Archives For truth on the market

In an October 25 blog commentary posted at this site, Geoffrey Manne and Kristian Stout argued against a proposed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ban on the use of mandatory arbitration clauses in internet service providers’ consumer service agreements.  This proposed ban is just one among many unfortunate features in the latest misguided effort by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate the privacy of data transmitted over the Internet (FCC Privacy NPRM), discussed by me in an October 27, 2016 Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum:

The growth of the Internet economy has highlighted the costs associated with the unauthorized use of personal information transmitted online. The federal government’s consumer protection agency, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), has taken enforcement actions for online privacy violations based on its authority to proscribe “unfair or deceptive” practices affecting commerce. The FTC’s economically influenced case-by-case approach to privacy violations focuses on practices that harm consumers. The FCC has proposed a rule that that would impose intrusive privacy regulation on broadband Internet service providers (but not other Internet companies), without regard to consumer harm.  If implemented, the FCC’s rule would impose major economic costs and would interfere with neutral implementation of the FTC’s less intrusive approach, as well as the FTC’s lead role in federal regulatory privacy coordination with foreign governments.

My analysis concludes with the following recommendations:

The FCC’s Privacy NPRM is at odds with the pro-competitive, economic welfare enhancing goals of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. It ignores the limitations imposed by that act and, if implemented, would harm consumers and producers and slow innovation. This prompts four recommendations.

The FCC should withdraw the NPRM and leave it to the FTC to oversee all online privacy practices under its Section 5 unfairness and deception authority. The adoption of the Privacy Shield, which designates the FTC as the responsible American privacy oversight agency, further strengthens the case against FCC regulation in this area.

In overseeing online privacy practices, the FTC should employ a very light touch that stresses economic analysis and cost-benefit considerations. Moreover, it should avoid requiring that rigid privacy policy conditions be kept in place for long periods of time through consent decree conditions, in order to allow changing market conditions to shape and improve business privacy policies.

Moreover, the FTC should borrow a page from former FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright by implementing an “economic approach” to privacy.  Under such an approach, FTC economists would help make the commission a privacy “thought leader” by developing a rigorous academic research agenda on the economics of privacy, featuring the economic evaluation of industry sectors and practices;

The FTC would bear the burden of proof in showing that violations of a company’s privacy policy are material to consumer decision-making;

FTC economists would report independently to the FTC about proposed privacy-related enforcement initiatives; and

The FTC would publish the views of its Bureau of Economics in all privacy-related consent decrees that are placed on the public record.

The FTC should encourage the European Commission and other foreign regulators to take into account the economics of privacy in developing their privacy regulatory policies. In so doing, it should emphasize that innovation is harmed, the beneficial development of the Internet is slowed, and consumer welfare and rights are undermined through highly prescriptive regulation in this area (well-intentioned though it may be). Relatedly, the FTC and other U.S. government negotiators should argue against adoption of a “one-size-fits-all” global privacy regulation framework.  Such a global framework could harmfully freeze into place over-regulatory policies and preclude beneficial experimentation in alternative forms of “lighter-touch” regulation and enforcement.

Although not a panacea, these recommendations would help deter (or, at least, constrain) the economically harmful government micromanagement of businesses’ privacy practices in the United States and abroad.  The Internet economy would in turn benefit from such a restraint on the grasping hand of big government.

Stay tuned.

On November 1st and 2nd, Cofece, the Mexican Competition Agency, hosted an International Competition Network (ICN) workshop on competition advocacy, featuring presentations from government agency officials, think tanks, and international organizations.  The workshop highlighted the excellent work that the ICN has done in supporting efforts to curb the most serious source of harm to the competitive process worldwide:  government enactment of anticompetitive regulatory schemes and guidance, often at the behest of well-connected, cronyist rent-seeking businesses that seek to protect their privileges by imposing costs on rivals.

The ICN describes the goal of its Advocacy Working Group in the following terms:

The mission of the Advocacy Working Group (AWG) is to undertake projects, to develop practical tools and guidance, and to facilitate experience-sharing among ICN member agencies, in order to improve the effectiveness of ICN members in advocating the dissemination of competition principles and to promote the development of a competition culture within society. Advocacy reinforces the value of competition by educating citizens, businesses and policy-makers. In addition to supporting the efforts of competition agencies in tackling private anti-competitive behaviour, advocacy is an important tool in addressing public restrictions to competition. Competition advocacy in this context refers to those activities conducted by the competition agency, that are related to the promotion of a competitive environment by means of non-enforcement mechanisms, mainly through its relationships with other governmental entities and by increasing public awareness in regard to the benefits of competition.  

At the Cofece workshop, I moderated a panel on “stakeholder engagement in the advocacy process,” featuring presentations by representatives of Cofece, the Japan Fair Trade Commission, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  As I emphasized in my panel presentation:

Developing an appropriate competition advocacy strategy is key to successful interventions.  Public officials should be mindful of the relative importance of particular advocacy targets, as well as matter-specific political constraints and competing stakeholder interests.  In particular, a competition authority may greatly benefit by identifying and motivating stakeholders who are directly affected by the competitive restraints that are targeted by advocacy interventions.  The active support of such stakeholders may be key to the success of an advocacy initiative.  More generally, by reaching out to business and consumer stakeholders, a competition authority may build alliances that will strengthen its long-term ability to be effective in promoting a pro-competition agenda. 

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the FTC, has developed a well-thought-out approach to building strong relationships with stakeholders.  The FTC holds public publicized workshops highlighting emerging policy issues, in which NGAs and civil society representatives with expertise are invited to participate.  Its personnel (and, in particular, its head) speak before a variety of audiences to inform them of what the FTC is doing and of the opportunities for advocacy filings.  It reaches out to civil society groups and the general public through the media, utilizing the Internet and other sources of public information dissemination.  It is willing to hold informal non-public meetings with NGAs and civil society representatives to hear their candid views and concerns off the record.  It carries out major studies (often following up on information gathered at workshops and from non-government sources) in addition to making advocacy filings.  It interacts closely with substantive FTC enforcers and economists to obtain “leads” that may inform future advocacy projects and to suggest possible lines for substantive investigations, based on the input it has received.  It communicates with other competition authorities on advocacy strategies.  Other competition authorities may wish to note the FTC’s approach in organizing their own advocacy programs.  

Competition authorities would also benefit from consulting the ICN Market Studies Good Practice Handbook, last released in updated form at the April 2016 ICN 15th Annual Conference.  This discussion of the role of stakeholders, though presented in the context of market studies, provides insights that are broadly applicable more generally to the competition advocacy process.  As the Handbook explains, stakeholders are any individuals, groups of individuals, or organizations that have an interest in a particular market or that can be affected by market conditions.  The Handbook explains the crucial inputs that stakeholders can provide a competition authority and how engaging with stakeholders can influence the authority’s reputation.  The Handbook emphasizes that a stakeholder engagement strategy can be used to determine whether particular stakeholders will be influential, supportive, or unsupportive to a particular endeavor; to consider the input expected from the various stakeholders and plan for soliciting and using this input; and to describing how and when the authority will seek to engage stakeholders.  The Handbook provides a long list of categories of stakeholders and suggests ways of reaching out to stakeholders, including through public consultations, open seminars, workshops, and roundtables.  Next, the Handbook presents tactics for engaging with stakeholders.  The Handbook closes by summarizing key good practices, including publicly soliciting broad voluntary stakeholder engagement, developing a stakeholder engagement strategy early in a particular process, and reviewing and updating the engagement strategy as necessary throughout a particular competition authority undertaking.

