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At the Jan. 26 Policy in Transition forum—the Mercatus Center at George Mason University’s second annual antitrust forum—various former and current antitrust practitioners, scholars, judges, and agency officials held forth on the near-term prospects for the neo-Brandeisian experiment undertaken in recent years by both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ). In conjunction with the forum, Mercatus also released a policy brief on 2022’s significant antitrust developments.

Below, I summarize some of the forum’s noteworthy takeaways, followed by concluding comments on the current state of the antitrust enterprise, as reflected in forum panelists’ remarks.

Takeaways

    1. The consumer welfare standard is neither a recent nor an arbitrary antitrust-enforcement construct, and it should not be abandoned in order to promote a more “enlightened” interventionist antitrust.

George Mason University’s Donald Boudreaux emphasized in his introductory remarks that the standard goes back to Adam Smith, who noted in “The Wealth of Nations” nearly 250 years ago that the appropriate end of production is the consumer’s benefit. Moreover, American Antitrust Institute President Diana Moss, a leading proponent of more aggressive antitrust enforcement, argued in standalone remarks against abandoning the consumer welfare standard, as it is sufficiently flexible to justify a more interventionist agenda.

    1. The purported economic justifications for a far more aggressive antitrust-enforcement policy on mergers remain unconvincing.

Moss’ presentation expressed skepticism about vertical-merger efficiencies and called for more aggressive challenges to such consolidations. But Boudreaux skewered those arguments in a recent four-point rebuttal at Café Hayek. As he explains, Moss’ call for more vertical-merger enforcement ignores the fact that “no one has stronger incentives than do the owners and managers of firms to detect and achieve possible improvements in operating efficiencies – and to avoid inefficiencies.”

Moss’ complaint about chronic underenforcement mistakes by overly cautious agencies also ignores the fact that there will always be mistakes, and there is no reason to believe “that antitrust bureaucrats and courts are in a position to better predict the future [regarding which efficiencies claims will be realized] than are firm owners and managers.” Moreover, Moss provided “no substantive demonstration or evidence that vertical mergers often lead to monopolization of markets – that is, to industry structures and practices that harm consumers. And so even if vertical mergers never generate efficiencies, there is no good argument to use antitrust to police such mergers.”

And finally, Boudreaux considers Moss’ complaint that a court refused to condemn the AT&T-Time Warner merger, arguing that this does not demonstrate that antitrust enforcement is deficient:

[A]s soon as the  . . . merger proved to be inefficient, the parties themselves undid it. This merger was undone by competitive market forces and not by antitrust! (Emphasis in the original.)

    1. The agencies, however, remain adamant in arguing that merger law has been badly unenforced. As such, the new leadership plans to charge ahead and be willing to challenge more mergers based on mere market structure, paying little heed to efficiency arguments or actual showings of likely future competitive harm.

In her afternoon remarks at the forum, Principal Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Antitrust Doha Mekki highlighted five major planks of Biden administration merger enforcement going forward.

  • Clayton Act Section 7 is an incipiency statute. Thus, “[w]hen a [mere] change in market structure suggests that a firm will have an incentive to reduce competition, that should be enough [to justify a challenge].”
  • “Once we see that a merger may lead to, or increase, a firm’s market power, only in very rare circumstances should we think that a firm will not exercise that power.”
  • A structural presumption “also helps businesses conform their conduct to the law with more confidence about how the agencies will view a proposed merger or conduct.”
  • Efficiencies defenses will be given short shrift, and perhaps ignored altogether. This is because “[t]he Clayton Act does not ask whether a merger creates a more or less efficient firm—it asks about the effect of the merger on competition. The Supreme Court has never recognized efficiencies as a defense to an otherwise illegal merger.”
  • Merger settlements have often failed to preserve competition, and they will be highly disfavored. Therefore, expect a lot more court challenges to mergers than in recent decades. In short, “[w]e must be willing to litigate. . . . [W]e need to acknowledge the possibility that sometimes a court might not agree with us—and yet go to court anyway.”

Mekki’s comments suggest to me that the soon-to-be-released new draft merger guidelines may emphasize structural market-share tests, generally reject efficiencies justifications, and eschew the economic subtleties found in the current guidelines.

    1. The agencies—and the FTC, in particular—have serious institutional problems that undermine their effectiveness, and risk a loss of credibility before the courts in the near future.

In his address to the forum, former FTC Chairman Bill Kovacic lamented the inefficient limitations on reasoned FTC deliberations imposed by the Sunshine Act, which chills informal communications among commissioners. He also pointed to our peculiarly unique global status of having two enforcers with duplicative antitrust authority, and lamented the lack of policy coherence, which reflects imperfect coordination between the agencies.

Perhaps most importantly, Kovacic raised the specter of the FTC losing credibility in a possible world where Humphrey’s Executor is overturned (see here) and the commission is granted little judicial deference. He suggested taking lessons on policy planning and formulation from foreign enforcers—the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority, in particular. He also decried agency officials’ decisions to belittle prior administrations’ enforcement efforts, seeing it as detracting from the international credibility of U.S. enforcement.

    1. The FTC is embarking on a novel interventionist path at odds with decades of enforcement policy.

In luncheon remarks, Commissioner Christine S. Wilson lamented the lack of collegiality and consultation within the FTC. She warned that far-reaching rulemakings and other new interventionist initiatives may yield a backlash that undermines the institution.

Following her presentation, a panel of FTC experts discussed several aspects of the commission’s “new interventionism.” According to one panelist, the FTC’s new Section 5 Policy Statement on Unfair Methods of Competition (which ties “unfairness” to arbitrary and subjective terms) “will not survive in” (presumably, will be given no judicial deference by) the courts. Another panelist bemoaned rule-of-law problems arising from FTC actions, called for consistency in FTC and DOJ enforcement policies, and warned that the new merger guidelines will represent a “paradigm shift” that generates more business uncertainty.

The panel expressed doubts about the legal prospects for a proposed FTC rule on noncompete agreements, and noted that constitutional challenges to the agency’s authority may engender additional difficulties for the commission.

    1. The DOJ is greatly expanding its willingness to litigate, and is taking actions that may undermine its credibility in court.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Antitrust Jonathan Kanter has signaled a disinclination to settle, as well as an eagerness to litigate large numbers of cases (toward that end, he has hired a huge number of litigators). One panelist noted that, given this posture from the DOJ, there is a risk that judges may come to believe that the department’s litigation decisions are not well-grounded in the law and the facts. The business community may also have a reduced willingness to “buy in” to DOJ guidance.

Panelists also expressed doubts about the wisdom of DOJ bringing more “criminal Sherman Act Section 2” cases. The Sherman Act is a criminal statute, but the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of criminal law and Due Process concerns may arise. Panelists also warned that, if new merger guidelines are ”unsound,” they may detract from the DOJ’s credibility in federal court.

    1. International antitrust developments have introduced costly new ex ante competition-regulation and enforcement-coordination problems.

As one panelist explained, the European Union’s implementation of the new Digital Markets Act (DMA) will harmfully undermine market forces. The DMA is a form of ex ante regulation—primarily applicable to large U.S. digital platforms—that will harmfully interject bureaucrats into network planning and design. The DMA will lead to inefficiencies, market fragmentation, and harm to consumers, and will inevitably have spillover effects outside Europe.

Even worse, the DMA will not displace the application of EU antitrust law, but merely add to its burdens. Regrettably, the DMA’s ex ante approach is being imitated by many other enforcement regimes, and the U.S. government tacitly supports it. The DMA has not been included in the U.S.-EU joint competition dialogue, which risks failure. Canada and the U.K. should also be added to the dialogue.

Other International Concerns

The international panelists also noted that there is an unfortunate lack of convergence on antitrust procedures. Furthermore, different jurisdictions manifest substantial inconsistencies in their approaches to multinational merger analysis, where better coordination is needed. There is a special problem in the areas of merger review and of criminal leniency for price fixers: when multiple jurisdictions need to “sign off” on an enforcement matter, the “most restrictive” jurisdiction has an effective veto.

Finally, former Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Antitrust James Rill—perhaps the most influential promoter of the adoption of sound antitrust laws worldwide—closed the international panel with a call for enhanced transnational cooperation. He highlighted the importance of global convergence on sound antitrust procedures, emphasizing due process. He also advocated bolstering International Competition Network (ICN) and OECD Competition Committee convergence initiatives, and explained that greater transparency in agency-enforcement actions is warranted. In that regard, Rill said, ICN nongovernmental advisers should be given a greater role.

Conclusion

Taken as a whole, the forum’s various presentations painted a rather gloomy picture of the short-term prospects for sound, empirically based, economics-centric antitrust enforcement.

In the United States, the enforcement agencies are committed to far more aggressive antitrust enforcement, particularly with respect to mergers. The agencies’ new approach downplays efficiencies and they will be quick to presume broad categories of business conduct are anticompetitive, relying far less closely on case-specific economic analysis.

The outlook is also bad overseas, as European Union enforcers are poised to implement new ex ante regulation of competition by large platforms as an addition to—not a substitute for—established burdensome antitrust enforcement. Most foreign jurisdictions appear to be following the European lead, and the U.S. agencies are doing nothing to discourage them. Indeed, they appear to fully support the European approach.

The consumer welfare standard, which until recently was the stated touchstone of American antitrust enforcement—and was given at least lip service in Europe—has more or less been set aside. The one saving grace in the United States is that the federal courts may put a halt to the agencies’ overweening ambitions, but that will take years. In the meantime, consumer welfare will suffer and welfare-enhancing business conduct will be disincentivized. The EU courts also may place a minor brake on European antitrust expansionism, but that is less certain.

Recall, however, that when evils flew out of Pandora’s box, hope remained. Let us hope, then, that the proverbial worm will turn, and that new leadership—inspired by hopeful and enlightened policy advocates—will restore principled antitrust grounded in the promotion of consumer welfare.

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Gene Scalia games out the future of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) recently proposed rule that would ban the use of most noncompete clauses in today’s Wall Street Journal. He writes that: 

The Federal Trade Commission’s ban on noncompete agreements may be the most audacious federal rule ever proposed. If finalized, it would outlaw terms in 30 million contracts and pre-empt laws in virtually every state. It would also, by the FTC’s own account, reduce capital investment, worker training and possibly job growth, while increasing the wage gap. The commission says the rule would deliver a meager 2.3% wage increase for hourly workers, versus a 9.4% increase for CEOs.

Three phases lie ahead for the proposal: rule-making, litigation and compliance. … The FTC is likely to finalize the rule within a year, to ensure the Biden administration can begin the task of defending it in the litigation phase. The proposal’s legal vulnerabilities are legion. …

Sketching the likely future of the proposed rule in this way is helpful. Most of those affected by this rule are unlikely to be familiar with the rulemaking process or the judicial process for reviewing agency rules; indeed, many are likely to hear coverage of the proposed rule and mistake it for a regulation that’s already in effect. The cost of that confusion is made clear by Scalia’s ultimate takeaway: that the courts are very likely to reject the rule (and perhaps the FTC’s authority to adopt these types of competition rules), but only after a protracted and lengthy judicial review process (including, quite possibly, a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court).

As Scalia explains, many employers will act upon this likely ill-fated rule out of fear or confusion, altering their employment contacts in ways that will be hard to later amend: 

Unfortunately, some employers may now reduce the benefits they offer in exchange for noncompetes, for fear the rule may eventually render the agreement unenforceable. But because the FTC may change aspects of the rule—and because the courts are likely to invalidate it—American businesses don’t need to invest now in complying with this deeply flawed proposal.

This should raise serious concern about the FTC’s approach to this issue. It is very likely that the Commission is aware of the rocky shoals that lie ahead. But it is also likely that the Commission knows that its posturing will affect the conduct of the business community. It’s not much of a leap to conclude that the Commission—that is, its three-member majority—is using its rulemaking process, not its substantive legal authority, as a norm entrepreneur, to jawbone the business community and move the Overton window that frames discussion of noncompete clauses. I feel dirty writing a sentence as jargon-filled as that one, but no dirtier than the Commission should feel for abusing rulemaking procedures to achieve substantive ends beyond its legal authority.

This concern resembles an issue currently before the Supreme Court: Axon Enterprises v. FTC, another case that involves the FTC. Generally, agency actions cannot be challenged in federal court until the agency has finalized its action and affected parties have exhausted their appeals before the agency. Indeed, the statutes that govern some agencies (including the FTC) have provisions that have been interpreted as preventing challenges to the agency’s authority from being brought before a federal district court.

In Axon, the Supreme Court is considering whether a company subject to administrative proceedings before the Commission can challenge the constitutionality of those proceedings in district court prior to their completion. Oral arguments were heard this past November and, while reading tea leaves based upon oral arguments is a fraught endeavor, those arguments did not seem to go well for the FTC. It seems likely that the Court will allow firms to raise such challenges prior to final agency action in adjudication, precisely because not allowing them allows the Commission to cause non-redressable harms to the firms it investigates; several years of unconstitutional litigation can be devastating to a business.

