that a passage in Toledo Mack seemed to read language from Leegin fairly broadly, and to apply even when there is horizontal conspiracy at the retail level. But Toledo Mack was not a hub-and-spoke case. While plaintiff alleged a horizontal conspiracy among retailers of heavy trucks, and Mack Trucks later acquiescence in it, Mack played no role in coordinating the conspiracy. Separately, whether Toledo Mack really conflicts with Apple or not, the law supporting the old per se rule against hub-and-spoke conspiracies is pretty strong (take a look, for example, at pp. 17-18 of the Justice Department’s opposition brief.

So, I suppose one might think there is no distinction between a hub-and-spoke and a case like Toledo Mack, in which a manufacturer merely agreed after the fact to assist an existing retail conspiracy, and that there is therefore a circuit split, but that would be rather in contrast to a lot of Supreme Court authority. On the other hand, if there is some legal difference between a hub-and-spoke and the facts of Toledo Mack, then Toledo Mack is relevant only if it is understood to have read Leegin to apply to all “vertical” conduct, including true hub-and-spoke agreements. But that would be a broad reading indeed of both Leegin and Toledo Mack. It would require believing that Leegin reversed sub silentio a number of important decisions on an issue that was not before the Court in Leegin. It would also make a circuit split out of a point that would be only dicta in Toledo Mack. And yes, yes, yes, I know, Judge Jacobs in dissent below himself said that his panel’s decision created a circuit split with Toledo Mack. But I mean, come on. A circuit split means that two holdings are in conflict, not that one bit of dicta commented on some other bit of dicta.

A whole different reason cert. seems improbable is that the issue presented is whether per se treatment was appropriate. But the trial court specifically found the restraint to have been unreasonable under a rule of reason standard. Of course that wouldn’t preclude the Court from reversing the trial court’s holding that the per se rule applies, but it would render a reversal almost certainly academic in the case actually before the Court.

Don’t get me wrong. Nothing the courts do really surprises me anymore, and there are still four members of the Court, even in the wake of Justice Scalia’s passing, who harbor open animosity for antitrust and a strong fondness for Leegin. It is also plausible that those four will see the case Apple’s way, and favor reversing Interstate Circuit (though that seems unlikely to me; read a case like Ticor or North Carolina Dental Examiners if you want to know how Anthony Kennedy feels about naked cartel conduct). But the ideological affinities of the Justices, in and of themselves, just don’t usually turn an otherwise ordinary case into a cert-worthy one.

[**] Yes, yes, yes, Grasshopper, I know, Apple argued that in fact its entry increased quality and consumer choice, and also put on an argument that the output of e-books actually expanded during the period of the publishers’ conspiracy. But, a couple of things. First, as the government observed in some juicy briefing in the case, and Judge Cote found in specific findings, each of Apple’s purported quality enhancements turned out to involve either other firms’ innovations or technological enhancements that appeared in the iPad before Apple ever communicated with the publishers. As for the expanded output argument, it was fairly demolished by the government’s experts, a finding not disturbed even in Judge Jacobs’ dissent.

In any case, any benefit Apple did manage to supply came at the cost of a price increase of fifty freaking percent, across thousands of titles, that were sustained for the entire two years that the conspiracy survived.

[***] There have also been the usual squabbles over factual details that are said to be very important, but these points are especially uninteresting. E.g., the case involved “MFNs” and “agency contracts,” and there is supposed to be some magic in either their vertical nature or the great uncertainty of their consequences that count against per se treatment. There isn’t. Neither the government’s complaint, the district court, nor the Second Circuit attacked the bilateral agreements in and of themselves; on the contrary, both courts emphatically stressed that they only found illegal the horizontal price fixing conspiracy and Apple’s role in coordinating it.

Likewise, some stress that the publisher defendants in fact earned slightly less per price-fixed book under their agency agreements than they had with Apple. Why would they do that, if there weren’t some pro-competitive reason? Simple. The real money in trade publishing was not then or now in the puny e-book sector, but in hard-cover, new-release best sellers, which publishers have long sold at very significant mark-ups over cost. Those margins were threatened by Amazon’s very low e-book prices, and the loss on agency sales was worth it to preserve the real money makers.