In sum, properly conducted advocacy initiatives, along with investigations of hard core cartels, are among the highest-valued uses of limited competition agency resources.  To the extent advocacy succeeds in unraveling government-imposed impediments to effective competition, it pays long-run dividends in terms of enhanced consumer welfare, greater economic efficiency, and more robust economic growth.  Let us hope that governments around the world (including, of course, the United States Government) keep this in mind in making resource commitments and setting priorities for their competition agencies.

Over the weekend, Senator Al Franken and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn issued an impassioned statement calling for the FCC to thwart the use of mandatory arbitration clauses in ISPs’ consumer service agreements — starting with a ban on mandatory arbitration of privacy claims in the Chairman’s proposed privacy rules. Unfortunately, their call to arms rests upon a number of inaccurate or weak claims. Before the Commissioners vote on the proposed privacy rules later this week, they should carefully consider whether consumers would actually be served by such a ban.

FCC regulations can’t override congressional policy favoring arbitration

To begin with, it is firmly cemented in Supreme Court precedent that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) “establishes ‘a liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements.’” As the Court recently held:

[The FAA] reflects the overarching principle that arbitration is a matter of contract…. [C]ourts must “rigorously enforce” arbitration agreements according to their terms…. That holds true for claims that allege a violation of a federal statute, unless the FAA’s mandate has been “overridden by a contrary congressional command.”

For better or for worse, that’s where the law stands, and it is the exclusive province of Congress — not the FCC — to change it. Yet nothing in the Communications Act (to say nothing of the privacy provisions in Section 222 of the Act) constitutes a “contrary congressional command.”

And perhaps that’s for good reason. In enacting the statute, Congress didn’t demonstrate the same pervasive hostility toward companies and their relationships with consumers that has characterized the way this FCC has chosen to enforce the Act. As Commissioner O’Rielly noted in dissenting from the privacy NPRM:

I was also alarmed to see the Commission acting on issues that should be completely outside the scope of this proceeding and its jurisdiction. For example, the Commission seeks comment on prohibiting carriers from including mandatory arbitration clauses in contracts with their customers. Here again, the Commission assumes that consumers don’t understand the choices they are making and is willing to impose needless costs on companies by mandating how they do business.

If the FCC were to adopt a provision prohibiting arbitration clauses in its privacy rules, it would conflict with the FAA — and the FAA would win. Along the way, however, it would create a thorny uncertainty for both companies and consumers seeking to enforce their contracts.  

The evidence suggests that arbitration is pro-consumer

But the lack of legal authority isn’t the only problem with the effort to shoehorn an anti-arbitration bias into the Commission’s privacy rules: It’s also bad policy.

In its initial broadband privacy NPRM, the Commission said this about mandatory arbitration:

In the 2015 Open Internet Order, we agreed with the observation that “mandatory arbitration, in particular, may more frequently benefit the party with more resources and more understanding of the dispute procedure, and therefore should not be adopted.” We further discussed how arbitration can create an asymmetrical relationship between large corporations that are repeat players in the arbitration system and individual customers who have fewer resources and less experience. Just as customers should not be forced to agree to binding arbitration and surrender their right to their day in court in order to obtain broadband Internet access service, they should not have to do so in order to protect their private information conveyed through that service.

The Commission may have “agreed with the cited observations about arbitration, but that doesn’t make those views accurate. As one legal scholar has noted, summarizing the empirical data on the effects of arbitration:

[M]ost of the methodologically sound empirical research does not validate the criticisms of arbitration. To give just one example, [employment] arbitration generally produces higher win rates and higher awards for employees than litigation.

* * *

In sum, by most measures — raw win rates, comparative win rates, some comparative recoveries and some comparative recoveries relative to amounts claimed — arbitration generally produces better results for claimants [than does litigation].

A comprehensive, empirical study by Northwestern Law’s Searle Center on AAA (American Arbitration Association) cases found much the same thing, noting in particular that

  • Consumer claimants in arbitration incur average arbitration fees of only about $100 to arbitrate small (under $10,000) claims, and $200 for larger claims (up to $75,000).
  • Consumer claimants also win attorneys’ fees in over 60% of the cases in which they seek them.
  • On average, consumer arbitrations are resolved in under 7 months.
  • Consumers win some relief in more than 50% of cases they arbitrate…
  • And they do almost exactly as well in cases brought against “repeat-player” business.

In short, it’s extremely difficult to sustain arguments suggesting that arbitration is tilted against consumers relative to litigation.

(Upper) class actions: Benefitting attorneys — and very few others

But it isn’t just any litigation that Clyburn and Franken seek to preserve; rather, they are focused on class actions:

If you believe that you’ve been wronged, you could take your service provider to court. But you’d have to find a lawyer willing to take on a multi-national telecom provider over a few hundred bucks. And even if you won the case, you’d likely pay more in legal fees than you’d recover in the verdict.

The only feasible way for you as a customer to hold that corporation accountable would be to band together with other customers who had been similarly wronged, building a case substantial enough to be worth the cost—and to dissuade that big corporation from continuing to rip its customers off.

While — of course — litigation plays an important role in redressing consumer wrongs, class actions frequently don’t confer upon class members anything close to the imagined benefits that plaintiffs’ lawyers and their congressional enablers claim. According to a 2013 report on recent class actions by the law firm, Mayer Brown LLP, for example:

  • “In [the] entire data set, not one of the class actions ended in a final judgment on the merits for the plaintiffs. And none of the class actions went to trial, either before a judge or a jury.” (Emphasis in original).
  • “The vast majority of cases produced no benefits to most members of the putative class.”
  • “For those cases that do settle, there is often little or no benefit for class members. What is more, few class members ever even see those paltry benefits — particularly in consumer class actions.”
  • “The bottom line: The hard evidence shows that class actions do not provide class members with anything close to the benefits claimed by their proponents, although they can (and do) enrich attorneys.”

Similarly, a CFPB study of consumer finance arbitration and litigation between 2008 and 2012 seems to indicate that the class action settlements and judgments it studied resulted in anemic relief to class members, at best. The CFPB tries to disguise the results with large, aggregated and heavily caveated numbers (never once actually indicating what the average payouts per person were) that seem impressive. But in the only hard numbers it provides (concerning four classes that ended up settling in 2013), promised relief amounted to under $23 each (comprising both cash and in-kind payment) if every class member claimed against the award. Back-of-the-envelope calculations based on the rest of the data in the report suggest that result was typical.

Furthermore, the average time to settlement of the cases the CFPB looked at was almost 2 years. And somewhere between 24% and 37% involved a non-class settlement — meaning class members received absolutely nothing at all because the named plaintiff personally took a settlement.

