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The Biden administration’s antitrust reign of error continues apace. The U.S. Justice Department’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division has indicated in recent months that criminal prosecutions may be forthcoming under Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, but refuses to provide any guidance regarding enforcement criteria.

Earlier this month, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard Powers stated that “there’s ample case law out there to help inform those who have concerns or questions” regarding Section 2 criminal enforcement, conveniently ignoring the fact that criminal Section 2 cases have not been brought in almost half a century. Needless to say, those ancient Section 2 cases (which are relatively few in number) antedate the modern era of economic reasoning in antitrust analysis. What’s more, unlike Section 1 price-fixing and market-division precedents, they yield no clear rule as to what constitutes criminal unilateral behavior. Thus, DOJ’s suggestion that old cases be consulted for guidance is disingenuous at best. 

It follows that DOJ criminal-monopolization prosecutions would be sheer folly. They would spawn substantial confusion and uncertainty and disincentivize dynamic economic growth.

Aggressive unilateral business conduct is a key driver of the competitive process. It brings about “creative destruction” that transforms markets, generates innovation, and thereby drives economic growth. As such, one wants to be particularly careful before condemning such conduct on grounds that it is anticompetitive. Accordingly, error costs here are particularly high and damaging to economic prosperity.

Moreover, error costs in assessing unilateral conduct are more likely than in assessing joint conduct, because it is very hard to distinguish between procompetitive and anticompetitive single-firm conduct, as DOJ’s 2008 Report on Single Firm Conduct Under Section 2 explains (citations omitted):

Courts and commentators have long recognized the difficulty of determining what means of acquiring and maintaining monopoly power should be prohibited as improper. Although many different kinds of conduct have been found to violate section 2, “[d]efining the contours of this element … has been one of the most vexing questions in antitrust law.” As Judge Easterbrook observes, “Aggressive, competitive conduct by any firm, even one with market power, is beneficial to consumers. Courts should prize and encourage it. Aggressive, exclusionary conduct is deleterious to consumers, and courts should condemn it. The big problem lies in this: competitive and exclusionary conduct look alike.”

The problem is not simply one that demands drawing fine lines separating different categories of conduct; often the same conduct can both generate efficiencies and exclude competitors. Judicial experience and advances in economic thinking have demonstrated the potential procompetitive benefits of a wide variety of practices that were once viewed with suspicion when engaged in by firms with substantial market power. Exclusive dealing, for example, may be used to encourage beneficial investment by the parties while also making it more difficult for competitors to distribute their products.

If DOJ does choose to bring a Section 2 criminal case soon, would it target one of the major digital platforms? Notably, a U.S. House Judiciary Committee letter recently called on DOJ to launch a criminal investigation of Amazon (see here). Also, current Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan launched her academic career with an article focusing on Amazon’s “predatory pricing” and attacking the consumer welfare standard (see here).

Khan’s “analysis” has been totally discredited. As a trenchant scholarly article by Timothy Muris and Jonathan Nuechterlein explains:

[DOJ’s criminal Section 2 prosecution of A&P, begun in 1944,] bear[s] an eerie resemblance to attacks today on leading online innovators. Increasingly integrated and efficient retailers—first A&P, then “big box” brick-and-mortar stores, and now online retailers—have challenged traditional retail models by offering consumers lower prices and greater convenience. For decades, critics across the political spectrum have reacted to such disruption by urging Congress, the courts, and the enforcement agencies to stop these American success stories by revising antitrust doctrine to protect small businesses rather than the interests of consumers. Using antitrust law to punish pro-competitive behavior makes no more sense today than it did when the government attacked A&P for cutting consumers too good a deal on groceries. 

Before bringing criminal Section 2 charges against Amazon, or any other “dominant” firm, DOJ leaders should read and absorb the sobering Muris and Nuechterlein assessment. 

Finally, not only would DOJ Section 2 criminal prosecutions represent bad public policy—they would also undermine the rule of law. In a very thoughtful 2017 speech, then-Acting Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Andrew Finch succinctly summarized the importance of the rule of law in antitrust enforcement:

[H]ow do we administer the antitrust laws more rationally, accurately, expeditiously, and efficiently? … Law enforcement requires stability and continuity both in rules and in their application to specific cases.

Indeed, stability and continuity in enforcement are fundamental to the rule of law. The rule of law is about notice and reliance. When it is impossible to make reasonable predictions about how a law will be applied, or what the legal consequences of conduct will be, these important values are diminished. To call our antitrust regime a “rule of law” regime, we must enforce the law as written and as interpreted by the courts and advance change with careful thought.