The Axon case involves adjudication against a single firm, which raises some different issues from those raised when an agency is developing rules that will affect an entire industry. Most notably, constitutional Due Process protections are implicated when the government takes action against a single firm. It is unlikely that the outcome in Axon—even if as adverse to the FTC as foreseeably possible—would extend to allow firms to challenge an agency rulemaking process on the ground that it exceeds the agency’s statutory (not even constitutional) authority.

But the Commission should nonetheless take the concerns at issue in Axon to heart. If the Supreme Court rules against the Commission in Axon, it will be a strong signal that the Court has concerns about how the Commission is using the authority that Congress has given it. One could even say that it will be the latest in a series of such signals, given that the Court recently struck down the Commission’s Section 13(b) civil-penalty authority. As Scalia notes, the Commission is already pushing the outermost limits of its statutory authority with the rule that it has proposed. The extent of the coming judicial (or congressional) rebuke will be greatly expanded if the courts feel that the agency has abused the rulemaking process to achieve substantive goals that exceed that outermost limit.

As 2023 draws to a close, we wanted to reflect on a year that saw jurisdictions around the world proposing, debating, and (occasionally) enacting digital regulations. Some of these initiatives amended existing ex-post competition laws. Others were more ambitious, contemplating entirely new regulatory regimes from the ground up.

With everything going on, it can be overwhelming even for hardcore antitrust enthusiasts to keep pace with the latest developments. If you have the high-brow interests of a scholar but the jam-packed schedule of a CEO, you have come to the right place. This post is intended to summarize who is doing what, where, and what to make of it.

Status of Tech Regulation Around the World

European Union

In the European Union—the patient zero of tech regulation—two crucial pieces of legislation passed this year: the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA).

But notably, the EU is just now—i.e., six months before the act is set to apply in full to all digital “gatekeepers”—launching a consultation on the DMA’s procedural rules (a draft is available here). Many of those procedural questions remain exceedingly fuzzy (substantive ones, too), such as, e.g.—the role of the advisory committee, the role of third parties in proceedings, national authorities’ access to data gathered by the Commission, and the role to be played (if any) by the European Competition Network. Further, only now is a DMA enforcement unit being created within the Commission, although it is also unclear whether it will have the staffing capacity to satisfy the tight deadlines.

Whether or not the implementing regulation ultimately resolves all of these questions, they should have been settled much sooner. But as is becoming customary in tech regulation, it seems that the political urge to “do something” has once again prevailed over careful consideration and foresight.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, legislation to empower the Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) Digital Markets Unit (DMU) is set to be brought to Parliament this term, meaning that it may be discussed in the next two months. Of all the “pending” antitrust bills around the world, this is probably the most likely to be adopted. Although it dropped an earlier dubious proposal on mergers, there remain several significant concerns with the DMU (see here and here for previous commentary). For example, the DMU’s standard of review is surprisingly truncated, considering the expansive powers that would be bestowed on the agency. The DMU would apply the strategic market significance (SMS) tag to entire firms and not just to those operations where the firm may have market power. Moreover, the DMU proposal shows little concern for due process.

One looming question is whether the UK will learn from the EU’s example, and resolve substantive and procedural questions well ahead of imposing any obligations on SMS companies. In the end, whatever the UK does or doesn’t do will have reverberations around the globe, as many countries appear to be adopting a DMA-style designation process for gatekeepers but imposing “code of conduct” obligations inspired by the DMU.

United States

Across the pond, the major antitrust tech bills introduced in Congress have come to a standstill. Despite some 11th hour efforts by their sponsors, neither the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, nor the Open App Markets Act, nor the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act made the cut to be included in the $1.7 trillion, 4,155-page omnibus bill that will be the last vote taken by the 117th Congress. With divided power in the 118th Congress, it’s possible that the push to regulate tech might fizzle out.

What went wrong for antitrust reformers? Republicans and Democrats have always sought different things from the bills. Democrats want to “tame” big tech, hold it accountable for the proliferation of “harmful” content online, and redistribute rents toward competitors and other businesses across the supply chain (e.g., app developers, media organizations, etc.). Republicans, on the other hand, seek to limit platforms’ ability to “censor conservative views” and to punish them for supposedly having done so in the past. The difficulty of aligning these two visions has obstructed decisive movement on the bills. But, more broadly, it also goes to show that the logic for tech regulation is far from homogenous, and that wildly different aims can be pursued under the umbrella of “choice,” “contestability,” and “fairness.”

South Africa

As my colleague Dirk Auer covered yesterday, South Africa has launched a sectoral inquiry into online-intermediation platforms, which has produced a provisional report (see here for a brief overview). The provisional report identifies Apple, Google, Airbnb, Uber Eats, and South Africa’s own Takealot, among others, as “leading online platforms” and offers suggestions to make the markets in which these companies compete more “contestable.” This includes a potential ex ante regulatory regime.

But as Dirk noted, there are certain considerations the developing countries must bear in mind when contemplating ex ante regimes that developed countries do not (or, at least, not to the same extent). Most importantly, these countries are typically highly dependent on foreign investment, which might sidestep those jurisdictions that impose draconian DMA-style laws.

This could be the case with Amazon, which is planning to launch its marketplace in South Africa in February 2023 (the same month the sectoral inquiry is due). The degree and duration of Amazon’s presence might hinge on the country’s regulatory regime for online platforms. If unfavorable or exceedingly ambiguous, the new rules might prompt Amazon and other companies to relocate elsewhere. It is notable that local platform Takealot has, to date, demonstrated market dominance in South Africa, which most observers doubt that Amazon will be able to displace.

India

No one can be quite sure what is going on in India. There has been some agitation for a DMA-style ex ante regulatory regime within the Parliament of India, which is currently debating an amendment to the Competition Act that would, among other things, lower merger thresholds.

More drastically, however, a standing committee on e-commerce (where e-commerce is taken to mean all online commerce, not just retail) issued a report that recommended identifying “gatekeepers” for more stringent supervision under an ex ante regime that would, e.g., bar companies from selling goods on the platforms they own. At its core, the approach appears to assume that the DMA constitutes “best practices” in online competition law, despite the fact that the DMA’s ultimate effects and costs remain a mystery. As such, “best practices” in this area of law may not be very good at all.

Australia

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has been conducting a five-year inquiry into digital-platform services, which is due in March 2025. In its recently published fifth interim report, the ACCC recommended codes of conduct (similar to the DMU) for “designated” digital platforms. Questions surrounding the proposed regime include whether the ACCC will have to demonstrate effects; the availability of objective justifications (the latest report mentions security and privacy); and what thresholds would be used to “designate” a company (so far, turnover seems likely).

On the whole, Australia’s strategy has been to follow closely in the footsteps of the EU and the United States. Given this influence from international developments, the current freeze on U.S. tech regulation might have taken some of the wind out of the sails of similar regulatory efforts down under.

China

China appears to be playing a waiting game. On the one hand, it has ramped up antitrust enforcement under the Anti-Monopoly Law (AML). On the other, in August 2022, it introduced the first major amendment since the enactment of the AML, which included a new prohibition on the use of “technology, algorithms and platform rules” to engage in monopolistic behavior. This is clearly aimed at strengthening enforcement against digital platforms. Numerous other digital-specific regulations are also under consideration (with uncertain timelines). These include a platform-classification regime that would subject online platforms to different obligations in the areas of data protection, fair competition, and labor treatment, and a data-security regulation that would prohibit online-platform operators from taking advantage of data for unfair discriminatory practices against the platform’s users or vendors.

South Korea

Seoul was one of the first jurisdictions to pass legislation targeting app stores (see here and here). Other legislative proposals include rules on price-transparency obligations and the use of platform-generated data, as well as a proposed obligation for online news services to remunerate news publishers. With the government’s new emphasis on self-regulation as an alternative to prescriptive regulation, however, it remains unclear whether or when these laws will be adopted.

Germany

Germany recently implemented a reform to its Competition Act that allows the Bundeskartellamt to prohibit certain forms of conduct (such as self-preferencing) without the need to prove anticompetitive harm and that extends the essential-facility doctrine to cover data. The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK) is now considering further amendments that would, e.g., allow the Bundeskartellamt to impose structural remedies following a sectoral inquiry, independent of an abuse; and introduce a presumption that anticompetitive conduct has resulted in profits for the infringing company (this is relevant for the purpose of calculating fines and, especially, for proving damages in private enforcement).

Canada

Earlier this year, Canada reformed its abuse-of-dominance provisions to bolster fines and introduce a private right of access to tribunals. It also recently opened a consultation on the future of competition policy, which invites input about the objectives of antitrust, the enforcement powers of the Competition Bureau, and the effectiveness of private remedies, and raises the question of whether digital markets require special rules (see this report). Although an ex-ante regime doesn’t currently appear to be in the cards, Canada’s strategy has been to wait and see how existing regulatory proposals play out in other countries.

Turkey

Turkey is considering a DMA-inspired amendment to the Competition Act that would, however, go beyond even the EU’s ex-ante regulatory regime in that it would not allow for any objective justifications or defenses.

Japan

In 2020, Japan introduced the Act on Improving Transparency and Fairness of Digital Platforms, which stipulates that designated platforms should take voluntary and proactive steps to ensure transparency and “fairness” vis-a-vis businesses. This “co-regulation” approach differs from other regulations in that it stipulates the general framework and leaves details to businesses’ voluntary efforts. Japan is now, however, also contemplating DMA-like ex-ante regulations for mobile ecosystems, voice assistants, and wearable devices.

Six Hasty Conclusions from the Even Hastier Global Wave of Tech Regulation

  • Most of these regimes are still in the making. Some have just been proposed and have a long way to go until they become law. The U.S. example shows how lack of consensus can derail even the most apparently imminent tech bill.
  • Even if every single country covered in this post were to adopt tech legislation, we have seen that the goals pursued and the obligations imposed can be wildly different and possibly contradictory. Even within a given jurisdiction, lawmakers may not agree what the purpose of the law should be (see, e.g., the United States). And, after all, it should probably be alarming if the Chinese Communist Party and the EU had the same definition of “fairness.”
  • Should self-preferencing bans, interoperability mandates, and similar rules that target online platforms be included under the banner of antitrust? In some countries, like Turkey, rules copied and pasted from the DMA have been proposed as amendments to the national competition act. But the EU itself insists that competition law and the DMA are separate things. Which is it? At this stage, shouldn’t the first principles of digital regulation be clearer?
  • In the EU, in particular, multiple overlapping ex-ante regimes can lead to double and even triple jeopardy, especially given their proximity to antitrust law. In other words, there is a risk that the same conduct will be punished at both the national and EU level, and under the DMA and EU competition rules.
  • In light of the above, global ex-ante regulatory compliance is going to impose mind-boggling costs on targeted companies, especially considering the opacity of some provisions and the substantial differences among countries (think, e.g., of Turkey, where there is no space for objective justifications).
  • There are always complex tradeoffs to be made and sensitive considerations to keep in mind when deciding whether and how to regulate the most successful tech companies. The potential for costly errors is multiplied, however, in the case of developing countries, where there is a realistic risk of repelling “dominant” companies before they even enter the market (see South Africa).

Some of the above issues could be addressed with some foresight. That, however, seems to be sorely lacking in the race to push tech regulation through the door at any cost. As distinguished scholars like Fred Jenny have warned, caving to the political pressure of economic populism can come at the expense of competition and innovation. Let’s hope that is not the case here, there, or anywhere.

The blistering pace at which the European Union put forward and adopted the Digital Markets Act (DMA) has attracted the attention of legislators across the globe. In its wake, countries such as South Africa, India, Brazil, and Turkey have all contemplated digital-market regulations inspired by the DMA (and other models of regulation, such as the United Kingdom’s Digital Markets Unit and Australia’s sectoral codes of conduct).

Racing to be among the first jurisdictions to regulate might intuitively seem like a good idea. By emulating the EU, countries could hope to be perceived as on the cutting edge of competition policy, and hopefully earn a seat at the table when the future direction of such regulations is discussed.

There are, however, tradeoffs involved in regulating digital markets, which are arguably even more salient in the case of emerging markets. Indeed, as we will explain here, these jurisdictions often face challenges that significantly alter the ratio of costs and benefits when it comes to enacting regulation.

Drawing from a paper we wrote with Sam Bowman about competition policy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) zone, we highlight below three of the biggest issues these initiatives face.

To Regulate Competition, You First Need to Attract Competition

Perhaps the biggest factor cautioning emerging markets against adoption of DMA-inspired regulations is that such rules would impose heavy compliance costs to doing business in markets that are often anything but mature. It is probably fair to say that, in many (maybe most) emerging markets, the most pressing challenge is to attract investment from international tech firms in the first place, not how to regulate their conduct.

The most salient example comes from South Africa, which has sketched out plans to regulate digital markets. The Competition Commission has announced that Amazon, which is not yet available in the country, would fall under these new rules should it decide to enter—essentially on the presumption that Amazon would overthrow South Africa’s incumbent firms.

It goes without saying that, at the margin, such plans reduce either the likelihood that Amazon will enter the South African market at all, or the extent of its entry should it choose to do so. South African consumers thus risk losing the vast benefits such entry would bring—benefits that dwarf those from whatever marginal increase in competition might be gained from subjecting Amazon to onerous digital-market regulations.