By contrast, according to the Searle Center study, the average award in the consumer-initiated arbitrations it studied (admittedly, involving cases with a broader range of claims) was almost $20,000, and the average time to resolution was less than 7 months.

To be sure, class action litigation has been an important part of our system of justice. But, as Arthur Miller — a legal pioneer who helped author the rules that make class actions viable — himself acknowledged, they are hardly a panacea:

I believe that in the 50 years we have had this rule, that there are certain class actions that never should have been brought, admitted; that we have burdened our judiciary, yes. But we’ve had a lot of good stuff done. We really have.

The good that has been done, according to Professor Miller, relates in large part to the civil rights violations of the 50’s and 60’s, which the class action rules were designed to mitigate:

Dozens and dozens and dozens of communities were desegregated because of the class action. You even see desegregation decisions in my old town of Boston where they desegregated the school system. That was because of a class action.

It’s hard to see how Franken and Clyburn’s concern for redress of “a mysterious 99-cent fee… appearing on your broadband bill” really comes anywhere close to the civil rights violations that spawned the class action rules. Particularly given the increasingly pervasive role of the FCC, FTC, and other consumer protection agencies in addressing and deterring consumer harms (to say nothing of arbitration itself), it is manifestly unclear why costly, protracted litigation that infrequently benefits anyone other than trial attorneys should be deemed so essential.

“Empowering the 21st century [trial attorney]”

Nevertheless, Commissioner Clyburn and Senator Franken echo the privacy NPRM’s faulty concerns about arbitration clauses that restrict consumers’ ability to litigate in court:

If you’re prohibited from using our legal system to get justice when you’re wronged, what’s to protect you from being wronged in the first place?

Well, what do they think the FCC is — chopped liver?

Hardly. In fact, it’s a little surprising to see Commissioner Clyburn (who sits on a Commission that proudly proclaims that “[p]rotecting consumers is part of [its] DNA”) and Senator Franken (among Congress’ most vocal proponents of the FCC’s claimed consumer protection mission) asserting that the only protection for consumers from ISPs’ supposed depredations is the cumbersome litigation process.

In fact, of course, the FCC has claimed for itself the mantle of consumer protector, aimed at “Empowering the 21st Century Consumer.” But nowhere does the agency identify “promoting and preserving the rights of consumers to litigate” among its tools of consumer empowerment (nor should it). There is more than a bit of irony in a federal regulator — a commissioner of an agency charged with making sure, among other things, that corporations comply with the law — claiming that, without class actions, consumers are powerless in the face of bad corporate conduct.

Moreover, even if it were true (it’s not) that arbitration clauses tend to restrict redress of consumer complaints, effective consumer protection would still not necessarily be furthered by banning such clauses in the Commission’s new privacy rules.

The FCC’s contemplated privacy regulations are poised to introduce a wholly new and untested regulatory regime with (at best) uncertain consequences for consumers. Given the risk of consumer harm resulting from the imposition of this new regime, as well as the corollary risk of its excessive enforcement by complainants seeking to test or push the boundaries of new rules, an agency truly concerned with consumer protection would tread carefully. Perhaps, if the rules were enacted without an arbitration ban, it would turn out that companies would mandate arbitration (though this result is by no means certain, of course). And perhaps arbitration and agency enforcement alone would turn out to be insufficient to effectively enforce the rules. But given the very real costs to consumers of excessive, frivolous or potentially abusive litigation, cabining the litigation risk somewhat — even if at first it meant the regime were tilted slightly too much against enforcement — would be the sensible, cautious and pro-consumer place to start.

____

Whether rooted in a desire to “protect” consumers or not, the FCC’s adoption of a rule prohibiting mandatory arbitration clauses to address privacy complaints in ISP consumer service agreements would impermissibly contravene the FAA. As the Court has made clear, such a provision would “‘stand[] as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress’ embodied in the Federal Arbitration Act.” And not only would such a rule tend to clog the courts in contravention of the FAA’s objectives, it would do so without apparent benefit to consumers. Even if such a rule wouldn’t effectively be invalidated by the FAA, the Commission should firmly reject it anyway: A rule that operates primarily to enrich class action attorneys at the expense of their clients has no place in an agency charged with protecting the public interest.

There must have been a great gnashing of teeth in Chairman Wheeler’s office this morning as the FCC announced that it was pulling the Chairman’s latest modifications to the set-top box proposal from its voting agenda. This is surely but a bump in the road for the Chairman; he will undoubtedly press ever onward in his quest to “fix” a market that is flooded with competition and consumer choice. But, as we stop to take a breath for a moment while this latest FCC adventure is temporarily paused, there is a larger issue worth considering: the lack of transparency at the FCC.

Although the Commission has an unfortunate tradition of non-disclosure surrounding many of its regulatory proposals, the problem has seemingly been exacerbated by Chairman Wheeler’s aggressive agenda and his intransigence in the face of overwhelming and rigorous criticism.

Perhaps nowhere was this attitude more apparent than with his handling of the Open Internet Order, which was plagued with enough process problems to elicit a call for a delay of the Commission’s vote on the initial rules from Democratic Commissioner Rosenworcel, and a strong rebuke from the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee prior to the Commission’s vote on the final rules (which were not disclosed to the public until after the vote).

But the same cavalier dismissal of public and stakeholder input has plagued the Chairman’s beleaguered set-top box proposal, as well.

As Commissioner Pai noted before Congress in March:

The FCC continues to choose opacity over transparency. The decisions we make impact hundreds of millions of Americans and thousands of small businesses. And yet to the public, to Congress, and even to the Commissioners at the FCC, the agency’s work remains a black box.

Take this simple proposition: The public should be able to see what we’re voting on before we vote on it. That’s how Congress works, as you know. Anyone can look up any pending bill right now by going to congress.gov. And that’s how many state commissions work too. But not the FCC.

Exhibit A in Commissioner Pai’s lament was the set-top box proceeding:

Instead, the public gets to see only what the Chairman’s Office deigns to release, so controversial policy proposals can be (and typically are) hidden in a wave of media adulation. That happened just last month when the agency proposed changes to its set-top-box rules but tried to mislead content producers and the public about whether set-top box manufacturers would be permitted to insert their own advertisements into programming streams.

Now, although the Chairman’s initial proposal was eventually released, we have only a fact sheet and an op-ed by Chairman Wheeler on which to judge the purportedly substantial changes embodied in his latest version.

Even Democrats in Congress have recognized the process problems that have plagued this proceeding. As Senator Feinstein (D-CA) urged in a recent letter to Chairman Wheeler:

Given the significance of this proceeding, I ask that you make public the new proposal under consideration by the Commission, so that all interested stakeholders, members of Congress, copyright experts, and others can comment on the potential copyright implications of the new proposal before the Commission votes on it.

And as Senator Heller (R-NV) wrote in a letter to Chairman Wheeler this week:

I believe it is unacceptable that the FCC has not released the text of this proposal before Thursday’s vote. A three-page fact sheet does not provide enough details for Congress to conduct proper oversight of this rulemaking that will significantly impact both consumers and industry…. I encourage you to release the text immediately so that the American public has a full understanding of what is being considered by the Commission….

