Archives For consumer protection

The Federal Trade Commission’s recent enforcement actions against Amazon and Apple raise important questions about the FTC’s consumer protection practices, especially its use of economics. How does the Commission weigh the costs and benefits of its enforcement decisions? How does the agency employ economic analysis in digital consumer protection cases generally?

Join the International Center for Law and Economics and TechFreedom on Thursday, July 31 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company for a lunch and panel discussion on these important issues, featuring FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Economics Martin Gaynor, and several former FTC officials. RSVP here.

Commissioner Wright will present a keynote address discussing his dissent in Apple and his approach to applying economics in consumer protection cases generally.

Geoffrey Manne, Executive Director of ICLE, will briefly discuss his recent paper on the role of economics in the FTC’s consumer protection enforcement. Berin Szoka, TechFreedom President, will moderate a panel discussion featuring:

  • Martin Gaynor, Director, FTC Bureau of Economics
  • David Balto, Fmr. Deputy Assistant Director for Policy & Coordination, FTC Bureau of Competition
  • Howard Beales, Fmr. Director, FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection
  • James Cooper, Fmr. Acting Director & Fmr. Deputy Director, FTC Office of Policy Planning
  • Pauline Ippolito, Fmr. Acting Director & Fmr. Deputy Director, FTC Bureau of Economics

Background

The FTC recently issued a complaint and consent order against Apple, alleging its in-app purchasing design doesn’t meet the Commission’s standards of fairness. The action and resulting settlement drew a forceful dissent from Commissioner Wright, and sparked a discussion among the Commissioners about balancing economic harms and benefits in Section 5 unfairness jurisprudence. More recently, the FTC brought a similar action against Amazon, which is now pending in federal district court because Amazon refused to settle.

Event Info

The “FTC: Technology and Reform” project brings together a unique collection of experts on the law, economics, and technology of competition and consumer protection to consider challenges facing the FTC in general, and especially regarding its regulation of technology. The Project’s initial report, released in December 2013, identified critical questions facing the agency, Congress, and the courts about the FTC’s future, and proposed a framework for addressing them.

The event will be live streamed here beginning at 12:15pm. Join the conversation on Twitter with the #FTCReform hashtag.

When:

Thursday, July 31
11:45 am – 12:15 pm — Lunch and registration
12:15 pm – 2:00 pm — Keynote address, paper presentation & panel discussion

Where:

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – Rehearsal Hall
641 D St NW
Washington, DC 20004

Questions? – Email mail@techfreedom.orgRSVP here.

See ICLE’s and TechFreedom’s other work on FTC reform, including:

  • Geoffrey Manne’s Congressional testimony on the the FTC@100
  • Op-ed by Berin Szoka and Geoffrey Manne, “The Second Century of the Federal Trade Commission”
  • Two posts by Geoffrey Manne on the FTC’s Amazon Complaint, here and here.

About The International Center for Law and Economics:

The International Center for Law and Economics is a non-profit, non-partisan research center aimed at fostering rigorous policy analysis and evidence-based regulation.

About TechFreedom:

TechFreedom is a non-profit, non-partisan technology policy think tank. We work to chart a path forward for policymakers towards a bright future where technology enhances freedom, and freedom enhances technology.

joshua-wright As Thom noted (here and here), Josh’s speech at the ABA Spring Meeting was fantastic.  In laying out his agenda at the FTC, Josh highlighted two areas on which he intends to focus: Section 5 and public restraints on trade.  These are important, even essential, areas, and Josh’s leadership here will be most welcome.

I’m especially encouraged by his comments on Section 5.  As readers of this blog know, Section 5 has been an issue near and dear to our hearts, and Josh’s intention to make it a centerpiece of his agenda at the Commission should come as no surprise. (There are too many posts on topic to link them individually here, but this link includes all our posts tagged with Section 5.  My own most recent discussion of the general topic (with Berin Szoka) is here).

Of perhaps greatest significance is this bit from Josh’s speech:

The Commission, however, has another choice available. It can and should issue a policy statement clearly setting forth its views on what constitutes an unfair method of competition as we have done with respect to our consumer protection mission…. I firmly believe this Commission is up to this important task and I look forward to working with my fellow Commissioners. In that spirit, I will soon informally and publicly distribute a proposed Section 5 Unfair Methods Policy Statement more fully articulating my views and perhaps even providing a useful starting point for a fruitful discussion among the enforcement agencies, the antitrust bar, consumer groups, and the business community.

This is great news, and I eagerly look forward to Josh’s proposed Policy Statement.  As Berin and I noted (and as others, including most notably Bill Kovacic, have noted, as well), this kind of guidance is sorely lacking and much needed:

Rather than attempting to do this in the course of a single litigation, the agency ought to heed Kovacic and Winerman’s advice and do more to “inform judicial thinking” such as by “issu[ing] guidelines or policy statements that spell out its own view about the appropriate analytical framework.”