While other tech firms—such as Alphabet, Meta, and Apple—are already active in most emerging jurisdictions, regulation might still have a similar deterrent effect to their further investment. Indeed, the infrastructure deployed by big tech firms in these jurisdictions is nowhere near as extensive as in Western countries. To put it mildly, emerging-market consumers typically only have access to slower versions of these firms’ services. A quick glimpse at Google Cloud’s global content-delivery network illustrates this point well (i.e., that there is far less infrastructure in developing markets):

Ultimately, emerging markets remain relatively underserved compared to those in the West. In such markets, the priority should be to attract tech investment, not to impose regulations that may further slow the deployment of critical internet infrastructure.

Growth Is Key

The potential to boost growth is the most persuasive argument for emerging markets to favor a more restrained approach to competition law and regulation, such as that currently employed in the United States.

Emerging nations may not have the means (or the inclination) to equip digital-market enforcers with resources similar to those of the European Commission. Given these resource constraints, it is essential that such jurisdictions focus their enforcement efforts on those areas that provide the highest return on investment, notably in terms of increased innovation.

This raises an important point. A recent empirical study by Ross Levine, Chen Lin, Lai Wei, and Wensi Xie finds that competition enforcement does, indeed, promote innovation. But among the study’s more surprising findings is that, unlike other areas of competition enforcement, the strength of a jurisdiction’s enforcement of “abuse of dominance” rules does not correlate with increased innovation. Furthermore, jurisdictions that allow for so-called “efficiency defenses” in unilateral-conduct cases also tend to produce more innovation. The authors thus conclude that:

From the perspective of maximizing patent-based innovation, therefore, a legal system that allows firms to exploit their dominant positions based on efficiency considerations could boost innovation.

These findings should give pause to policymakers who seek to emulate the European Union’s DMA—which, among other things, does not allow gatekeepers to put forward so-called “efficiency defenses” that would allow them to demonstrate that their behavior benefits consumers. If growth and innovation are harmed by overinclusive abuse-of-dominance regimes and rules that preclude firms from offering efficiency-based defenses, then this is probably even more true of digital-market regulations that replace case-by-case competition enforcement with per se prohibitions.

In short, the available evidence suggests that, faced with limited enforcement resources, emerging-market jurisdictions should prioritize other areas of competition policy, such as breaking up or mitigating the harmful effects of cartels and exercising appropriate merger controls.

These findings also cut in favor of emphasizing the traditional antitrust goal of maximizing consumer welfare—or, at least, protecting the competitive process. Many of the more recent digital-market regulations—such as the DMA, the UK DMU, and the ACCC sectoral codes of conduct—are instead focused on distributional issues. They seek to ensure that platform users earn a “fair share” of the benefits generated on a platform. In light of Levine et al.’s findings, this approach could be undesirable, as using competition policy to reduce monopoly rents may lead to less innovation.

In short, traditional antitrust law’s focus on consumer welfare and relatively limited enforcement in the area of unilateral conduct may be a good match for emerging nations that want competition regimes that maximize innovation under important resource constraints.

Consider Local Economic and Political Conditions

Emerging jurisdictions have diverse economic and political profiles. These features, in turn, affect the respective costs and benefits of digital-market regulations.

For example, digital-market regulations generally offer very broad discretion to competition enforcers. The DMA details dozens of open-ended prohibitions upon which enforcers can base infringement proceedings. Furthermore, because they are designed to make enforcers’ task easier, these regulations often remove protections traditionally afforded to defendants, such as appeals to the consumer welfare standard or efficiency defenses. The UK’s DMU initiative, for example, would lower the standard of proof that enforcers must meet.

Giving authorities broad powers with limited judicial oversight might be less problematic in jurisdictions where the state has a track record of self-restraint. The consequences of regulatory discretion might, however, be far more problematic in jurisdictions where authorities routinely overstep the mark and where the threat of corruption is very real.

To name but two, countries like South Africa and India rank relatively low in the World Bank’s “ease of doing business index” (84th and 62nd, respectively). They also rank relatively low on the Cato Institute’s “human freedom index” (77th and 119th, respectively—and both score particularly badly in terms of economic freedom). This suggests strongly that authorities in those jurisdictions are prone to misapply powers derived from digital-market regulations in ways that hurt growth and consumers.

To make matters worse, outright corruption is also a real problem in several emerging nations. Returning to South Africa and India, both jurisdictions face significant corruption issues (they rank 70th and 85th, respectively, on Transparency International’s “Corruption Perception Index”).

At a more granular level, an inquiry in South Africa revealed rampant corruption under former President Jacob Zuma, while current President Cyril Ramaphosa also faces significant corruption allegations. Writing in the Financial Times in 2018, Gaurav Dalmia—chair of Delhi-based Dalmia Group Holdings—opined that “India’s anti-corruption battle will take decades to win.”

This specter of corruption thus counsels in favor of establishing competition regimes with sufficient checks and balances, so as to prevent competition authorities from being captured by industry or political forces. But most digital-market regulations are designed precisely to remove those protections in order to streamline enforcement. The risk that they could be mobilized toward nefarious ends are thus anything but trivial. This is of particular concern, given that such regulations are typically mobilized against global firms in order to shield inefficient local firms—raising serious risks of protectionist enforcement that would harm local consumers.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that emerging markets would do well to reconsider the value of regulating digital markets that have yet to reach full maturity. Recent proposals threaten to deter tech investments in these jurisdictions, while raising significant risks of reduced growth, corruption, and consumer-harming protectionism.

The lame duck is not yet dead, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is supposed to be an independent agency. Work continues. The Commission has announced a partly open oral argument in the Illumina-Grail matter.  That is, parts of the argument will be open to the public, via webcast, and parts won’t. This is what’s known as translucency in government.

Enquiring minds: I have several questions about Illumina-Grail. First, for anyone reading this column, am I the only one who cannot think of the case without thinking of Monty Python’s grail-shaped beacon? Asking for a friend who worries about me.

Second, why seek to unwind this merger? My ICLE colleagues Geoff Manne and Gus Hurwitz are members of a distinguished group of law & economics scholars who filed a motion for leave to file an amicus brief in the matter. They question the merits of the case on a number of grounds.

Pertinent, not dispositive: this is a vertical merger. Certainly, it’s possible for vertical mergers to harm competition but theory suggests that they entail at least some efficiencies, and the empirical evidence from Francine Lafontaine and others tends to suggest that most have been beneficial for firms and consumers alike. One might wonder about the extent to which this case is built on analysis of the facts and circumstances rather than on Chair Lina Khan’s well-publicized antipathy to vertical mergers.

Recall that the FTC and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) jointly issued updated vertical-merger guidelines in June 2020. (The Global Antitrust Institute’s 2018 comments are worth review). The FTC—but not DOJ—promptly withdrew them in 2021, with a new majority, a partisan vote, and a questionable rationale for going it alone. Carl Shapiro and Herbert Hovenkamp minced no words, saying that the Commission’s justification rested on “specious economic arguments.”

There’s also a question of whether FTC’s likely foreclosure argument is all that likely. Illumina, which created Grail and had retained a substantial interest in it all along, would have strong commercial incentives against barring Grail’s future competitors from its platform. Moreover, Illumina made an open offer—contractually binding—to continue providing access for 12 years to its NGS platform and other products, on terms substantially similar to those available pre-merger. That would seem to undercut the possibility of foreclosure. Complaint counsel discounts this as a remedy (with behavioral remedies disfavored), but it is relatively straightforward and not really a remedy at all, with terms both private parties and the FTC might enforce. Thom Lambert and Jonathan Barnett both have interesting posts on the matter.

This is about a future market and potential (presumed) competitors. And it’s an area of biologics commerce where the deep pockets and regulatory sophistication necessary for development and approval frequently militate in favor of acquisition of a small innovator by a larger, established firm. As I noted in a prior column, “[p]otential competition cases are viable given the right facts, and in areas where good grounds to predict significant entry are well-established.” It can be hard to second-guess rule-of-reason cases from the outside, but there are reasons to think this is one of those matters where the preconditions to a strong potential competition argument are absent, but merger-related efficiencies real.  

What else is going on at the FTC? Law360 reports on a staff brief urging the Commission not to pitch a new standard of review in Altria-Juul on what look to be sensible grounds, independent of the merits of their Section I case. The Commission had asked to be briefed on the possibility of switching to a claim of a per se violation or, in the alternative, quick look, and the staff brief recommends maintaining the rule-of-reason approach that the Commission’s ALJ found unpersuasive in dismissing the Commission’s case, which will now be heard by the Commission itself. I have no non-public information on the matter. There’s a question of whether this signals any real tension between the staff’s analysis and the Commission’s preferred approach or simply the Commission’s interest in asking questions about pushing boundaries and the staff providing good counsel. I don’t know, but it could be business as usual.

And just this week, FTC announced that it is bringing a case to block Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision. More on that to follow.

What’s pressing is not so clear. The Commission announced the agenda for a Dec. 14 open meeting. On it is a vote on regulatory review of the “green guides,” which provide guidance on environmental-marketing claims. But there’s nothing further on the various ANPRs announced in September, or about rulemaking that the Chair has hinted at for noncompete clauses in employment contracts. And, of course, we’re still waiting for merger guidelines to replace the ones that have been withdrawn—likely joint FTC/DOJ guidelines that will likely range over both horizontal and vertical mergers.

There’s the Altria matter, Meta, Meta-Within, the forthcoming Supreme Court opinion in Axon, etc. The FTC’s request for an injunction in Meta-Within will be heard in federal district court in California over the next couple of weeks. It’s a novel (read, speculative) complaint. I had a few paragraphs on Meta-Within in my first roundup column; Gus Hurwitz covered it, as well. We shall see. 

Wandering up Pennsylvania Avenue onto the Hill, various bills seem not so much lame ducks as dead ones. But perhaps one or more is not dead yet. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) might be one such bill, its conspicuous defects notwithstanding. “Might be.” First, a bit of FTC history. Way back in 2010, the FTC held a series of workshops on the Future of Journalism. There were many interesting issues there, if no obvious room for antitrust. I reveal no secrets in saying THOSE WORKSHOPS WERE NOT THE STAFF’S IDEA. We failed to recommend any intervention, although the staff did publish a clarification of its discussion draft:

The FTC has not endorsed the idea of making any policy recommendation or recommended any of the proposals in the discussion draft

My own take at the time: many newspapers were struggling, and that was unfortunate, but much of the struggle had to do with the papers’ loss of local print-advertising monopolies, which tended to offer high advertising prices but not high quality. Remember the price of classified ads? For decades, many of the holders of market power happened to turn large portions of their rents over to their news divisions. Then came the internet, then Craigslist, etc., etc., and down went the rents. Antitrust intervention seemed no answer at all.

Back to the bill. In brief, as currently drafted, the JCPA would permit certain “digital journalism providers” to form cartels to negotiate prices with large online platforms, and to engage in group boycotts, without being liable to the federal antitrust laws, at least for four years. Dirk Auer and Ben Sperry have an overview here.

This would be an exemption for some sources of journalism, but not all, and its benefits would not be equally distributed. I am a paying consumer of digital (and even print) journalism. On the one hand, I enjoy it when others subsidize my preferences. On the other, I’m not sure why they should. As I said in a prior column, “antitrust exemptions help the special interests receiving them but not a living soul besides those special interests. That’s it, full stop.”  

Moreover, as Brian Albrecht points out, the bill’s mandatory final arbitration provision is likely to lead to a form of price regulation.

England v. France on Saturday. Allez les bleus or we few, we happy few? Cheers.  

Late last month, 25 former judges and government officials, legal academics and economists who are experts in antitrust and intellectual property law submitted a letter to Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter in support of the U.S. Justice Department’s (DOJ) July 2020 Avanci business-review letter (ABRL) dealing with patent pools. The pro-Avanci letter was offered in response to an October 2022 letter to Kanter from ABRL critics that called for reconsideration of the ABRL. A good summary account of the “battle of the scholarly letters” may be found here.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Herbert Hovenkamp defines a patent pool as “an arrangement under which patent holders in a common technology or market commit their patents to a single holder, who then licenses them out to the original patentees and perhaps to outsiders.” Although the U.S. antitrust treatment of patent pools might appear a rather arcane topic, it has major implications for U.S. innovation. As AAG Kanter ponders whether to dive into patent-pool policy, a brief review of this timely topic is in order. That review reveals that Kanter should reject the anti-Avanci letter and reaffirm the ABRL.

Background on Patent Pool Analysis

The 2017 DOJ-FTC IP Licensing Guidelines

Section 5.5 of joint DOJ-Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property (2017 Guidelines, which revised a prior 1995 version) provides an overview of the agencies’ competitive assessment of patent pools. The 2017 Guidelines explain that, depending on how pools are designed and operated, they may have procompetitive (and efficiency-enhancing) or anticompetitive features.

On the positive side of the ledger, Section 5.5 states:

Cross-licensing and pooling arrangements are agreements of two or more owners of different items of intellectual property to license one another or third parties. These arrangements may provide procompetitive benefits by integrating complementary technologies, reducing transaction costs, clearing blocking positions, and avoiding costly infringement litigation. By promoting the dissemination of technology, cross-licensing and pooling arrangements are often procompetitive.