The reliance fostered by stability and continuity has obvious economic benefits. Businesses invest, not only in innovation but in facilities, marketing, and personnel, and they do so based on the economic and legal environment they expect to face.

Of course, we want businesses to make those investments—and shape their overall conduct—in accordance with the antitrust laws. But to do so, they need to be able to rely on future application of those laws being largely consistent with their expectations. An antitrust enforcement regime with frequent changes is one that businesses cannot plan for, or one that they will plan for by avoiding certain kinds of investments.

Bringing criminal monopolization cases now, after a half-century of inaction, would be antithetical to the stability and continuity that underlie the rule of law. What’s worse, the failure to provide prosecutorial guidance would be squarely at odds with concerns of notice and reliance that inform the rule of law. As such, a DOJ decision to target firms for Section 2 criminal charges would offend the rule of law (and, sadly, follow the FTC ‘s recent example of flouting the rule of law, see here and here).

In sum, the case against criminal Section 2 prosecutions is overwhelming. At a time when DOJ is facing difficulties winning “slam dunk” criminal Section 1  prosecutions targeting facially anticompetitive joint conduct (see here, here, and here), the notion that it would criminally pursue unilateral conduct that may generate substantial efficiencies is ludicrous. Hopefully, DOJ leadership will come to its senses and drop any and all plans to bring criminal Section 2 cases.

If you wander into an undergraduate economics class on the right day at the right time, you might catch the lecturer talking about Giffen goods: the rare case where demand curves can slope upward. The Irish potato famine is often used as an example. As the story goes, potatoes were a huge part of the Irish diet and consumed a large part of Irish family budgets. A failure of the potato crop reduced the supply of potatoes and potato prices soared. Because families had to spend so much on potatoes, they couldn’t afford much else, so spending on potatoes increased despite rising prices.

It’s a great story of injustice with a nugget of economics: Demand curves can slope upward!

Follow the students around for a few days, and they’ll be looking for Giffen goods everywhere. Surely, packaged ramen and boxed macaroni and cheese are Giffen goods. So are white bread and rice. Maybe even low-end apartments.

While it’s a fun concept to consider, the potato famine story is likely apocryphal. In truth, it’s nearly impossible to find a Giffen good in the real world. My version of Greg Mankiw’s massive “Principles of Economics” textbook devotes five paragraphs to Giffen goods, but it’s not especially relevant, which is perhaps why it’s only five paragraphs.

Wander into another economics class, and you might catch the lecturer talking about monopsony—that is, a market in which a small number of buyers control the price of inputs such as labor. I say “might” because—like Giffen goods—monopsony is an interesting concept to consider, but very hard to find a clear example of in the real world. Mankiw’s textbook devotes only four paragraphs to monopsony, explaining that the book “does not present a formal model of monopsony because, in the world, monopsonies are rare.”

Even so, monopsony is a hot topic these days. It seems that monopsonies are everywhere. Walmart and Amazon are monopsonist employers. So are poultry, pork, and beef companies. Local hospitals monopsonize the market for nurses and physicians. The National Collegiate Athletic Association is a monopsony employer of college athletes. Ultimate Fighting Championship has a monopsony over mixed-martial-arts fighters.

In 1994, David Card and Alan Krueger’s earthshaking study found a minimum wage increase had no measurable effect on fast-food employment and retail prices. They investigated monopsony power as one explanation but concluded that a monopsony model was not supported by their findings. They note:

[W]e find that prices of fast-food meals increased in New Jersey relative to Pennsylvania, suggesting that much of the burden of the minimum-wage rise was passed on to consumers. Within New Jersey, however, we find no evidence that prices increased more in stores that were most affected by the minimum-wage rise. Taken as a whole, these findings are difficult to explain with the standard competitive model or with models in which employers face supply constraints (e.g., monopsony or equilibrium search models). [Emphasis added]

Even so, the monopsony hunt was on and it intensified during President Barack Obama’s administration. During his term, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) brought suit against several major Silicon Valley employers for anticompetitively entering into agreements not to “poach” programmers and engineers from each other. The administration also brought suit against a hospital association for an agreement to set uniform billing rates for certain nurses. Both cases settled but the Silicon Valley allegations led to a private class-action lawsuit.

In 2016, Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers published an issue brief on labor-market monopsony. The brief concluded that “evidence suggest[s] that firms may have wage-setting power in a broad range of settings.”