Of course, this isn’t a new problem at the FCC. In fact, before he supported Chairman Wheeler’s efforts to impose Open Internet rules without sufficient public disclosure, then-Senator Obama decried then-Chairman Martin’s efforts to enact new media ownership rules with insufficient process in 2007:

Repealing the cross ownership rules and retaining the rest of our existing regulations is not a proposal that has been put out for public comment; the proper process for vetting it is not in closed door meetings with lobbyists or in selective leaks to the New York Times.

Although such a proposal may pass the muster of a federal court, Congress and the public have the right to review any specific proposal and decide whether or not it constitutes sound policy. And the Commission has the responsibility to defend any new proposal in public discourse and debate.

And although you won’t find them complaining this time (because this time they want the excessive intervention that the NPRM seems to contemplate), regulatory advocates lamented just exactly this sort of secrecy at the Commission when Chairman Genachowski proposed his media ownership rules in 2012. At that time Free Press angrily wrote:

[T]he Commission still has not made public its actual media ownership order…. Furthermore, it’s disingenuous for the FCC to suggest that its process now is more transparent than the one former Chairman Martin used to adopt similar rules. Genachowski’s FCC has yet to publish any details of its final proposal, offering only vague snippets in press releases… despite the president’s instruction to rulemaking agencies to conduct any significant business in open meetings with opportunities for members of the public to have their voices heard.

As Free Press noted, President Obama did indeed instruct “agencies to conduct any significant business in open meetings with opportunities for members of the public to have their voices heard.” In his Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, his first executive action, the president urged that:

Public engagement enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Knowledge is widely dispersed in society, and public officials benefit from having access to that dispersed knowledge. Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information.

The resulting Open Government Directive calls on executive agencies to

take prompt steps to expand access to information by making it available online in open formats. With respect to information, the presumption shall be in favor of openness….

The FCC is not an “executive agency,” and so is not directly subject to the Directive. But the Chairman’s willingness to stray so far from basic principles of transparency is woefully inconsistent with the basic principles of good government and the ideals of heightened transparency claimed by this administration.

This week, the International Center for Law & Economics filed comments  on the proposed revision to the joint U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust-IP Licensing Guidelines. Overall, the guidelines present a commendable framework for the IP-Antitrust intersection, in particular as they broadly recognize the value of IP and licensing in spurring both innovation and commercialization.

Although our assessment of the proposed guidelines is generally positive,  we do go on to offer some constructive criticism. In particular, we believe, first, that the proposed guidelines should more strongly recognize that a refusal to license does not deserve special scrutiny; and, second, that traditional antitrust analysis is largely inappropriate for the examination of innovation or R&D markets.

On refusals to license,

Many of the product innovation cases that have come before the courts rely upon what amounts to an implicit essential facilities argument. The theories that drive such cases, although not explicitly relying upon the essential facilities doctrine, encourage claims based on variants of arguments about interoperability and access to intellectual property (or products protected by intellectual property). But, the problem with such arguments is that they assume, incorrectly, that there is no opportunity for meaningful competition with a strong incumbent in the face of innovation, or that the absence of competitors in these markets indicates inefficiency … Thanks to the very elements of IP that help them to obtain market dominance, firms in New Economy technology markets are also vulnerable to smaller, more nimble new entrants that can quickly enter and supplant incumbents by leveraging their own technological innovation.

Further, since a right to exclude is a fundamental component of IP rights, a refusal to license IP should continue to be generally considered as outside the scope of antitrust inquiries.

And, with respect to conducting antitrust analysis of R&D or innovation “markets,” we note first that “it is the effects on consumer welfare against which antitrust analysis and remedies are measured” before going on to note that the nature of R&D makes it effects very difficult to measure on consumer welfare. Thus, we recommend that the the agencies continue to focus on actual goods and services markets:

[C]ompetition among research and development departments is not necessarily a reliable driver of innovation … R&D “markets” are inevitably driven by a desire to innovate with no way of knowing exactly what form or route such an effort will take. R&D is an inherently speculative endeavor, and standard antitrust analysis applied to R&D will be inherently flawed because “[a] challenge for any standard applied to innovation is that antitrust analysis is likely to occur after the innovation, but ex post outcomes reveal little about whether the innovation was a good decision ex ante, when the decision was made.”

In a September 20 speech at the high profile Georgetown Global Antitrust Enforcement Symposium, Acting Assistant Attorney General Renata Hesse sent the wrong signals to the business community and to foreign enforcers (see here) regarding U.S. antitrust policy.  Admittedly, a substantial part of her speech was a summary of existing U.S. antitrust doctrine.  In certain other key respects, however, Ms. Hesse’s remarks could be read as a rejection of the mainstream American understanding (and the accepted approach endorsed by the International Competition Network) that promoting economic efficiency and consumer welfare are the antitrust lodestar, and that non-economic considerations should not be part of antitrust analysis.  Because foreign lawyers, practitioners, and enforcement officials were present, Ms. Hesse’s statement not only could be cited against U.S. interests in foreign venues, it could undermine longstanding efforts to advance international convergence toward economically sound antitrust rules.

Let’s examine some specifics.

Ms. Hesse’s speech begins with a paean to “economic fairness” – a theme that runs counter to the theme that leading federal antitrust enforcers have consistently stressed for decades, namely, that antitrust seeks to advance the economic goal of consumer welfare (and efficiency).  Consider this passage (emphasis added):

[E]nforcers [should be] focused on the ultimate goal of antitrust, economic fairness. . . .    The conservative leaning “Chicago School” made economic efficiency synonymous with the goals of antitrust in the 1970s, which incorporated theoretical economics into mainstream antitrust scholarship and practice.  Later, more centrist or left-leaning post-Chicago and Harvard School scholars showed that sophisticated empirical and theoretical economics tools can be used to support more aggressive enforcement agendas.  Together, these developments resulted in many technical discussions about what impact a business practice will have on consumer welfare mathematically measured – involving supply and demand curves, triangles representing “dead weight loss,” and so on.   But that sort of conversation is one that resonates very little – if at all – with those engaged in the straightforward, popular dialogue about the dangers of increasing corporate concentration.  The language of economic theory does not sound like the language of economic fairness that is the raw material for most popular discussions about competition and antitrust.      

Unfortunately, Ms. Hesse’s references to the importance of “fairness” recur throughout her remarks, driving home again and again that fairness is a principle that should play a key role in antitrust enforcement.  Yet fairness is an inherently subjective concept (fairness for whom, and measured by what standard?) that was often invoked in notorious and illogical U.S. Supreme Court decisions of days of yore – decisions that were rightly critiqued by leading scholars and largely confined to the dustbin of bad precedents, starting in the mid-1970s.