On the negative side of the ledger, Section 5.5 states (citations omitted):

Cross-licensing and pooling arrangements can have anticompetitive effects in certain circumstances. For example, collective price or output restraints in pooling arrangements, such as the joint marketing of pooled intellectual property rights with collective price setting or coordinated output restrictions, may be deemed unlawful if they do not contribute to an efficiency-enhancing integration of economic activity among the participants. When cross-licensing or pooling arrangements are mechanisms to accomplish naked price-fixing or market division, they are subject to challenge under the per se rule.

Other aspects of pool behavior may be either procompetitive or anticompetitive, depending upon the circumstances, as Section 5.5 explains. The antitrust rule of reason would apply to pool restraints that may have both procompetitive and anticompetitive features.  

For example, requirements that pool members grant licenses to each other for current and future technology at minimal cost could disincentivize research and development. Such requirements, however, could also promote competition by exploiting economies of scale and integrating complementary capabilities of the pool members. According to the 2017 Guidelines, such requirements are likely to cause competitive problems only when they include a large fraction of the potential research and development in an R&D market.

Section 5.5 also applies rule-of-reason case-specific treatment to exclusion from pools. It notes that, although pooling arrangements generally need not be open to all who wish to join (indeed, exclusion of certain parties may be designed to prevent potential free riding), they may be anticompetitive under certain circumstances (citations omitted):

[E]xclusion from a pooling or cross-licensing arrangement among competing technologies is unlikely to have anticompetitive effects unless (1) excluded firms cannot effectively compete in the relevant market for the good incorporating the licensed technologies and (2) the pool participants collectively possess market power in the relevant market. If these circumstances exist, the [federal antitrust] [a]gencies will evaluate whether the arrangement’s limitations on participation are reasonably related to the efficient development and exploitation of the pooled technologies and will assess the net effect of those limitations in the relevant market.

The 2017 Guidelines are informed by the analysis of prior agency-enforcement actions and prior DOJ business-review letters. Through the business-review-letter procedure, an organization may submit a proposed action to the DOJ Antitrust Division and receive a statement as to whether the Division currently intends to challenge the action under the antitrust laws, based on the information provided. Historically, DOJ has used these letters as a vehicle to discuss current agency thinking about safeguards that may be included in particular forms of business arrangements to alleviate DOJ competitive concerns.

DOJ patent-pool letters, in particular, have prompted DOJ to highlight specific sorts of provisions in pool agreements that forestalled competitive problems. To this point, DOJ has never commented favorably on patent-pool safeguards in a letter and then subsequently reversed course to find the safeguards inadequate.

Subsequent to issuance of the 2017 Guidelines, DOJ issued two business-review letters on patent pools: the July 2020 ABRL letter and the January 2021 University Technology Licensing Program business-review letter (UTLP letter). Those two letters favorably discussed competitive safeguards proffered by the entities requesting favorable DOJ reviews.

ABRL Letter

The ABRL letter explains (citations omitted):

[Avanci] proposed [a] joint patent-licensing pool . . . to . . . license patent claims that have been declared “essential” to implementing 5G cellular wireless standards for use in automobile vehicles and distribute royalty income among the Platform’s licensors. Avanci currently operates a licensing platform related to 4G cellular standards and offers licenses to 2G, 3G, and 4G standards-essential patents used in vehicles and smart meters.

After consulting telecommunications and automobile-industry stakeholders, conducing an independent review, and considering prior guidance to other patent pools, “DOJ conclude[d] that, on balance, Avanci’s proposed 5G Platform is unlikely to harm competition.” As such, DOJ announced it had no present intention to challenge the platform.

The DOJ press release accompanying the ABRL letter provides additional valuable information on Avanci’s potential procompetitive efficiencies; its plan to charge fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (FRAND) rates; and its proposed safeguards:

Avanci’s 5G Platform may make licensing standard essential patents related to vehicle connectivity more efficient by providing automakers with a “one stop shop” for licensing 5G technology. The Platform also has the potential to reduce patent infringement and ensure that patent owners who have made significant contributions to the development of 5G “Release 15” specifications are compensated for their innovation. Avanci represents that the Platform will charge FRAND rates for the patented technologies, with input from both licensors and licensees.

In addition, Avanci has incorporated a number of safeguards into its 5G Platform that can help protect competition, including licensing only technically essential patents; providing for independent evaluation of essential patents; permitting licensing outside the Platform, including in other fields of use, bilateral or multi-lateral licensing by pool members, and the formation of other pools at levels of the automotive supply chain; and by including mechanisms to prevent the sharing of competitively sensitive information.  The Department’s review found that the Platform’s essentiality review may help automakers license the patents they actually need to make connected vehicles.  In addition, the Platform license includes “Have Made” rights that creates new access to cellular standard essential patents for licensed automakers’ third-party component suppliers, permitting them to make non-infringing components for 5G connected vehicles.

UTLP Letter

The United Technology Licensing Program business-review letter (issued less than a year after the ABRL letter, at the end of the Trump administration) discussed a proposal by participating universities to offer licenses to their physical-science patents relating to specified emerging technologies. According to DOJ:

[Fifteen universities agreed to cooperate] in licensing certain complementary patents through UTLP, which will be organized into curated portfolios relating to specific technology applications for autonomous vehicles, the “Internet of Things,” and “Big Data.”  The overarching goal of UTLP is to centralize the administrative costs associated with commercializing university research and help participating universities to overcome the budget, institutional relationship, and other constraints that make licensing in these areas particularly challenging for them.

The UTLP letter concluded, based on representations made in UTLP’s letter request, that the pool was on balance unlikely to harm competition. Specifically:

UTLP has incorporated a number of safeguards into its program to help protect competition, including admitting only non-substitutable patents, with a “safety valve” if a patent to accomplish a particular task is inadvertently included in a portfolio with another, substitutable patent. The program also will allow potential sublicensees to choose an individual patent, a group of patents, or UTLP’s entire portfolio, thereby mitigating the risk that a licensee will be required to license more technology than it needs. The department’s letter notes that UTLP is a mechanism that is intended to address licensing inefficiencies and institutional challenges unique to universities in the physical science context, and makes no assessment about whether this mechanism if set up in another context would have similar procompetitive benefits.

Patent-Pool Guidance in Context

DOJ and FTC patent-pool guidance has been bipartisan. It has remained generally consistent in character from the mid-1990s (when the first 1995 IP licensing guidelines were issued) to early 2021 (the end of the Trump administration, when the UTLP letter was issued). The overarching concern expressed in agency guidance has been to prevent a pool from facilitating collusion among competitors, from discouraging innovation, and from inefficiently excluding competitors.

As technology has advanced over the last quarter century, U.S. antitrust enforcers—and, in particular, DOJ, through a series of business-review letters beginning in 1997 (see the pro-Avanci letter at pages 9-10)—consistently have emphasized the procompetitive efficiencies that pools can generate, while also noting the importance of avoiding anticompetitive harms.

Those letters have “given a pass” to pools whose rules contained safeguards against collusion among pool members (e.g., by limiting pool patents to complementary, not substitute, technologies) and against anticompetitive exclusion (e.g., by protecting pool members’ independence of action outside the pool). In assessing safeguards, DOJ has paid attention to the particular market context in which a pool arises.

Notably, economic research generally supports the conclusion that, in recent decades, patent pools have been an important factor in promoting procompetitive welfare-enhancing innovation and technology diffusion.

For example, a 2015 study by Justus Baron and Tim Pohlmann found that a significant number of pools were created following antitrust authorities’ “more permissive stance toward pooling of patents” beginning in the late 1990s. Studying these new pools, they found “a significant increase in patenting rates after pool announcement” that was “primarily attributable to future members of the pool”.

A 2009 analysis by Richard Gilbert of the University of California, Berkeley (who served as chief economist of the DOJ Antitrust Division during the Clinton administration) concluded that (consistent with the approach adopted in DOJ business-review letters) “antitrust authorities and the courts should encourage policies that promote the formation and durability of beneficial pools that combine complementary patents.”

In a 2014 assessment of the role of patent pools in combatting “patent thickets,” Jonathan Barnett of the USC Gould School of Law concluded:

Using network visualization software, I show that information and communication technology markets rely on patent pools and other cross-licensing structures to mitigate or avoid patent thickets and associated inefficiencies. Based on the composition, structure, terms and pricing of selected leading patent pools in the ICT market, I argue that those pools are best understood as mechanisms by which vertically integrated firms mitigate transactional frictions and reduce the cost of accessing technology inputs.

Admittedly, a few studies of some old patents pools (e.g., the 19th century sewing-machine pool and certain early 20th century New Deal pools) found them to be associated with a decline in patenting. Setting aside possible questions of those studies’ methodologies, the old pooling arrangements bear little resemblance to the carefully crafted pool structures today. In particular, unlike the old pools, the more recent pools embody competitive safeguards (the old pools may have combined substitute patents, for example).   

Business-review letters dealing with pools have provided a degree of legal certainty that has helped encourage their formation, to the benefit of innovation in key industries. The anti-Avanci letter ignores that salient fact, focusing instead on allegedly “abusive” SEP-licensing tactics by the Avanci 5G pool—such as refusal to automatically grant a license to all comers—without considering that the pool may have had legitimate reasons not to license particular parties (who may, for instance, have made bad faith unreasonable licensing demands). In sum, this blinkered approach is wrong as a matter of SEP law and policy (as explained in the pro-Avanci letter) and wrong in its implicit undermining of the socially beneficial patent-pool business-review process.   

The pro-Avanci letter ably describes the serious potential harm generated by the anti-Avanci letter:

In evaluating the carefully crafted Avanci pool structure, the 2020 business review letter appropriately concluded that the pool’s design conformed to the well-established, fact-intensive inquiry concerning actual market practices and efficiencies set forth in previous business review letters. Any reconsideration of the 2020 business review letter, as proposed in the October 17 letter, would give rise to significant uncertainty concerning the Antitrust Division’s commitment to the aforementioned sequence of business review letters that have been issued concerning other patent pools in the information technology industry, as well as the larger group of patent pools that did not specifically seek guidance through the business review letter process but relied on the legal template that had been set forth in those previously issued letters.

This is a point of great consequence. Pooling arrangements in the information technology industry have provided an efficient market-driven solution to the transaction costs that are inherent to patent-intensive industries and, when structured appropriately in light of agency guidance and applicable case law, do not raise undue antitrust concerns. Thanks to pooling and related collective licensing arrangements, the innovations embodied in tens of thousands of patents have been made available to hundreds of device producers and other intermediate users, while innovators have been able to earn a commensurate return on the costs and risks that they undertook to develop new technologies that have transformed entire fields and industries to the benefit of consumers.

Conclusion

President Joe Biden’s 2021 Executive Order on Competition commits the Biden administration to “the promotion of competition and innovation by firms small and large, at home and worldwide.” One factor in promoting competition and innovation has been the legal certainty flowing from well-reasoned DOJ business-review letters on patent pools, issued on a bipartisan basis for more than a quarter of a century.

A DOJ decision to reconsider (in other words, to withdraw) the sound guidance embodied in the ABRL would detract from this certainty and thereby threaten to undermine innovation promoted by patent pools. Accordingly, AAG Kanter should reject the advice proffered by the anti-Avanci letter and publicly reaffirm his support for the ABRL—and, more generally, for the DOJ business-review process.

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

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

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

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

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

Antitrust Fun, Little Guidance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incomplete Lessons from the Past

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recently departed Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioner Noah Phillips has been rightly praised as “a powerful voice during his four-year tenure at the FTC, advocating for rational antitrust enforcement and against populist antitrust that derails the fair yet disruptive process of competition.” The FTC will miss his trenchant analysis and collegiality, now that he has departed for the greener pastures of private practice.

A particularly noteworthy example of Phillips’ mastery of his craft is presented by his November 2018 dissent from the FTC’s majority opinion in the 1-800 Contacts case, which presented tricky questions about the proper scope of antitrust intervention in contracts designed to protect intellectual property rights. (For more on the opinion, see Geoffrey A. Manne, Hal Singer, and Joshua D. Wright’s December 2018 piece.)

Phillips’ dissent—vindicated by a June 2021 decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacating the commission’s order—merits close attention. (The circuit court also denied the FTC’s petition for a rehearing en banc in August 2021.)