Around the same time, the Obama administration announced that it intended to “criminally investigate naked no-poaching or wage-fixing agreements that are unrelated or unnecessary to a larger legitimate collaboration between the employers.” The DOJ argued that no-poach agreements that allocate employees between companies are per se unlawful restraints of trade that violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

If one believes that monopsony power is stifling workers’ wages and benefits, then this would be a good first step to build up a body of evidence and precedence. Go after the low-hanging fruit of a conspiracy that is a per se violation of the Sherman Act, secure some wins, and then start probing the more challenging cases.

After several matters that resulted in settlements, the DOJ brought its first criminal wage-fixing case in late 2020. In United States v. Jindal, the government charged two employees of a Texas health-care staffing company of colluding with another staffing company to decrease pay rates for physical therapists and physical-therapist assistants.

The defense in Jindal conceded that that price-fixing was per se illegal under the Sherman Act but argued that prices and wages are two different concepts. Therefore, the defense claimed that, even if it was engaged in wage-fixing, the conduct would not be per se illegal. That was a stretch, and the district court judge was having none of that in ruling that: “The antitrust laws fully apply to the labor markets, and price-fixing agreements among buyers … are prohibited by the Sherman Act.”

Nevertheless, the jury in Jindal found the defendants not guilty of wage-fixing in violation of the Sherman Act, and also not guilty of a related conspiracy charge.

The DOJ also brought criminal no-poach cases against three other health-care companies and their employees: United States v. Surgical Care Affiliates LLC; United States v. Hee; and United States v. DaVita Inc. Each of the indictments alleged no-poach agreements in which defendants conspired with competitors not to recruit each other’s employees. Hee also included wage-fixing allegations.

Before trial, the defense in DaVita filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that no-poach agreements did not amount to illegal market-allocation agreements. Instead, the defense claimed that no-poach agreements were something less restrictive. Rather than a flat-out refusal to hire competitors’ employees, they were more akin to agreeing not to seek out competitors’ employees. As with Jindal, this was too much of a stretch for the judge who ruled that no-poach agreements could be an illegal market-allocation agreement.

A day after the Jindal verdict, the jury in DaVita acquitted the kidney-dialysis provider and its former CEO of charges that they conspired with competitors to suppress competition for employees through no-poach agreements.

The DaVita jurors appeared to be hung up on the definition of “meaningful competition” in the relevant market. The defense presented information showing that, despite any agreements, employees frequently changed jobs among the companies. Thus, it was argued that any agreement did not amount to an allocation of the market for employees.

The prosecution called several corporate executives who testified that the non-solicitation agreements merely required DaVita employees to tell their bosses they were looking for another job before they could be considered for positions at the three alleged co-conspirator companies. Some witnesses indicated that, by informing their bosses, they were able to obtain promotions and/or increased compensation. This was supported by expert testimony concluding that DaVita salaries changed during the alleged conspiracy period at a rate higher than the health-care industry as a whole. This finding is at-odds with a theory that the non-solicitation agreement was designed to stabilize or suppress compensation.

The Jindal and DaVita cases highlight some of the enormous challenges in mounting a labor-monopsonization case. Even if agencies can “win” or get concessions on defining the relevant markets, they still face challenges in establishing that no-poach agreements amount to a “meaningful” restraint of trade. DaVita suggests that a showing of job turnover and/or increased compensation during an alleged conspiracy period may be sufficient to convince a jury that a no-poach agreement may not be anticompetitive and—under certain circumstances—may even be pro-competitive.

For now, the hunt for a monopsony labor market continues its quest, along with the hunt for the ever-elusive Giffen good.

U.S. antitrust policy seeks to promote vigorous marketplace competition in order to enhance consumer welfare. For more than four decades, mainstream antitrust enforcers have taken their cue from the U.S. Supreme Court’s statement in Reiter v. Sonotone (1979) that antitrust is “a consumer welfare prescription.” Recent suggestions (see here and here) by new Biden administration Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) leadership that antitrust should promote goals apart from consumer welfare have yet to be embodied in actual agency actions, and they have not been tested by the courts. (Given Supreme Court case law, judicial abandonment of the consumer welfare standard appears unlikely, unless new legislation that displaces it is enacted.)   