Not surprisingly, my views line up with Josh’s, and his speech is full of important comments on the current state of Section 5 enforcement at the Commission. Of note:

(1) Objective evaluation of the historical record reveals a remarkable and unfortunate gap between the theoretical promise of Section 5 as articulated by Congress and its application in practice by the Commission;

(2) There is little hope for Section 5 to play a productive role in antitrust enforcement unless the Commission articulates in a policy statement about precisely what constitutes an unfair method, how the agency will decide whether to bring unfair method claims, and a general framework including guiding and limiting principles for evaluating Section 5 cases.

* * *

What does a frank assessment of the 100 year record of Section 5 tell us about its contribution to the competition mission? Or as I might put it, has Section 5 lived up to its promise of nudging the FTC toward evidence-based antitrust? I believe the answer to that question is a resounding “no.” There is no shortage of scholars and commentators filling the empty vessel of Section 5 with visions or further promise or purpose of, for example, creating convergence among international jurisdictions, shifting the attention of competition policy from economic welfare to consumer choice, or incorporating behavioral economics into modern antitrust. History, however, tells us that Section 5 has fallen far short of its intended promise. Section 5 has not produced more than a handful of adjudicated decisions with any durable impact on antitrust doctrine or economic welfare.

* * *

After one hundred years the balance of evidence more than suggests the Commission’s use of Section 5 has done little to influence antitrust doctrine and less to inform judicial thinking or to provide guidance to the business community. This void is not a small matter for an administrative agency whose institutional blueprint contemplated such a significant role for Section 5. In my view, it is the Commission’s duty to provide that guidance. But beyond our obligation as responsible stewards of the FTC and consumers through execution of our competition mission, there is considerable risk to the agency of continuing on its current path of putting Section 5 to use without providing guidance. I simply do not believe that path is sustainable or sound competition policy. Section 5 will not live up to its promise of offering an analytically coherent contribution to competition policy if the Commission continues not to offer guidance.

Focusing in particular on the problem of the currently unfettered Section 5 and how it might sensibly be circumscribed, Josh makes some great points:

First, Section 5 should not be used to evade existing antitrust law. Where courts have proven competent to evaluate a particular type of business conduct under the traditional antitrust laws, there is little reason for the Commission to step in under its unfair methods authority. This is especially the case when Section 5 is used to take advantage of a weakened requirement to prove consumer harm in the rigorous manner required in, for example, Section 2 cases. Evading the consumer welfare proof requirements of existing Sherman Act jurisprudence reduces the credibility of the agency, runs the risk that procompetitive conduct will be condemned under Section 5, and circumvents the healthy development of Sherman Act jurisprudence in the courts.

* * *

A second potential limiting principle is a restriction that Section 5 unfair methods cases – as is the case with invitation to collude cases – do not involve plausible efficiency claims. Not only does the lack of efficiency justification reduce any potential collateral consequences associated with false positives, but determining the presence of absence of cognizable efficiencies also plays to a core institutional strength of the Commission. The Commission’s learning and expertise in this regard has already influenced the evolution of the Merger Guidelines, and is applied on a regular basis.

I have no doubt Josh can and will deliver on his promise of working with the other Commissioners to bring some much needed sense to this problematic aspect of the FTC’s authority. This is an enormously important issue, one in great need of attention, and I can think of no one better than Josh to lead the effort to address it.

Josh has recently discussed his thoughts about the intellectual trajectory of the newly-minted CFPB and how that intellectual trajectory might influence the selection of the Bureau’s first director–presumed to be either Michale Barr or Elizabeth Warren.  His is a brief, dispassionate and intellectually-honest assessment.  But given Simon Johnson’s brief, intemperate and intellectually-devoid assessment of the issue, I’m afraid Josh may be a bit naive.

Johnson’s concerns are, as he presents them, just political.  After pointing out his own bottom line (“it would be a complete travesty not to put the strongest possible regulator in change of protecting consumers” [that means Elizabeth Warren, by the way]), he assesses the implications of the decision:

This can now go only one of two ways.

  1. Elizabeth Warren gets the job.  Bridges are mended and the White House regains some political capital.  Secretary Geithner is weakened slightly but he’ll recover.
  2. Someone else gets the job, despite Treasury’s claims that Elizabeth Warren was not blocked.  The deception in this scenario would be nauseating – and completely blatant.  “Everyone was considered on their merits” and “the best candidate won” will convince who [sic] exactly?

Despite the growing public reaction, outcome #2 is the most likely and the White House needs to understand this, plain and clear – there will be complete and utter revulsion at its handling of financial regulatory reform both on this specific issue and much more broadly.  The administration’s position in this area is already weak, its achievements remain minimal, its speaking points are lame, and the patience of even well-inclined people is wearing thin.

Failing to appoint Elizabeth Warren would be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  It will go down in the history books as a turning point – downwards – for this administration.

What galls me about this kind of assessment is that it is, well, “nauseating – and completely blatant.”  It’s not an assessment, really.  It’s a threat.  It’s an effort to paint the politics of the situation in a way that makes the speaker’s preferred outcome (admittedly possibly arrived at in an intellectually-honest and sincere fashion) the only politically-viable outcome, in the process stripping all of the intellectual content out of the discussion and forcing intellectually-honest opponents of the speaker’s view to choose between intellectual honesty and, for example, the willful destruction of the entire Democratic agenda.  Hardly an environment for honest debate, but then I suppose that’s not really the goal.