The 1-800 Business Model and the FTC’s Proceedings

Before describing the 1-800 proceedings, Phillips’ dissent, and the judicial vindication of his position, we begin with a brief assessment of the welfare-enhancing innovative business model employed by 1-800 Contacts. The firm pioneered the online contact-lens sales business. It is an American entrepreneurial success story, which has bestowed great benefits on consumers through trademark-backed competition focusing on price and quality considerations. Phillips’ dissenting opinion explained:

Jonathan Coon started the business that would become 1-800 Contacts in 1992 from his college dormitory room with just $50 to his name, seeking to reduce prices, improve service, and provide a better customer experience for contact lens consumers. … Over the next 26 years he would succeed, building a company (and a brand) from essentially nothing to one of the largest contact lens retailers in the country, while introducing American consumers to mail-order contact lenses (and later ordering contacts online), driving down prices, and attracting competition from small and large companies alike. That growth required a combination of a massive investment in advertising and a constant quest to improve the customer experience. That is the type of conduct that antitrust and trademark law should, and do, encourage. …

As [the FTC administrative law judge] … found in the Initial Decision, “1-800 Contacts’ business objective from the company’s inception was to make the process of buying contact lenses simple and it tries to distinguish itself from other contact lens retailers by making it faster, easier, and more convenient to get contact lenses.” … This contrasts with other online contact lens retailers, which generally do not seek to distinguish themselves on the basis of customer experience, customer service, or simplicity. … 1-800 Contacts did not limit itself to competing on price because it found that many customers valued speed and convenience just as much as price. …

1-800 Contacts’ relentless investment in its brand and in improving its customer service are recognized. Many third parties—including J.D. Power and Associates, StellaService Elite, and Foresee—have recognized or given awards to 1-800 Contacts for its customer service. … But that has not stopped 1-800 Contacts from continuing to invest in improving its service to enhance the customer experience. …

The service and brand investments made by 1-800 Contacts have resulted in millions of consumers purchasing contact lenses from 1-800 Contacts over the phone and online. They are precisely the types of investments that trademark law exists to protect and encourage.

The 2nd Circuit summarized the actions by 1-800 Contacts (“Petitioner”) that prompted an FTC administrative complaint, then presented a brief history of the internal FTC proceedings:

In 2002, Petitioner began filing complaints and sending cease-and-desist letters to its competitors alleging trademark infringement related to its competitors’ online advertisements. Between 2004 and 2013, Petitioner entered into thirteen settlement agreements to resolve most of these disputes. Each of these agreements includes language that prohibits the parties from using each other’s trademarks, URLs, and variations of trademarks as search advertising keywords. The agreements also require the parties to employ negative keywords so that a search including one party’s trademarks will not trigger a display of the other party’s ads. The agreements do not prohibit parties from bidding on generic keywords such as “contacts” or “contact lenses.” Petitioner enforced the agreements when it perceived them to be breached.   

Apart from the settlement agreements, in 2013 Petitioner entered into a “sourcing and services agreement” with Luxottica, a company that sells and distributes contacts through its affiliates. That agreement also contains reciprocal online search advertising restrictions prohibiting the use of trademark keywords and requiring both parties to employ negative keywords.  

The FTC issued an administrative complaint against Petitioner in August 2016 alleging that the thirteen settlement agreements and the Luxottica agreement, … along with subsequent actions to enforce them, unreasonably restrain truthful, non-misleading advertising as well as price competition in search advertising auctions, all of which constitute a violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. § 45. The complaint alleges that the Challenged  Agreements prevented Petitioner’s competitors from disseminating ads that would have informed consumers that the same contact lenses were available at a cheaper price from other online retailers, thereby reducing competition and making it more difficult for consumers to compare online retail prices. The case was tried before an ALJ, who concluded that a violation had occurred.   

As an initial matter, the ALJ rejected Petitioner’s assertion that trademark settlement agreements are not subject to antitrust scrutiny in light of FTC v. Actavis, 570 U.S. 136 (2013). Applying the “rule of reason” and principles of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1, the ALJ determined that “[o]nline sales of contact lenses constitute a relevant product market.” … He found that the agreements constituted a “contract, combination, or  conspiracy” as required by the Sherman Act and held that the  advertising restrictions in the agreements harmed consumers by reducing the availability of information, in turn making it costlier for consumers to find and compare contact lens prices. …

Having found actual anticompetitive effects, as required under the rule of reason analysis, the ALJ rejected the procompetitive justifications for the agreements offered by Petitioner. He found that while trademark protection is procompetitive, it did not justify the advertising restrictions in the agreements and also that Petitioner failed to show that reduced litigation costs would benefit consumers. The ALJ issued an order that barred Petitioner from entering into an agreement with any marketer or seller of contact lenses to limit participation in search advertising auctions or to prohibit or limit search advertising.

1-800 appealed the ALJ’s order to the Commission. In a split decision, a majority of the Commission agreed with the ALJ that the agreements violated Section 5 of the FTC Act. The majority, however, analyzed the settlement agreements differently from the ALJ. The majority classified the agreements as “inherently suspect” and alternatively found “direct evidence” of anticompetitive effects on consumers and search engines. The majority then analyzed the procompetitive justifications Petitioner offered for the agreements and rejected arguments that the benefits of protecting trademarks and reducing litigation costs outweighed any potential harm to consumers. Finally, the majority identified what it believed to be less anticompetitive alternatives to the advertising restrictions in the agreements. One Commissioner dissented, reasoning both that the majority should not have applied the “inherently suspect” framework and that it failed to give appropriate consideration to Petitioner’s proffered procompetitive justifications. This timely appeal followed.

Commissioner Phillips’ Dissent

Phillips meticulously made the case that 1-800 Contacts’ behavior raised no antitrust concerns.

First, he began by stressing that the settlements in question resolved legitimate trademark-infringement claims. The settlements also were limited in scope. They did not prevent any of the parties from engaging in any form of non-infringing advertising (online or offline), they specifically permitted non-infringing uses like comparative advertising and parodies, and they placed no restrictions on the content that any of the settling parties could include in their ads. In short, the settlements “sought to balance 1-800 Contacts’ legitimate interests in protecting its trademarks with competitors’ (and consumers’) interests in truthful advertising.

Second, he explained in detail why the FTC majority opinion failed to show that the trademark settlements were “inherently suspect.” He noted that the “[s]ettlements do not approximate conduct that the Commission or courts have previously found to be inherently suspect, much less illegal.” FTC complaint counsel had not demonstrated any output effects—the settlements permitted price and quality advertising, and did not affect third-party sellers. The Actavis Supreme Court refused to apply the inherently suspect framework “even though the alleged conduct at issue [reverse payments] was far more harmful to competition than anything at issue here, as well-established economic evidence demonstrated.”

Moreover, the majority opinion’s reliance on the FTC’s Polygram decision was misplaced, because the defendants in that case fixed prices and banned advertising (“[t]here is no price fixing here [n]or is there an advertising ban”). Other cases cited by the majority involving advertising restrictions similarly were inapposite, because they involved far greater restrictions on advertising and did not implicate intellectual property. Furthermore, “[t]he economic studies cited by the majority d[id] not examine paid search advertising, … much less how restraints upon it interact with the trademark policies at issue here.”

Third, he discussed at length why the majority should not have pursued a truncated rule-of-reason analysis. In short:

Applicable precedent makes clear that the Trademark Settlements should be analyzed under the traditional rule of reason. And the cases on which the majority rely fail to provide support for truncating that analysis by applying the “inherently suspect” framework. As noted, those cases do not involve trademarks, or intellectual property of any kind. That is relevant—indeed, decisive—because trademarks often limit advertising in one way or another, and the logic of the majority’s analysis would support a rule that stigmatizes conduct protecting those rights, which is clearly procompetitive, as presumptively unlawful.

Fourth, in addition to the legal infirmities, Phillips skillfully exposed the serious policy shortcomings of the majority’s “inherently suspect” approach:

Treating the Trademark Settlements as “inherently suspect” yields an unclear rule that regardless of interpretation, will, I fear, create uncertainty, dilute trademark rights, and dampen inter-brand competition. The majority couch their holding as a limited one dealing with restraints on the opportunity to make price comparisons, but, by adopting an analytical framework without accounting for the intellectual property at issue, they produce one of the following rules: either all advertising restrictions are inherently suspect, regardless whether they protect intellectual property rights, or the level of scrutiny applied to a particular restraint will depend on the strength of the trademark holder’s underlying infringement claim.

In his policy assessment, Phillips added that the policy favoring litigation settlements (due to the fact that, as a general matter, they promote efficiency) supports application of the traditional rule of reason.

Fifth, turning to the traditional rule of reason, Phillips explicated FTC complaint counsel’s failure to meet its burden of proof (case citations omitted):

If the Trademark Settlements are not “inherently suspect”, which they are not, Complaint Counsel can meet their initial burden of proof under the rule of reason in one of two ways: “an indirect showing based on a demonstration of defendant’s market power” or “direct evidence of ‘actual, sustained adverse effects on competition’” … The majority take only the direct approach; they do not attempt an indirect showing of market power. … To meet the initial burden of direct evidence, a plaintiff must show adverse effects on competition that are actual, sustained, and significant or substantial. … Complaint Counsel have not met that burden with its showing on direct effects.

In dealing with burden-of-proof issues, Phillips demonstrated that, in the context of a trademark-settlement agreement, a restriction on advertising is, by itself, insufficient to show direct effects. Phillips conceded that, “[w]hile restrictions on advertising are not themselves enough, the majority are correct that a showing of actual, sustained, and substantial or significant price effects would suffice.” But Phillips emphasized that the majority failed to show that the trademark settlements were responsible for “the fact that 1-800 Contacts’ prices were higher than some of its competitors’ prices.” Indeed, the record was “clear that that price differential predated the Trademark Settlements.” Furthermore, FTC complaint counsel “put forward no evidence that the price gap increased as a result of the Trademark Settlements.” What’s more, the FTC majority “did not adduce legally sufficient proof” that “1-800 Contacts maintained supracompetitive prices. … [T]he majority d[id] not even attempt to show that 1-800 Contacts’ price cost-margin was abnormally high—either before or after the Trademark Settlements.”

Phillips next focused on the substantial procompetitive justifications for 1-800’s conduct. (This was legally unnecessary, because the initial burden under the inherently suspect framework had not been met, direct effects had not been shown, and there had been no effort to show indirect effects.) These included settlement-related litigation-cost savings and enhanced trademark protections. Phillips stressed “the tremendous amount of investment 1-800 Contacts ha[d] made in building its brand, lowering the price of contact lenses, and offering customers superior service.” 

After skillfully refuting the FTC majority’s novel separate theory that the settlements had anticompetitive effects on firms owning search engines (such as Google or Bing), Phillips skewered the FTC majority’s claim that the trademark settlements could have been narrower:

The searches that the Trademark Settlements prohibit[ed] [we[re] precisely those searches that implicate[d] 1-800 Contacts’ trademarks. They [we]re also the searches through which users [we]re most likely attempting to reach the 1-800 Contacts website (i.e., searches for 1-800 Contacts’ trademark). …

The settling parties included a negative keyword provision in response to Google’s explicit encouragement for 1-800 Contacts to resolve its trademark disputes with competitors by having them implement 1-800 Contacts’ trademarked terms as negative keywords. … They did so because, without negative keywords, a settling party’s advertisements could appear in response to searches for the counterparty’s trademarked terms.

Almost all of the Trademark Settlements balanced these restrictions with a provision explicitly permitting a settling party to use the counterparty’s trademarks in the non-internet context, including comparative advertising. …

As a result, …  the Trademark Settlements were appropriately tailored to achieve their goal of preventing trademark infringement while balancing the need to permit non-infringing advertising.

Turning to the Luxottica servicing agreement, Phillips explained that the majority opinion mistakenly characterized it as just another inherently suspect settlement. Instead, it was an efficient sourcing and servicing agreement. Under the agreement, 1-800 Contacts shipped contacts for sale to Luxottica brick-and-mortar chain stores, and Luxottica also provided other services. Luxottica benefited by outsourcing its entire contact-lens business—including negotiating with contact-lens suppliers—to 1-800 Contacts. The majority failed to analyze the various procompetitive benefits stemming from this arrangement, which fit squarely within the FTC-U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) Competitor Collaboration Guidelines. In particular, for example, “[a]s a direct result of its decision to outsource much of its contact business to 1-800 Contacts, Luxottica customers could receive lower prices and better services (e.g., faster delivery).”

Phillips closed his dissent by highlighting the ineffectiveness of the FTC majority’s order, which “state[d] that the only agreements that 1-800 Contacts c[ould] enter [we]re those that, in effect, that t[old] the counterparty that they c[ould] [not] violate the trademark laws.” This unhelpful language “w[ould] only lead to more litigation to determine what conduct actually violated the trademark laws in the context of paid search advertising based on trademarked keywords. Because the Order only allow[ed] agreements that d[id] not actually resolve the dispute in trademark infringement litigation, it w[ould] reduce the incentive to settle, which, in turn, w[ould] lead to either less trademark enforcement or more costly litigation”.

Phillips concluding paragraph offered sound general advice about the limits of antitrust and the need to avoid a harmful lack of clarity in enforcement:

The Commission’s mandate is to enforce the antitrust laws, but we cannot do so in a vacuum. We need to consider competing policies, including federal trademark policy, when analyzing allegedly anticompetitive conduct. And we should recognize that unclear rules may do more harm both to that policy and to competition than the alleged conduct here. In the case of the Trademark Settlements, precedent offers a better way: the Commission should analyze such agreements under the full rule of reason, giving appropriate weight to the trademarks at issue and the value they protect. Such a rule will decrease uncertainty in the market, encourage brand investment, and increase competition.