Equally bad are the speech’s multiple references to “high concentration” and “bigness,” unfortunate terms that also cropped up in economically irrational pre-1970s Supreme Court antitrust opinions.  Scholarship demonstrating that neither high market concentration nor large corporate size is necessarily associated with poor economic performance is generally accepted, and the core teaching that “bigness” is not “badness” is a staple of undergraduate industrial organization classes and introductory antitrust law courses in the United States.  Admittedly the speech also recognizes that bigness and high concentration are not necessarily harmful, but merely by giving lip service to these concepts, it encourages interventionists and foreign enforcers who are seeking additional justifications for antitrust crusades against “big” and “powerful” companies (more on this point later).

Perhaps the most unfortunate passage in the speech is Ms. Hesse’s defense of the Supreme Court’s “Philadelphia National Bank” (1963) (“PNB”) presumption that “a merger which produces a firm controlling an undue percentage share of the relevant market, and results in a significant increase in the concentration of firms in that market is so inherently likely to lessen competition substantially” that the law will presume it unlawful.  The PNB presumption is a discredited historical relic, an antitrust “oldie but baddy” that sound scholarship has shown should be relegated to the antitrust scrap heap.  Professor Joshua Wright and Judge Douglas Ginsburg explained why the presumption should be scrapped in a 2015 Antitrust Law Journal article:

The practical effect of the PNB presumption is to shift the burden of proof from the plaintiff, where it rightfully resides, to the defendant, without requiring evidence – other than market shares – that the proposed merger is likely to harm competition. The problem for today’s courts in applying this semicentenary standard is that the field of industrial organization economics has long since moved beyond the structural presumption upon which the standard is based. That presumption is almost the last vestige of pre-modern economics still embedded in the antitrust law of the United States. Even the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines issued jointly by the Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice have abandoned the . . . presumption, though the agencies certainly do not resist the temptation to rely upon the presumption when litigating a case. There is no doubt the . . . presumption of PNB is a convenient litigation tool for the enforcement agencies, but the mission of the enforcement agencies is consumer welfare, not cheap victories in litigation. The presumption ought to go the way of the agencies’ policy decision to drop reliance upon the discredited antitrust theories approved by the courts in such cases as Brown Shoe, Von’s Grocery, and Utah Pie. Otherwise, the agencies will ultimately have to deal with the tension between taking advantage of a favorable presumption in litigation and exerting a reformative influence on the direction of merger law.  

Ms. Hesse ignored this reasoned analysis in commenting on the PNB presumption:

[I]n the wake of the Chicago School’s influence, antitrust commentators started to call into question the validity of this common-sense presumption, believing that economic theory showed that mergers tended to be beneficial or, if they resulted in harm, that harm was fleeting.  Those skeptics demanded more detailed proof of consumer harm in place of the presumption.  More recent economics studies, however, have given new life to the old presumption—in several ways.  First, we are learning more and more that mergers among substantial competitors tend to lead to higher prices. [citation omitted]  Second, economists have been finding that mergers often fail to deliver on the gains their proponents sought to achieve. [citation omitted] Taking these insights together, we should be skeptical of the claim that mergers among substantial competitors are beneficial.  The law – which builds this skepticism into it – provides an excellent tool for protecting competition from large, horizontal mergers.

Ms. Hesse’s discussion of the PNB presumption is problematic on several counts.  First, it cites one 2014 study that purports to find price increases following certain mergers in some oligopolistic industries as supporting the presumption, without acknowledging a key critique of that study – that it ignores efficiencies and potential gains in producer welfare (see here).  Second, it cites one 2001 study suggesting that financial performance may not be enhanced by some mergers while ignoring other studies to the contrary (see, for example, here and here).  Third, and most fundamentally, Ms. Hesse’s statement that “we should be skeptical of the claim that mergers among substantial competitors are beneficial” misses the point of antitrust enforcement entirely, and, in so doing, could be read as discouraging efficiency-seeking acquisitions.  It is not the role of antitrust enforcement to make merging parties prove that their proposed transaction will be beneficial – rather, enforcers must prove that a proposed transaction’s effect “may be substantially to lessen competition”, as stated in section 7 of the Clayton Act.  Requiring “proof” that a merger between competitors “will be beneficial” after the fact, in response to a negative presumption, strongly discourages potential efficiency-seeking consolidations, to the detriment of economic growth and welfare.  That was the case in the 1960s, and it could become so again today, if U.S. antitrust enforcers embark on a concerted campaign of touting the PNB presumption.  Relatedly, an efficient market for corporate control (involving the strong potential of acquisitions to achieve synergies or to correct management problems in badly-run targets) is chilled when a presumption blocks acquisitions absent a “proof” of future benefit, to the detriment of the economy.  Apart from these technical points, the PNB presumption in effect grants a government bureaucracy (exercising “the pretense of knowledge”) the right to condemn voluntary commercial transactions of a particular sort (horizontal mergers) that have not been shown to be harmful.  Such a grant of authority ignores the superior ability of information-seeking market participants to uncover and apply knowledge (as the late Friedrich Hayek might have pointed out) and is fundamentally at odds with the system of voluntary exchange that lies at the heart of a successful market economy.

Another highly problematic statement is Ms. Hesse’s discussion of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) final 2010 Intel settlement:

The Federal Trade Commission’s case against Intel a decade later . . . shows how dominant firms can cut off the normal mechanisms of competition to maintain dominance.  In that case, the FTC alleged that Intel violated Section 5 of the FTC Act by maintaining its monopoly in central processing units (or CPUs) through a variety of payments and penalties (including loyalty or market-share discounts) to computer manufacturers to induce them not to purchase products from Intel’s rivals such as AMD and Via Technologies. [citation omitted]  When a monopolist pays customers to disfavor its rivals and punishes those customers who nevertheless do business with a rival, that does not look like the monopolist is competing with its rivals on the merits of their products.  Because these actions served only to foreclose competition from rival producers of CPUs, these actions distorted the competitive process.

Ms. Hesse ignores the fact that Intel involved a settlement, not a final litigated decision, and thus is lacking in precedential weight.  Firms that believe their conduct was perfectly legal may nevertheless settle an FTC investigation if they deem the costs (including harm to reputation) of continuing to litigate outweigh the costs of the settlement’s terms.  Furthermore, various learned commentators (such as Professor and then-FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright, see here) have pointed out that Intel’s discounts had tangible procompetitive effects and that there was a lack of evidence that Intel’s conduct harmed consumers or competitors (indeed, AMD, Intel’s principal competitor, continued to thrive during the period of Intel’s alleged “bad” behavior).  In short, Ms. Hesse’s conclusion that Intel’s actions “served only to foreclose competition from rival producers of CPUs” lacks credibility.  Moreover, Ms. Hesse’s reference to illegal “monopoly maintenance,” a Sherman Antitrust Act monopolization term of art, fails to note that the FTC stressed that Intel was brought purely under FTC section 5, “which is broader than the antitrust laws”.

Finally, the speech’s concluding section ends on a discordant note.  In summing up what she deemed to be an appropriate, up-to-date approach to antitrust litigation, Ms. Hesse reemphasizes the “fairness” theme, making such statements as “ultimately the plaintiff’s story should highlight the moral underpinnings of the antitrust laws—fighting against the unfairness of concentrated economic power” and “attempts to obtain or keep economic power unfairly”.  While such statements might be rationalized as having been made in the context of promoting a “non-technical” appreciation for antitrust by the general public, the emphasis on fairness as a rhetorical device in lieu of palpable economic harm and consumer welfare is quite troublesome.