The 2nd Circuit Rejects the FTC Majority’s Position

The 2nd Circuit rejected the FTC majority opinion and vacated commission’s order. First, it rejected the FTC’s reliance on a “quick look” analysis, stating:

Courts do not have sufficient experience with this type of conduct to permit the abbreviated analysis of the Challenged [trademark settlement] Agreements undertaken by the Commission. … When, as here, not only are there cognizable procompetitive justifications but also the type of restraint has not been widely condemned in our “judicial experience,” … more is required. … The Challenged Agreements, therefore, are not so obviously anticompetitive to consumers that someone with only a basic understanding of economics would immediately recognize them to be so. … We are bound, then, to apply the rule of reason.

Turning to full rule-of-reason analysis, the court began by assessing anticompetitive effects. It rejected the FTC’s argument that it had established direct evidence of such effects in the form of increased prices. It emphasized that the government could not show an actual anticompetitive change in prices after the restraint was implemented, “because it did not conduct an empirical analysis of the Challenged Agreements effect on the price of contact lenses in the online market for contacts.” Specifically, because the FTC’s evidence was merely “theoretical and anecdotal,” the evidence was not “direct.” The court also concluded that it need not decide whether an FTC theory of anticompetitive harm due to “disrupted information flow” (due to a reduction in the quantity of advertisements) was viable, because 1-800 Contacts had shown a procompetitive justification.

The court rejected the FTC’s finding that 1-800 Contact’s citation of two procompetitive effects—reduced litigation costs and the protection of trademark rights—had no basis in fact. Citing the 2nd Circuit’s Clorox decision, the court emphasized that “[t]rademarks are by their nature non-exclusionary, and agreements to protect trademark interests are ‘common and favored, under the law.’” The FTC’s doubts about the merits of the trademark-infringement claims were irrelevant, because, consistent with Clorox, “trademark agreements that ‘only marginally advance[] trademark policies’ can be procompetitive.” And while trademark agreements that were “auxiliary to an underlying illegal agreement between competitors” would not pass legal muster, there was “a lack of evidence here that the Challenged Agreements [we]re the ‘product of anything other than hard-nosed trademark negotiations.’”

Because 1-800 Contacts had “carried its burden of identifying a procompetitive justification, the government [had to] … show that a less-restrictive alternative exist[ed] that achieve[d] the same legitimate competitive benefits.” In that regard, the FTC claimed “that the parties to the Challenged Agreements could have agreed to require clear disclosure in each search advertisement of the identity of the rival seller rather than prohibit all advertising on trademarked issues.”

But, citing Clorox, the court opined that “it is usually unwise for courts to second-guess” trademark agreements between competitors, because “the parties’ determination of the proper scope of needed trademark protection is entitled to substantial weight.” In this matter, the FTC “failed to consider the practical reasons for the parties entering into the Challenged Agreements. … The Commission did not consider, for example, how the parties might enforce such a requirement moving forward or give any weight to how onerous such enforcement efforts would be for private parties.” In short, “[w]hile trademark agreements limit competitors from competing as effectively as they otherwise might, … forcing companies to be less aggressive in enforcing their trademarks is antithetical to the procompetitive goals of trademark policy.”

In sum, the court concluded:

In this case, where the restrictions that arise are born of typical trademark settlement agreements, we cannot overlook the Procompetitive Agreements’ procompetitive goal of promoting trademark policy. In light of the strong procompetitive justification of protecting Petitioner’s trademarks, we conclude the Challenged Agreements “merely regulate[] and perhaps thereby promote[] competition.”

Conclusion

While strong intellectual-property protection is key to robust competition, the different types of IP advance competitive interests in different manners. Patents, for example, provide a right to exclude access to well-defined inventions, thereby creating incentives to invent and facilitating contracts that spread patent-based innovations throughout the economy. Trademarks protect brand names and logos, thereby serving as specific indicators of origin and creating incentives to invest in improving the quality of the product or service covered by a trademark. As such, strong trademarks spur competition over quality and reduce uncertainty about the particular attributes of competing goods and services. In short, trademarks tend to promote dynamic competition and benefit consumers.

Properly applied, antitrust law seeks to advance consumer welfare and strengthen the competitive process. In that regard, the policy goals of antitrust and intellectual property are in harmony, and antitrust should be enforced in a manner that complements, and does not undermine, IP policy. Thus, when faced with a competitive restraint covering IP rights, antitrust enforcers should evaluate it carefully. They should be mindful of the procompetitive goals it may serve and avoid focusing solely on theories of competitive harm that ignore IP interests.

The FTC majority in 1-800 Contacts missed this fundamental point. They gave relatively short shrift to the procompetitive aspects of trademark protection and, at the same time, mischaracterized minor restrictions on advertising as akin to significant restraints that chill the provision of price information and product comparisons.

There was no showing that the 1-800 restrictions had stifled price competition or undermined in any manner consumers’ ability to compare contact-lens brands and prices online. In reality, the settlement agreements under scrutiny were rather carefully crafted to protect 1-800 Contacts’ goodwill, reflected in its substantial investments in quality enhancement and the promotion of relatively low-cost online sales. In the absence of the settlements, its online rivals would have been able to free ride on 1-800’s brand investments, diminishing that innovative firm’s incentive to continue to invest in trademark-related product enhancements. The long-term effect would have been to diminish, not enhance, dynamic competition.

More generally, had it prevailed, the FTC majority’s blinkered analytical approach in 1-800 Contacts could have chilled vigorous, welfare-enhancing competition in many other markets where trademarks play an important role. Fortunately, the majority’s holding did not stand for long.

Phillips’ brilliant dissent, which carefully integrated trademark-policy concerns into the application of antitrust principles—in tandem with the subsequent 2nd Circuit decision that properly acknowledged the need to weigh such concerns in antitrust analysis—provide a template for trademark-antitrust assessments that may be looked to by future courts and enforcers. Let us hope that current Biden administration FTC and DOJ Antitrust Division enforcers also take heed. 

Faithful and even occasional readers of this roundup might have noticed a certain temporal discontinuity between the last post and this one. The inimitable Gus Hurwitz has passed the scrivener’s pen to me, a recent refugee from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the roundup is back in business. Any errors going forward are mine. Going back, blame Gus.

Commissioner Noah Phillips departed the FTC last Friday, leaving the Commission down a much-needed advocate for consumer welfare and the antitrust laws as they are, if not as some wish they were. I recommend the reflections posted by Commissioner Christine S. Wilson and my fellow former FTC Attorney Advisor Alex Okuliar. Phillips collaborated with his fellow commissioners on matters grounded in the law and evidence, but he wasn’t shy about crying frolic and detour when appropriate.

The FTC without Noah is a lesser place. Still, while it’s not always obvious, many able people remain at the Commission and some good solid work continues. For example, FTC staff filed comments urging New York State to reject a Certificate of Public Advantage (“COPA”) application submitted by SUNY Upstate Health System and Crouse Medical. The staff’s thorough comments reflect investigation of the proposed merger, recent research, and the FTC’s long experience with COPAs. In brief, the staff identified anticompetitive rent-seeking for what it is. Antitrust exemptions for health-care providers tend to make health care worse, but more expensive. Which is a corollary to the evergreen truth that antitrust exemptions help the special interests receiving them but not a living soul besides those special interests. That’s it, full stop.

More Good News from the Commission

On Sept. 30, a unanimous Commission announced that an independent physician association in New Mexico had settled allegations that it violated a 2005 consent order. The allegations? Roughly 400 physicians—independent competitors—had engaged in price fixing, violating both the 2005 order and the Sherman Act. As the concurring statement of Commissioners Phillips and Wilson put it, the new order “will prevent a group of doctors from allegedly getting together to negotiate… higher incomes for themselves and higher costs for their patients.” Oddly, some have chastised the FTC for bringing the action as anti-labor. But the IPA is a regional “must-have” for health plans and a dominant provider to consumers, including patients, who might face tighter budget constraints than the median physician

Peering over the rims of the rose-colored glasses, my gaze turns to Meta. In July, the FTC sued to block Meta’s proposed acquisition of Within Unlimited (and its virtual-reality exercise app, Supernatural). Gus wrote about it with wonder, noting reports that the staff had recommended against filing, only to be overruled by the chair.

Now comes October and an amended complaint. The amended complaint is even weaker than the opening salvo. Now, the FTC alleges that the acquisition would eliminate potential competition from Meta in a narrower market, VR-dedicated fitness apps, by “eliminating any probability that Meta would enter the market through alternative means absent the Proposed Acquisition, as well as eliminating the likely and actual beneficial influence on existing competition that results from Meta’s current position, poised on the edge of the market.”

So what if Meta were to abandon the deal—as the FTC wants—but not enter on its own? Same effect, but the FTC cannot seriously suggest that Meta has a positive duty to enter the market. Is there a jurisdiction (or a planet) where a decision to delay or abandon entry would be unlawful unilateral conduct? Suppose instead that Meta enters, with virtual-exercise guns blazing, much to the consternation of firms actually in the market, which might complain about it. Then what? Would the Commission cheer or would it allege harm to nascent competition, or perhaps a novel vertical theory? And by the way, how poised is Meta, given no competing product in late-stage development? Would the FTC prefer that Meta buy a different competitor? Should the overworked staff commence Meta’s due diligence?

Potential competition cases are viable given the right facts, and in areas where good grounds to predict significant entry are well-established. But this is a nascent market in a large, highly dynamic, and innovative industry. The competitive landscape a few years down the road is anyone’s guess. More speculation: the staff was right all along. For more, see Dirk Auer’s or Geoffrey Manne’s threads on the amended complaint.

When It Rains It Pours Regulations

On Aug. 22, the FTC published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) to consider the potential regulation of “commercial surveillance and data security” under its Section 18 authority. Shortly thereafter, they announced an Oct. 20 open meeting with three more ANPRs on the agenda.

First, on the advance notice: I’m not sure what they mean by “commercial surveillance.” The term doesn’t appear in statutory law, or in prior FTC enforcement actions. It sounds sinister and, surely, it’s an intentional nod to Shoshana Zuboff’s anti-tech polemic “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” One thing is plain enough: the proffered definition is as dramatically sweeping as it is hopelessly vague. The Commission seems to be contemplating a general data regulation of some sort, but we don’t know what sort. They don’t say or even sketch a possible rule. That’s a problem for the FTC, because the law demands that the Commission state its regulatory objectives, along with regulatory alternatives under consideration, in the ANPR itself. If they get to an NPRM, they are required to describe a proposed rule with specificity.

What’s clear is that the ANPR takes a dim view of much of the digital economy. And while the Commission has considerable experience in certain sorts of privacy and data security matters, the ANPR hints at a project extending well past that experience. Commissioners Phillips and Wilson dissented for good and overlapping reasons. Here’s a bit from the Phillips dissent:

When adopting regulations, clarity is a virtue. But the only thing clear in the ANPR is a rather dystopic view of modern commerce….I cannot support an ANPR that is the first step in a plan to go beyond the Commission’s remit and outside its experience to issue rules that fundamentally alter the internet economy without a clear congressional mandate….It’s a naked power grab.

Be sure to read the bonus material in the Federal Register—supporting statements from Chair Lina Khan and Commissioners Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Alvaro Bedoya, and dissenting statements from Commissioners Phillips and Wilson. Chair Khan breezily states that “the questions we ask in the ANPR and the rules we are empowered to issue may be consequential, but they do not implicate the ‘major questions doctrine.’” She’s probably half right: the questions do not violate the Constitution. But she’s probably half wrong too.

For more, see ICLE’s Oct. 20 panel discussion and the executive summary to our forthcoming comments to the Commission.

But wait, there’s more! There were three additional ANPRs on the Commission’s Oct. 20 agenda. So that’s four and counting. Will there be a proposed rule on non-competes? Gig workers? Stay tuned. For now, note that rules are not self-enforcing, and that the chair has testified to Congress that the Commission is strapped for resources and struggling to keep up with its statutory mission. Are more regulations an odd way to ask Congress for money? Thus far, there’s no proposed rule on gig workers, but there was a Policy Statement on Enforcement Related to Gig Workers.. For more on that story, see Alden Abbott’s TOTM post.

Laws, Like People, Have Their Limits

Read Phillips’s parting dissent in Passport Auto Group, where the Commission combined legitimate allegations with an unhealthy dose of overreach:

The language of the unfairness standard has given the FTC the flexibility to combat new threats to consumers that accompany the development of new industries and technologies. Still, there are limits to the Commission’s unfairness authority. Because this complaint includes an unfairness count that aims to transform Section 5 into an undefined discrimination statute, I respectfully dissent.”

Right. Three cheers for effective enforcement of the focused antidiscrimination laws enacted by Congress by the agencies actually charged to enforce those laws. And to equal protection. And three more, at least, for a little regulatory humility, if we find it.

This post is the third in a three-part series. The first installment can be found here and the second can be found here.

As it has before in its history, liberalism again finds itself at an existential crossroads, with liberally oriented reformers generally falling into two camps: those who seek to subordinate markets to some higher vision of the common good and those for whom the market itself is the common good. The former seek to rein in, temper, order, and discipline unfettered markets, while the latter strive to build on the foundations of classical liberalism to perfect market logic, rather than to subvert it.

This conflict of visions has deep ramifications for today’s economic policy. In his classic text “The Antitrust Paradox,” Judge Robert Bork deemed antitrust law a “subcategory of ideology” that “connects with the central political and social concerns of our time.” Among these concerns, he focused specifically on the eternal tension between the ideals of “equality” and “freedom.” In recent years, that tension has been exemplified in competition-policy debates by two schools of thought: the neo-Brandeisians, whose jurisprudential philosophy draws from the progressive U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, and another group represented by the Chicago School and other defenders of the consumer-welfare standard.

But this schism resembles similar divides that have played out countless times over the history of liberalism, albeit under different names and banners. Looking back on the past century and a half of economic and philosophical thought can help us to make sense of these fundamentally opposed visions for the future of both liberalism and antitrust. This history can also help us to understand how these ideologies have sometimes failed to live up to their ambitions or crumbled under the weight of their own contradictions. 

In this final piece in the political philosophy series, I explain the genesis, normative underpinnings, and likely outcome of the current “battle for the soul of antitrust.” The broader point that I have tried to make throughout this series is that this confrontation hinges on ethical and deontological considerations, as much as it does on “hard” consequentialist arguments. Put differently, how we decide to resolve foundational and putatively “technical” questions regarding the goals, standards, and enforcement of antitrust law ultimately cannot help but reflect our underlying views about the values and ideals that should guide a liberal society. In this vein, I argue that there are compelling non-utilitarian reasons to prefer a polity with an in-built bias for negative freedom and that is guided by a narrow economic-efficiency criterion, rather than the apparently ascendant alternatives.

The Birth of Neoliberalism

The clearest articulation of the philosophical schism between the two visions of liberalism that we see today came with the 1937 publication of “The Good Society” by American author and journalist Walter Lippmann. Lippman—who, like Brandeis, came out of the American Progressive Movement and had been an adviser to progressive U.S. President Woodrow Wilson—sparked the birth of “neoliberalism” as a separate strand of liberal political philosophical thought. The book invited readers to critically reexamine and, where appropriate, update the tenets of classical liberalism with a view toward “stabilizing and consolidating the course of an intellectual tradition that was otherwise bound to tumble straight into oblivion” (see here).  

This was the objective of the “neoliberal collective,” a loose affiliation of liberally oriented thinkers who convened for the first time at the Walter Lippmann Colloquium in 1938 to discuss Lippmann’s seminal book, and from 1947 onwards more formally under the auspices of the Mont Pelerin Society

Neoliberals grappled with questions that went to the very heart of liberalism, such as how to adapt traditional small-scale human societies to the exigencies of ever-widening markets and economic progress; the causes and consequences of industrial concentration; the appropriate role and boundaries of state intervention; the ability of markets to address the “social question”; the interplay between freedom and coercion; and the tension between the individual and the collective. Like Lippmann, the neoliberals were convinced that the failure to reckon with such fundamental issues would result in the inevitable displacement of liberalism by some form of “authoritarian collectivism,” which they believed provided emotionally appealing (but ultimately illusory) solutions to the full range of liberal problems.

It quickly became apparent, however, that there existed two main currents of neoliberalism.

The first, which I will call “left neoliberalism,” was a relatively conciliatory version that sought to strike a “mostly liberal” balance with socialism and collectivism. It postulated that markets are embedded in a broader social and political context that may include a strong and activist state, aggressive antitrust policy, robust social rights, and an emphasis on positive freedom. In this respect, their views resembled those of the Progressive Movement of Wilson and Brandeis, which was carried on into the mid-20th century in the United States by such figures as President Franklin Roosevelt, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, and economist John Kenneth Galbraith. The “left neoliberals,” however, were primarily European, and included the likes of Wilhelm Röpke, Walter Eucken, Franz Bohm, Alexander Rüstow, Luigi Einaudi, Louis Rougier, Louis Marlio, and Jacques Rueff (and, arguably, Lippmann himself). 

Adherents to the other strand, “right neoliberalism,” were more conservative and less willing to compromise. They championed a strong but minimal state tasked with (and limited by) facilitating efficient markets, posited a lean antitrust policy, and emphasized negative liberty. Thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Lionel Robbins, James Buchanan and, arguably, the more libertarian Ludwig von Mises and Bruno Leoni would fall into this group.

The Price Mechanism and the State

The two groups of neoliberals shared several basic postulates. 

First and foremost, they agreed that any revision of Adam Smith’’s “invisible hand” had to respect the integrity of the price mechanism (what Wilhelm Röpke referred to as the “sacrosanct core of liberalism”). The argument rested on utilitarian, but also political and ethical grounds. As Friedrich Hayek argued in “The Road to Serfdom,” the substitution of the free market for a centrally planned economy would lead to the loss of economic freedom, and eventually all other freedoms, as well. This meant that neoliberals were, on principle, harsh critics of any type of state intervention that distorted the formation of prices through the forces of supply and demand.

At the same time, however, neither strand of neoliberalism professed a doctrine of statelessness.  To the contrary, the state may, in hindsight, be neoliberalism’s greatest conquest. The question at hand is what kind of state is optimal. 

For the left neoliberals, a strong state was needed to resist capture by interest groups. It also had to exercise good political leadership and discretion in juggling goals and values (markets, after all, had to be “embedded” in the social order). These views were underpinned by a relatively sanguine set of expectations the left neoliberals had of the state’s willingness and capacity to protect the general interest, as well as their shared belief that the core institutions of liberalism (including self-regulating markets) were prone to degeneration and in need of constant public oversight. The state, not the private sector, was the ultimate ordering power of the economy. As Alexander Rüstow said:

I am, indeed, of the opinion that it is not the economy, but the state which determines our fate. 

The right neoliberal position was more ambivalent, due to its heightened skepticism toward state power. The bigger threat to freedom was not unfettered private power, but public power. As Milton Friedman put it in “Capitalism and Freedom”:

Government is necessary to preserve our freedom […] yet by concentrating power in political hands, it is also a threat to freedom. […] How can we benefit from the promise of government while avoiding the threat to freedom? 

The answer was a revamped Smithian nightwatchman that acted more as an umpire determining “the rules of the game” and overseeing free interactions between individuals than as a helmsman tasked with channeling society toward any particular variety of teleological goals. Like the left neoliberal position, this one, too, rests on a set of theoretical underpinnings.

One is that public actors are not any less self-interested than private ones, with the corollary that any extension or deepening of the powers of the state must be well-justified. The idea relied heavily on the public choice theory developed by James M. Buchanan, a member of Mont Pelerin Society and its president from 1984 to 1986. Thus, left and right neoliberals advanced almost completely opposite responses to the problem of capture. While left neoliberals believed in strengthening the state relative to private enterprise, the right’s critique led them to want precisely to limit state power and reshape institutional incentives.

This is not surprising, as right neoliberals were also more optimistic about the potential of markets and deontologically more preoccupied with negative freedom, a combination that added another layer of suspicion to any putatively progressive measures that involved wealth redistribution or meticulous administration of the market by the state.

Economic Concentration and Competition

Another important difference lay in the two sides’ views on economic concentration and competition. Some left neoliberals, particularly in Europe, internalized much of the Marxist and fascist critiques of capitalism, including the belief that markets naturally tended toward economic concentration. They argued, however, that this process could be reversed or prevented with robust antitrust and de-concentration measures. While essentially conceding Marxian arguments about the intrinsic tendency of competition to degenerate into monopoly—thereby fostering inequality and “proletarizing” the masses—they denied the ultimate implications upon which Marx had insisted—i.e., the inevitable “cannibalization” of capitalism through its inherent contradictions.

Right neoliberals, by contrast, insisted that, where economic concentration was not fleeting, it was generally the result of state action, not state inaction. As Mises argued, cartels were a consequence of protectionism and the artificial partitioning of markets through, e.g., tariffs. Similarly, monopolies formed and persisted because of “anti-liberal policies of governments that [created] the conditions favorable” to them. This implied that antitrust had a secondary position in securing competitive markets.

Each strand’s reasoning as to why competition was worthy of protection also differed. For the right neoliberals, who saw the legitimate goals and boundaries of public policy through the lenses of economic efficiency and negative freedom, the case for competition was principally a utilitarian one. As Hayek wrote in “Individualism and Economic Order,” state-backed institutions and laws (including antitrust laws) that “made competition work” (by which he meant, made competition work effectively) were one of the ways in which right neoliberals improved on the classical liberal position. 

Left neoliberals added political, social, and ethical layers to this argument. Politically, they shared the standard Marxian view that concentrated markets facilitated the capture of the state by powerful private interests. Marxists had, e.g., always asserted that Nazism was the product of “monopoly capitalism” and that the Nazis themselves were the tools of big business (the idea of “state monopoly capitalism” stems from Lenin). Left neoliberals largely agreed with this view. They also counseled that a centralized industry was more readily prone to takeover by an authoritarian state. In addition, they rejected “bigness” because they considered it an unnatural perversion of human nature (though such critiques surprisingly did not seem to translate to the state). As Wilhelm Röpke notes in “A Humane Economy”:

Nothing is more detrimental to a sound general order appropriate to human nature than two things: mass and concentration.

“Bigness,” Roepke thought, had come about as a result of one particularly harmful but pervasive trend of modernity: “economism,” a frequent target of left neoliberals that refers to a fixation with indicators of economic performance at the expense of deeper social and spiritual values.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that left neoliberals viewed competition as a panacea. Private property, profit, and competition (the foundations of liberalism) were as socially corrosive as they were beneficial. They were, according to Wilhelm Röpke:

justifiable only within certain limits, and in remembering this we return to the realm beyond supply and demand. In other words, the market economy is not everything. It must find its place within a higher order of things which is not ruled by supply and demand, free prices, and competition.

Competition, in other words, was as Luigi Einaudi put it, a paradox. It was beneficial, but could also be socially and morally ruinous. 

The Goals and Boundaries of Public Policy

The perceived failures of liberalism guided the contrasting notions of what a reformed neoliberalism should look like. On the one hand, European left neoliberals and American progressives thought that liberalism suffered from certain inherent deficiencies that could not be resolved within the liberal paradigm and that called for mitigating policies and social-safety nets. Again, these resonated with familiar criticisms levied by the right and the left, such as, e.g., excessive individualism; the loss of shared values and a sense of community; a lack of “social integration”; worker alienation (in an essay titled “Social Policy or Vitalpolitik (Organic Policy),” Alexander Rüstow starts by citing Friedrich Engels’ 1945 “The Condition of the Working-Class in England”); and the socially explosive elements of competition and markets. These spiritual dislocations arguably weighed more than any material or economic shortcomings, and were at the root of the liberal debacle. As Walter Eucken argued:

Quite obviously, the reasons for the anti-capitalistic attitude of the masses cannot be found in any deterioration of the living conditions brought about by capitalism. […] The turning of the masses against capitalism is rather a phenomenon that can only be understood in terms of the sensibilities of modern man.  

In response, the left neoliberals called for an “organic policy” that would approach markets and competition as not purely an economic, but also a social phenomena (a similar view was expressed by Justice Brandeis). In this new hybrid vision of liberalism, “there would be counterweights to competition and the mechanical operation of prices.” Competition and the market’s other imperatives would be tempered by balancing considerations and subordinated to “higher values” that were beyond the law of supply and demand—and beyond mere economic utility. As Wilhelm Röpke summarizes:

Competition, which we need as a regulator in a free market economy, comes up on all sides against limits which we would not wish to transgress. It remains morally and socially dangerous and can be defended only up to a point and with qualifications and modifications of all kinds.

Conversely, right neoliberals believed that the downfall of liberalism had been the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of its true ethos and an overabundance of conflicting rules and policies. It was not the inevitable upshot of liberalism itself. As Lionel Robbins posited:

It is not liberal institutions but the absence of such institutions which is responsible for the chaos of today.

Classical liberalism had stopped short on the road to exploring the full range of laws and institutions needed to sustain and perfect the “natural order.” But the prevalent social malaise—which had, no doubt, been adroitly instigated and exploited by collectivist demagogues—was not the result of some innate incompatibility between markets and human society. It had instead come about because of the failure to properly adjust the latter to the exigencies of the former. 

Additionally, right neoliberals rejected “organic” or “third way” policies of the sort favored by the left neoliberals, because they believed that it was not within the remit of public policy to answer existential questions or to provide “meaning” or “social integration.”  Granting the state the power to decide on such matters was a slippery slope that required it to override the preferences of some with its own. As such, it got dangerously close to the sort of collectivism that neoliberals rallied in opposition to in the first place. They also doubted the state’s ability to resolve such complex, value-laden questions. It was insights such as these that underpinned Friedrich Hayek’s theory of the gradual march towards serfdom and Ludwig von Mises’ quip that there is no such thing as a “third way” or a mixed economy. 

In consequence, the solution was not to restrain, mollify, or limit the spread or depth of markets in order to align them with some past ideal of parochial life, but to improve markets and to acclimatize societies to their workings through better laws and institutions.

Two Different Visions for Liberalism For Two Different Visions of Antitrust

In keeping with the theme of this series, the prescriptions for antitrust policy made by each strand of neoliberalism are not doctrinally extrapolated from their broader vision of society.