On the domestic front, that emphasis may not have a direct impact on the exercise of prosecutorial discretion and on American judicial precedents in the short run (at least one hopes so).  In the longer run, however, it cuts against efforts to constrain populist impulses that would transform antitrust once again into an unguided missile aimed at the heart of the American market system.

On the international front, things are even worse.  A variety of major jurisdictions make explicit reference to “fairness” in their competition law statutes and decisions.  Foreign officials with a strongly interventionist bent might well cite Ms. Hesse’s speech in justifying expansive and economically untethered “fairness-based” competition law prosecutions.  Niceties as to whether their initiatives do not fall within the strict contours of Ms. Hesse’s analysis of the competitive process might be readily ignored, given the inherent elasticity (to say the least) of the “fairness” concept.  What’s more, Ms. Hesse’s remarks seriously undermine arguments advanced by the United States and leading commentators in multilateral fora (such as the ICN and the OECD) that competition law enforcement should focus solely on consumer welfare, with other policies handled under different statutory schemes.

In sum, Ms. Hesse’s speech summons up not the comforting ghost of Christmas past, but rather the malevolent goblin of antitrust past (whether she meant to do so or not).  Although her remarks concededly contain many well-reasoned and uncontroversial comments about antitrust analysis, her totally unnecessary application of a gaudy, un-economic populist gloss to the antitrust enterprise is what stares the reader in the face.  One can hope that, as an experienced and accomplished antitrust practitioner and public servant, Ms. Hesse will come to realize this and respond by unequivocally disavowing and stripping away the rhetorical gloss in a future major address.  Whether she chooses to do so or not, however, antitrust agency leadership in the next Administration should loudly and repeatedly make it clear that populist notions and “fairness” have no role in modern competition law analysis, whose lodestar should be consumer welfare and efficiency.

The FCC’s blind, headlong drive to “unlock” the set-top box market is disconnected from both legal and market realities. Legally speaking, and as we’ve noted on this blog many times over the past few months (see here, here and here), the set-top box proposal is nothing short of an assault on contracts, property rights, and the basic freedom of consumers to shape their own video experience.

Although much of the impulse driving the Chairman to tilt at set-top box windmills involves a distrust that MVPDs could ever do anything procompetitive, Comcast’s recent decision (actually, long in the making) to include an app from Netflix — their alleged arch-rival — on the X1 platform highlights the FCC’s poor grasp of market realities as well. And it hardly seems that Comcast was dragged kicking and screaming to this point, as many of the features it includes have been long under development and include important customer-centered enhancements:

We built this experience on the core foundational elements of the X1 platform, taking advantage of key technical advances like universal search, natural language processing, IP stream processing and a cloud-based infrastructure.  We have expanded X1’s voice control to make watching Netflix content as simple as saying, “Continue watching Daredevil.”

Yet, on the topic of consumer video choice, Chairman Wheeler lives in two separate worlds. On the one hand, he recognizes that:

There’s never been a better time to watch television in America. We have more options than ever, and, with so much competition for eyeballs, studios and artists keep raising the bar for quality content.

But, on the other hand, he asserts that when it comes to set-top boxes, there is no such choice, and consumers have suffered accordingly.

Of course, this ignores the obvious fact that nearly all pay-TV content is already available from a large number of outlets, and that competition between devices and services that deliver this content is plentiful.

In fact, ten years ago — before Apple TV, Roku, Xfinity X1 and Hulu (among too many others to list) — Gigi Sohn, Chairman Wheeler’s chief legal counsel, argued before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that:

We are living in a digital gold age and consumers… are the beneficiaries.  Consumers have numerous choices for buying digital content and for buying devices on which to play that content. (emphasis added)

And, even on the FCC’s own terms, the multichannel video market is presumptively competitive nationwide with

direct broadcast satellite (DBS) providers’ market share of multi-channel video programming distributors (MVPDs) subscribers [rising] to 33.8%. “Telco” MVPDs increased their market share to 13% and their nationwide footprint grew by 5%. Broadband service providers such as Google Fiber also expanded their footprints. Meanwhile, cable operators’ market share fell to 52.8% of MVPD subscribers.

Online video distributor (OVD) services continue to grow in popularity with consumers. Netflix now has 47 million or more subscribers in the U.S., Amazon Prime has close to 60 million, and Hulu has close to 12 million. By contrast, cable MVPD subscriptions dropped to 53.7 million households in 2014.

The extent of competition has expanded dramatically over the years, and Comcast’s inclusion of Netflix in its ecosystem is only the latest indication of this market evolution.

And to further underscore the outdated notion of focusing on “boxes,” AT&T just announced that it would be offering a fully apps-based version of its Direct TV service. And what was one of the main drivers of AT&T being able to go in this direction? It was because the company realized the good economic sense of ditching boxes altogether:

The company will be able to give consumers a break [on price] because of the low cost of delivering the service. AT&T won’t have to send trucks to install cables or set-top boxes; customers just need to download an app. 

And lest you think that Comcast’s move was merely a cynical response meant to undermine the Commissioner (although, it is quite enjoyable on that score), the truth is that Comcast has no choice but to offer services like this on its platform — and it’s been making moves like this for quite some time (see here and here). Everyone knows, MVPDs included, that apps distributed on a range of video platforms are the future. If Comcast didn’t get on board the apps train, it would have been left behind at the station.

And there is other precedent for expecting just this convergence of video offerings on a platform. For instance, Amazon’s Fire TV gives consumers the Amazon video suite — available through the Prime Video subscription — but they also give you access to apps like Netflix, Hulu. (Of course Amazon is a so-called edge provider, so when it makes the exact same sort of moves that Comcast is now making, its easy for those who insist on old market definitions to miss the parallels.)

The point is, where Amazon and Comcast are going to make their money is in driving overall usage of their platform because, inevitably, no single service is going to have every piece of content a given user wants. Long term viability in the video market is necessarily going to be about offering consumers more choice, not less. And, in this world, the box that happens to be delivering the content is basically irrelevant; it’s the competition between platform providers that matters.

As Commissioner Wheeler moves forward with his revised set-top box proposal, and on the eve of tomorrow’s senate FCC oversight hearing, we would do well to reflect on some insightful testimony regarding another of the Commission’s rulemakings from ten years ago:

We are living in a digital gold age and consumers… are the beneficiaries. Consumers have numerous choices for buying digital content and for buying devices on which to play that content. They have never had so much flexibility and so much opportunity.  

* * *

As the content industry has ramped up on-line delivery of content, it has been testing a variety of protection measures that provide both security for the industry and flexibility for consumers.

So to answer the question, can content protection and technological innovation coexist?  It is a resounding yes. Look at the robust market for on-line content distribution facilitated by the technologies and networks consumers love.

* * *

[T]he Federal Communications Commission should not become the Federal Computer Commission or the Federal Copyright Commission, and the marketplace, not the Government, is the best arbiter of what technologies succeed or fail.