Left neoliberals and American progressives took Marxist and fascist attacks on liberalism seriously, but sought to address them through less radical channels. They wanted a “mostly liberal” third-way social order, in which markets and competition would be tempered by a host of other social and political considerations that were mediated by the state. This meant opposing “big business” as a matter of principle, infusing antitrust law with a host of non-economic goals and values, and granting enforcers the necessary discretion to decide in cases of conflict. 

Right neoliberals, on the other hand, sought to improve on the classical-liberal position through a more robust legal and institutional framework that operated primarily in the service of a single goal: economic efficiency. Economic efficiency—itself not a value-free notion—was, however, seen as a comparatively neutral, narrow, and predictable standard that, in turn, cabined enforcers’  scope of discretion and minimized the instances in which the state could override business decisions (and thus interfere with negative liberty). In the context of antitrust law, this tethered anticompetitive conduct and exemptions to the threshold requirement to find harms to consumers or to total welfare.

Conclusion

The pendulum of neoliberalism has swung in the past, with momentous implications for antitrust. The “Chicagoan” shift of the 1970s, for instance, was a move toward right neoliberalism, as was the “more economic approach” of EU competition law in the late 1990s. Conversely, more recent calls for the condemnation of “big business” on a range of moral and political grounds; “polycentric competition laws” with multiple goals and values; and the widening of state discretion to lead market developments in a socially desirable direction signal a move in the opposite direction. 

How should the newest iteration of the neoliberal “battle for the soul of antitrust” be resolved?

On the one hand, left neoliberalism—or what Americans typically just call “progressivism”—has intuitive and emotional appeal, particularly in a time of growing anti-capitalistic fervor. Today, as in the 1930s, many believe that market logic has overstepped its legitimate boundaries and that the most successful private companies are a looming enemy. From this perspective, a “market in society” approach—in which the government has more leeway to restrain corporate power and reshape markets in accordance with a range of social or political considerations—may sound more humane to some. 

If history teaches us anything, however, this populist approach to regulating competition is problematic for a number of reasons.

First, the overly complex web of mutually conflicting goals and values will inevitably require enforcement agencies to act as social engineers. In this position, they may use their enhanced discretion to decide whom or what to favor and to rank subjective values pursuant to personal moral heuristics. Public-choice theory and historical examples of state-led collectivist projects, however, counsel against assuming that government is able and willing to exercise such far-reaching oversight of society. In addition, as enforcers inevitably prove unfit to discharge their new role as philosopher-kings, and as their contradictory case law increasingly comes under contestation, activist attempts to widen the scope of antitrust law likely will be checked by the courts. 

Second, like the non-economic arguments against concentration raised today by progressives such as Tim Wu and Lina Khan, the left neoliberal position is largely based on aesthetic preference and intuition—not fact. Röpkean complaints about big business ruining the bucolic landscape where men are “vitally satisfied” in their small, tight-knit communities rests on a very idiosyncratic vision of the good life (left neoliberals romanticized Switzerland, for instance), and it’s one many do not share in the 21st century. Equally particular were Justice Brandeis’ own yeoman sensibilities, which led him to reject bigness as a matter of principle (unlike today’s neo-Brandeisians, however, he was also skeptical of big government). 

As to the persistent argument to curb “bigness” on political grounds: this would be more convincing if there was a clear, unambiguous relationship between market concentration or company size and the quality of democracy. This does not appear to be the case. In fact, the case for incorporating democratic concerns into antitrust seems unwittingly to rely on discredited Marxist theories about the relationship between German big business and the rise of Hitler. Unfortunately, these ideas have been so aggressively peddled by Marxists—who had a vested ideological interest in demonstrating that private corporations were the main culprits behind Nazism—during the 1960s and 70s that today they enjoy the status of dogma.

Alternatively, one might argue that the very existence of large concentrations of private economic power is antithetical to democracy because having the potential to exercise private power over another (without any actual interference) is anti-democratic (see here). But this lifts a particularistic vision of democracy—so-called republican democracy—over others. According to the more mainstream notion of liberal democracy, which gives precedence to negative freedom, any such interference with property rights may, in fact, be seen as deeply illiberal and undemocratic, especially as the inherent ambiguity of the “democracy” standard is likely to invite reprisals against political opponents.

Alas, right neoliberalism appears to be falling out of favor, as anti-market rhetoric seeps into the mainstream and politicians and intellectuals look to the past to find alternatives to a neoliberal system seen as too narrow and economistic. Ultimately, however, this may be precisely what we want public policy to be in a liberal world: focused on predictable and quantifiable standards that subject enforcers to the rigorous discipline of economic theory and leave them little space to act as social engineers or to exercise arbitrary authority. More than a century of intellectual effervescence and dangerous intellectual escapades has proven this to be the superior way to achieve both measurable policy outcomes that improve on the classical-liberal position and to avoid the Charybdis of state collectivism. In antitrust law, it has meant embracing economic analysis of the law and a narrow consumer-welfare standard to discern anticompetitive from procompetitive conduct. 

In the end, today’s “battle for the soul” of antitrust is a proxy for a much wider conflict of visions. Changing the consumer-welfare standard and the architecture of antitrust enforcement along lines preferred by progressives and left neoliberals would be both a symptom and a cause of a broader philosophical shift toward a worldview that makes some of the same deleterious mistakes it purports to correct: excessive government discretion in overseeing the economy; the subordination of individual freedom to an array of collectivist goals mediated by a public aristocracy; and the substitution of evidence-based policy for emotional impetus.

While the inherent contradictions and incongruence of that vision mean that the pendulum is likely to eventually swing back in the right direction, the damage will already have been done. This is why we must defend the consumer-welfare standard today more vigorously than ever: because ultimately, much more than the future of a niche field of law is at stake.

The practice of so-called “self-preferencing” has come to embody the zeitgeist of competition policy for digital markets, as legislative initiatives are undertaken in jurisdictions around the world that to seek, in various ways, to constrain large digital platforms from granting favorable treatment to their own goods and services. The core concern cited by policymakers is that gatekeepers may abuse their dual role—as both an intermediary and a trader operating on the platform—to pursue a strategy of biased intermediation that entrenches their power in core markets (defensive leveraging) and extends it to associated markets (offensive leveraging).

In addition to active interventions by lawmakers, self-preferencing has also emerged as a new theory of harm before European courts and antitrust authorities. Should antitrust enforcers be allowed to pursue such a theory, they would gain significant leeway to bypass the legal standards and evidentiary burdens traditionally required to prove that a given business practice is anticompetitive. This should be of particular concern, given the broad range of practices and types of exclusionary behavior that could be characterized as self-preferencing—only some of which may, in some specific contexts, include exploitative or anticompetitive elements.

In a new working paper for the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE), I provide an overview of the relevant traditional antitrust theories of harm, as well as the emerging case law, to analyze whether and to what extent self-preferencing should be considered a new standalone offense under EU competition law. The experience to date in European case law suggests that courts have been able to address platforms’ self-preferencing practices under existing theories of harm, and that it may not be sufficiently novel to constitute a standalone theory of harm.

European Case Law on Self-Preferencing

Practices by digital platforms that might be deemed self-preferencing first garnered significant attention from European competition enforcers with the European Commission’s Google Shopping investigation, which examined whether the search engine’s results pages positioned and displayed its own comparison-shopping service more favorably than the websites of rival comparison-shopping services. According to the Commission’s findings, Google’s conduct fell outside the scope of competition on the merits and could have the effect of extending Google’s dominant position in the national markets for general Internet search into adjacent national markets for comparison-shopping services, in addition to protecting Google’s dominance in its core search market.

Rather than explicitly posit that self-preferencing (a term the Commission did not use) constituted a new theory of harm, the Google Shopping ruling described the conduct as belonging to the well-known category of “leveraging.” The Commission therefore did not need to propagate a new legal test, as it held that the conduct fell under a well-established form of abuse. The case did, however, spur debate over whether the legal tests the Commission did apply effectively imposed on Google a principle of equal treatment of rival comparison-shopping services.

But it should be noted that conduct similar to that alleged in the Google Shopping investigation actually came before the High Court of England and Wales several months earlier, this time in a dispute between Google and Streetmap. At issue in that case was favorable search results Google granted to its own maps, rather than to competing online maps. The UK Court held, however, that the complaint should have been appropriately characterized as an allegation of discrimination; it further found that Google’s conduct did not constitute anticompetitive foreclosure. A similar result was reached in May 2020 by the Amsterdam Court of Appeal in the Funda case.  

Conversely, in June 2021, the French Competition Authority (AdlC) followed the European Commission into investigating Google’s practices in the digital-advertising sector. Like the Commission, the AdlC did not explicitly refer to self-preferencing, instead describing the conduct as “favoring.”

Given this background and the proliferation of approaches taken by courts and enforcers to address similar conduct, there was significant anticipation for the judgment that the European General Court would ultimately render in the appeal of the Google Shopping ruling. While the General Court upheld the Commission’s decision, it framed self-preferencing as a discriminatory abuse. Further, the Court outlined four criteria that differentiated Google’s self-preferencing from competition on the merits.

Specifically, the Court highlighted the “universal vocation” of Google’s search engine—that it is open to all users and designed to index results containing any possible content; the “superdominant” position that Google holds in the market for general Internet search; the high barriers to entry in the market for general search services; and what the Court deemed Google’s “abnormal” conduct—behaving in a way that defied expectations, given a search engine’s business model, and that changed after the company launched its comparison-shopping service.

While the precise contours of what the Court might consider discriminatory abuse aren’t yet clear, the decision’s listed criteria appear to be narrow in scope. This stands at odds with the much broader application of self-preferencing as a standalone abuse, both by the European Commission itself and by some national competition authorities (NCAs).

Indeed, just a few weeks after the General Court’s ruling, the Italian Competition Authority (AGCM) handed down a mammoth fine against Amazon over preferential treatment granted to third-party sellers who use the company’s own logistics and delivery services. Rather than reflecting the qualified set of criteria laid out by the General Court, the Italian decision was clearly inspired by the Commission’s approach in Google Shopping. Where the Commission described self-preferencing as a new form of leveraging abuse, AGCM characterized Amazon’s practices as tying.

Self-preferencing has also been raised as a potential abuse in the context of data and information practices. In November 2020, the European Commission sent Amazon a statement of objections detailing its preliminary view that the company had infringed antitrust rules by making systematic use of non-public business data, gathered from independent retailers who sell on Amazon’s marketplace, to advantage the company’s own retail business. (Amazon responded with a set of commitments currently under review by the Commission.)

Both the Commission and the U.K. Competition and Markets Authority have lodged similar allegations against Facebook over data gathered from advertisers and then used to compete with those advertisers in markets in which Facebook is active, such as classified ads. The Commission’s antitrust proceeding against Apple over its App Store rules likewise highlights concerns that the company may use its platform position to obtain valuable data about the activities and offers of its competitors, while competing developers may be denied access to important customer data.

These enforcement actions brought by NCAs and the Commission appear at odds with the more bounded criteria set out by the General Court in Google Shopping, and raise tremendous uncertainty regarding the scope and definition of the alleged new theory of harm.

Self-Preferencing, Platform Neutrality, and the Limits of Antitrust Law

The growing tendency to invoke self-preferencing as a standalone theory of antitrust harm could serve two significant goals for European competition enforcers. As mentioned earlier, it offers a convenient shortcut that could allow enforcers to skip the legal standards and evidentiary burdens traditionally required to prove anticompetitive behavior. Moreover, it can function, in practice, as a means to impose a neutrality regime on digital gatekeepers, with the aims of both ensuring a level playing field among competitors and neutralizing the potential conflicts of interests implicated by dual-mode intermediation.

The dual roles performed by some platforms continue to fuel the never-ending debate over vertical integration, as well as related concerns that, by giving preferential treatment to its own products and services, an integrated provider may leverage its dominance in one market to related markets. From this perspective, self-preferencing is an inevitable byproduct of the emergence of ecosystems.

However, as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has recognized, self-preferencing conduct is “often benign.” Furthermore, the total value generated by an ecosystem depends on the activities of independent complementors. Those activities are not completely under the platform’s control, although the platform is required to establish and maintain the governance structures regulating access to and interactions around that ecosystem.

Given this reality, a complete ban on self-preferencing may call the very existence of ecosystems into question, challenging their design and monetization strategies. Preferential treatment can take many different forms with many different potential effects, all stemming from platforms’ many different business models. This counsels for a differentiated, case-by-case, and effects-based approach to assessing the alleged competitive harms of self-preferencing.

Antitrust law does not impose on platforms a general duty to ensure neutrality by sharing their competitive advantages with rivals. Moreover, possessing a competitive advantage does not automatically equal an anticompetitive effect. As the European Court of Justice recently stated in Servizio Elettrico Nazionale, competition law is not intended to protect the competitive structure of the market, but rather to protect consumer welfare. Accordingly, not every exclusionary effect is detrimental to competition. Distinctions must be drawn between foreclosure and anticompetitive foreclosure, as only the latter may be penalized under antitrust.