That’s not the self-interested testimony of a studio or cable executive — that was Gigi Sohn, current counsel to Chairman Wheeler, speaking on behalf of Public Knowledge in 2006 before the House Energy and Commerce Committee against the FCC’s “broadcast flag” rules. Those rules, supported by a broad spectrum of rightsholders, required consumer electronics devices to respect programming conditions preventing the unauthorized transmission over the internet of digital broadcast television content.

Ms. Sohn and Public Knowledge won that fight in court, convincing the DC Circuit that Congress hadn’t given the FCC authority to impose the rules in the first place, and she successfully urged Congress not to give the FCC the authority to reinstate them.

Yet today, she and the Chairman seem to have forgotten her crucial insights from ten years ago. If the marketplace for video content was sufficiently innovative and competitive then, how can it possibly not be so now, with audiences having orders of magnitude more choices, both online and off? And if the FCC lacked authority to adopt copyright-related rules then, how does the FCC suddenly have that authority now, in the absence of any intervening congressional action?

With Section 106 of the Copyright Act, Congress granted copyright holders the exclusive rights to engage in or license the reproduction, distribution, and public performance of their works. The courts are the “backstop,” not the FCC (as Chairman Wheeler would have it), and section 629 of the Communications Act doesn’t say otherwise. All section 629 does is direct the FCC to promote a competitive market for devices to access pay-TV services from pay-TV providers. As we noted last week, it very simply doesn’t allow the FCC to interfere with the license arrangements that fill those devices, and, short of explicit congressional direction, the Commission is simply not empowered to interfere with the framework set forth in the Copyright Act.

Chairman Wheeler’s latest proposal has improved on his initial plan by, for example, moving toward an applications-based approach and away from the mandatory disaggregation of content. But it would still arrogate to the FCC the authority to stand up a licensing body for the distribution of content over pay-TV applications; set rules on the terms such licenses must, may, and may not include; and even allow the FCC itself to create terms or the entire license. Such rules would necessarily implicate the extent to which rightsholders are able to control the distribution of their content.

The specifics of the regulations may be different from 2006, but the point is the same: What the FCC could not do in 2006, it cannot do today.

Mylan Pharmaceuticals recently reinvigorated the public outcry over pharmaceutical price increases when news surfaced that the company had raised the price of EpiPens by more than 500% over the past decade and, purportedly, had plans to increase the price even more. The Mylan controversy comes on the heels of several notorious pricing scandals last year. Recall Valeant Pharmaceuticals, that acquired cardiac drugs Isuprel and Nitropress and then quickly raised their prices by 525% and 212%, respectively. And of course, who can forget Martin Shkreli of Turing Pharmaceuticals, who increased the price of toxoplasmosis treatment Daraprim by 5,000% and then claimed he should have raised the price even higher.

However, one company, pharmaceutical giant Allergan, seems to be taking a different approach to pricing.   Last week, Allergan CEO Brent Saunders condemned the scandalous pricing increases that have raised suspicions of drug companies and placed the entire industry in the political hot seat. In an entry on the company’s blog, Saunders issued Allergan’s “social contract with patients” that made several drug pricing commitments to its customers.

Some of the most important commitments Allergan made to its customers include:

  • A promise to not increase prices more than once a year, and to limit price increases to singe-digit percentage increases.
  • A pledge to improve patient access to Allergan medications by enhancing patient assistance programs in 2017
  • A vow to cooperate with policy makers and payers (including government drug plans, private insurers, and pharmacy benefit managers) to facilitate better access to Allergan products by offering pricing discounts and paying rebates to lower drug costs.
  • An assurance that Allergan will no longer engage in the common industry tactic of dramatically increasing prices for branded drugs nearing patent expiry, without cost increases that justify the increase.
  • A commitment to provide annual updates on how pricing affects Allergan’s business.
  • A pledge to price Allergan products in a way that is commensurate with, or lower than, the value they create.

Saunders also makes several non-pricing pledges to maintain a continuous supply of its drugs, diligently monitor the safety of its products, and appropriately educate physicians about its medicines. He also makes the point that the recent pricing scandals have shifted attention away from the vibrant medical innovation ecosystem that develops new life-saving and life-enhancing drugs. Saunders contends that the focus on pricing by regulators and the public has incited suspicions about this innovation ecosystem: “This ecosystem can quickly fall apart if it is not continually nourished with the confidence that there will be a longer term opportunity for appropriate return on investment in the long R&D journey.”

Policy-makers and the public would be wise to focus on the importance of brand drug innovation. Brand drug companies are largely responsible for pharmaceutical innovation. Since 2000, brand companies have spent over half a trillion dollars on R&D, and they currently account for over 90 percent of the spending on the clinical trials necessary to bring new drugs to market. As a result of this spending, over 550 new drugs have been approved by the FDA since 2000, and another 7,000 are currently in development globally. And this innovation is directly tied to health advances. Empirical estimates of the benefits of pharmaceutical innovation indicate that each new drug brought to market saves 11,200 life-years each year.  Moreover, new drugs save money by reducing doctor visits, hospitalizations, and other medical procedures, ultimately for every $1 spent on new drugs, total medical spending decreases by more than $7.

But, as Saunders suggests, this innovation depends on drugmakers earning a sufficient return on their investment in R&D. The costs to bring a new drug to market with FDA approval are now estimated at over $2 billion, and only 1 in 10 drugs that begin clinical trials are ever approved by the FDA. Brand drug companies must price a drug not only to recoup the drug’s own costs, they must also consider the costs of all the product failures in their pricing decisions. However, they have a very limited window to recoup these costs before generic competition destroys brand profits: within three months of the first generic entry, generics have already captured over 70 percent of the brand drugs’ market. Drug companies must be able to price drugs at a level where they can earn profits sufficient to offset their R&D costs and the risk of failures. Failure to cover these costs will slow investment in R&D; drug companies will not spend millions and billions of dollars developing drugs if they cannot recoup the costs of that development.

Yet several recent proposals threaten to control prices in a way that could prevent drug companies from earning a sufficient return on their investment in R&D. Ultimately, we must remember that a social contract involves commitment from all members of a group; it should involve commitments from drug companies to price responsibly, and commitments from the public and policy makers to protect innovation. Hopefully, more drug companies will follow Allergan’s lead and renounce the exorbitant price increases we’ve seen in recent times. But in return, we should all remember that innovation and, in turn, health improvements, depend on drug companies’ profitability.

Imagine if you will… that a federal regulatory agency were to decide that the iPhone ecosystem was too constraining and too expensive; that consumers — who had otherwise voted for iPhones with their dollars — were being harmed by the fact that the platform was not “open” enough.

Such an agency might resolve (on the basis of a very generous reading of a statute), to force Apple to make its iOS software available to any hardware platform that wished to have it, in the process making all of the apps and user data accessible to the consumer via these new third parties, on terms set by the agency… for free.

Difficult as it may be to picture this ever happening, it is exactly the sort of Twilight Zone scenario that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is currently proposing with his new set-top box proposal.

Based on the limited information we have so far (a fact sheet and an op-ed), Chairman Wheeler’s new proposal does claw back some of the worst excesses of his initial draft (which we critiqued in our comments and reply comments to that proposal).

But it also appears to reinforce others — most notably the plan’s disregard for the right of content creators to control the distribution of their content. Wheeler continues to dismiss the complex business models, relationships, and licensing terms that have evolved over years of competition and innovation. Instead, he offers  a one-size-fits-all “solution” to a “problem” that market participants are already falling over themselves to provide.

Plus ça change…

To begin with, Chairman Wheeler’s new proposal is based on the same faulty premise: that consumers pay too much for set-top boxes, and that the FCC is somehow both prescient enough and Congressionally ordained to “fix” this problem. As we wrote in our initial comments, however,

[a]lthough the Commission asserts that set-top boxes are too expensive, the history of overall MVPD prices tells a remarkably different story. Since 1994, per-channel cable prices including set-top box fees have fallen by 2 percent, while overall consumer prices have increased by 54 percent. After adjusting for inflation, this represents an impressive overall price decrease.

And the fact is that no one buys set-top boxes in isolation; rather, the price consumers pay for cable service includes the ability to access that service. Whether the set-top box fee is broken out on subscribers’ bills or not, the total price consumers pay is unlikely to change as a result of the Commission’s intervention.

As we have previously noted, the MVPD set-top box market is an aftermarket; no one buys set-top boxes without first (or simultaneously) buying MVPD service. And as economist Ben Klein (among others) has 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.

Engineering the set-top box aftermarket to bring more direct competition to bear may redistribute profits, but it’s unlikely to change what consumers pay.

Stripped of its questionable claims regarding consumer prices and placed in the proper context — in which consumers enjoy more ways to access more video content than ever before — Wheeler’s initial proposal ultimately rested on its promise to “pave the way for a competitive marketplace for alternate navigation devices, and… end the need for multiple remote controls.” Weak sauce, indeed.

He now adds a new promise: that “integrated search” will be seamlessly available for consumers across the new platforms. But just as universal remotes and channel-specific apps on platforms like Apple TV have already made his “multiple remotes” promise a hollow one, so, too, have competitive pressures already begun to deliver integrated search.

Meanwhile, such marginal benefits come with a host of substantial costs, as others have pointed out. Do we really need the FCC to grant itself more powers and create a substantial and coercive new regulatory regime to mandate what the market is already poised to provide?

From ignoring copyright to obliterating copyright

Chairman Wheeler’s first proposal engendered fervent criticism for the impossible position in which it placed MVPDs — of having to disregard, even outright violate, their contractual obligations to content creators.

Commendably, the new proposal acknowledges that contractual relationships between MVPDs and content providers should remain “intact.” Thus, the proposal purports to enable programmers and MVPDs to maintain “their channel position, advertising and contracts… in place.” MVPDs will retain “end-to-end” control of the display of content through their apps, and all contractually guaranteed content protection mechanisms will remain, because the “pay-TV’s software will manage the full suite of linear and on-demand programming licensed by the pay-TV provider.”

But, improved as it is, the new proposal continues to operate in an imagined world where the incredibly intricate and complex process by which content is created and distributed can be reduced to the simplest of terms, dictated by a regulator and applied uniformly across all content and all providers.

According to the fact sheet, the new proposal would “[p]rotect[] copyrights and… [h]onor[] the sanctity of contracts” through a “standard license”:

The proposed final rules require the development of a standard license governing the process for placing an app on a device or platform. A standard license will give device manufacturers the certainty required to bring innovative products to market… The license will not affect the underlying contracts between programmers and pay-TV providers. The FCC will serve as a backstop to ensure that nothing in the standard license will harm the marketplace for competitive devices.

But programming is distributed under a diverse range of contract terms. The only way a single, “standard license” could possibly honor these contracts is by forcing content providers to license all of their content under identical terms.

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that the FCC has no authority whatever to do this, for such a scheme to work, the agency would necessarily have to strip content holders of their right to govern the terms on which their content is accessed. After all, if MVPDs are legally bound to redistribute content on fixed terms, they have no room to permit content creators to freely exercise their rights to specify terms like windowing, online distribution restrictions, geographic restrictions, and the like.

In other words, the proposal simply cannot deliver on its promise that “[t]he license will not affect the underlying contracts between programmers and pay-TV providers.”

But fear not: According to the Fact Sheet, “[p]rogrammers will have a seat at the table to ensure that content remains protected.” Such largesse! One would be forgiven for assuming that the programmers’ (single?) seat will surrounded by those of other participants — regulatory advocates, technology companies, and others — whose sole objective will be to minimize content companies’ ability to restrict the terms on which their content is accessed.

And we cannot ignore the ominous final portion of the Fact Sheet’s “Standard License” description: “The FCC will serve as a backstop to ensure that nothing in the standard license will harm the marketplace for competitive devices.” Such an arrogation of ultimate authority by the FCC doesn’t bode well for that programmer’s “seat at the table” amounting to much.

Unfortunately, we can only imagine the contours of the final proposal that will describe the many ways by which distribution licenses can “harm the marketplace for competitive devices.” But an educated guess would venture that there will be precious little room for content creators and MVPDs to replicate a large swath of the contract terms they currently employ. “Any content owner can have its content painted any color that it wants, so long as it is black.”

At least we can take solace in the fact that the FCC has no authority to do what Wheeler wants it to do

And, of course, this all presumes that the FCC will be able to plausibly muster the legal authority in the Communications Act to create what amounts to a de facto compulsory licensing scheme.

A single license imposed upon all MVPDs, along with the necessary restrictions this will place upon content creators, does just as much as an overt compulsory license to undermine content owners’ statutory property rights. For every license agreement that would be different than the standard agreement, the proposed standard license would amount to a compulsory imposition of terms that the rights holders and MVPDs would not otherwise have agreed to. And if this sounds tedious and confusing, just wait until the Commission starts designing its multistakeholder Standard Licensing Oversight Process (“SLOP”)….

Unfortunately for Chairman Wheeler (but fortunately for the rest of us), the FCC has neither the legal authority, nor the requisite expertise, to enact such a regime.

Last month, the Copyright Office was clear on this score in its letter to Congress commenting on the Chairman’s original proposal:  

[I]t is important to remember that only Congress, through the exercise of its power under the Copyright Clause, and not the FCC or any other agency, has the constitutional authority to create exceptions and limitations in copyright law. While Congress has enacted compulsory licensing schemes, they have done so in response to demonstrated market failures, and in a carefully circumscribed manner.

Assuming that Section 629 of the Communications Act — the provision that otherwise empowers the Commission to promote a competitive set-top box market — fails to empower the FCC to rewrite copyright law (which is assuredly the case), the Commission will be on shaky ground for the inevitable torrent of lawsuits that will follow the revised proposal.

In fact, this new proposal feels more like an emergency pivot by a panicked Chairman than an actual, well-grounded legal recommendation. While the new proposal improves upon the original, it retains at its core the same ill-informed, ill-advised and illegal assertion of authority that plagued its predecessor.