Assuming that the consumer welfare paradigm retains its primacy in U.S. antitrust, how do the goals of antitrust match up with those of national security? Consistent with federal government pronouncements, the “basic objective of U.S. national security policy is to preserve and enhance the security of the United States and its fundamental values and institutions.” Properly applied, antitrust can retain its consumer welfare focus in a manner consistent with national security interests. Indeed, sound antitrust and national-security policies generally go hand-in-hand. The FTC and the DOJ should keep that in mind in formulating their antitrust policies (spoiler alert: they sometimes have failed to do so).

Discussion

At first blush, it would seem odd that enlightened consumer-welfare-oriented antitrust enforcement and national-security policy would be in tension. After all, enlightened antitrust enforcement is concerned with targeting transactions that harmfully reduce output and undermine innovation, such as hard-core collusion and courses of conduct that inefficiently exclude competition and weaken marketplace competition. U.S. national security would seem to be promoted (or, at least, not harmed) by antitrust enforcement directed at supporting stronger, more vibrant American markets.

This initial instinct is correct, if antitrust-enforcement policy indeed reflects economically sound, consumer-welfare-centric principles. But are there examples where antitrust enforcement falls short and thereby is at odds with national security? An evaluation of three areas of interaction between the two American policy interests is instructive.

The degree of congruence between national security and appropriate consumer welfare-enhancing antitrust enforcement is illustrated by a brief discussion of:

  1. defense-industry mergers;
  2. the intellectual property-antitrust interface, with a focus on patent licensing; and
  3. proposed federal antitrust legislation.

The first topic presents an example of clear consistency between consumer-welfare-centric antitrust and national defense. In contrast, the second topic demonstrates that antitrust prosecutions (and policies) that inappropriately weaken intellectual-property protections are inconsistent with national defense interests. The second topic does not manifest a tension between antitrust and national security; rather, it illustrates a tension between national security and unsound antitrust enforcement. In a related vein, the third topic demonstrates how a change in the antitrust statutes that would undermine the consumer welfare paradigm would also threaten U.S. national security.

Defense-Industry Mergers

The consistency between antitrust goals and national security is relatively strong and straightforward in the field of defense-industry-related mergers and joint ventures. The FTC and DOJ traditionally have worked closely with the U.S. Defense Department (DOD) to promote competition and consumer welfare in evaluating business transactions that affect national defense needs.

The DOD has long supported policies to prevent overreliance on a single supplier for critical industrial-defense needs. Such a posture is consistent with the antitrust goal of preventing mergers to monopoly that reduce competition, raise prices, and diminish quality by creating or entrenching a dominant firm. As then-FTC Commissioner William Kovacic commented about an FTC settlement that permitted the United Launch Alliance (an American spacecraft launch service provider established in 2006 as a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing), “[i]n reviewing defense industry mergers, competition authorities and the DOD generally should apply a presumption that favors the maintenance of at least two suppliers for every weapon system or subsystem.”

Antitrust enforcers have, however, worked with DOD to allow the only two remaining suppliers of a defense-related product or service to combine their operations, subject to appropriate safeguards, when presented with scale economy and quality rationales that advanced national-security interests (see here).

Antitrust enforcers have also consulted and found common cause with DOD in opposing anticompetitive mergers that have national-security overtones. For example, antitrust enforcement actions targeting vertical defense-sector mergers that threaten anticompetitive input foreclosure or facilitate anticompetitive information exchanges are in line with the national-security goal of preserving vibrant markets that offer the federal government competitive, high-quality, innovative, and reasonably priced purchase options for its defense needs.

The FTC’s recent success in convincing Lockheed Martin to drop its proposed acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne holdings fits into this category. (I express no view on the merits of this matter; I merely cite it as an example of FTC-DOD cooperation in considering a merger challenge.) In its February 2022 press release announcing the abandonment of this merger, the FTC stated that “[t]he acquisition would have eliminated the country’s last independent supplier of key missile propulsion inputs and given Lockheed the ability to cut off its competitors’ access to these critical components.” The FTC also emphasized the full consistency between its enforcement action and national-security interests:

Simply put, the deal would have resulted in higher prices and diminished quality and innovation for programs that are critical to national security. The FTC’s enforcement action in this matter dovetails with the DoD report released this week recommending stronger merger oversight of the highly concentrated defense industrial base.

Intellectual-Property Licensing

Shifts in government IP-antitrust patent-licensing policy perspectives

Intellectual-property (IP) licensing, particularly involving patents, is highly important to the dynamic and efficient dissemination of new technologies throughout the economy, which, in turn, promotes innovation and increased welfare (consumers’ and producers’ surplus). See generally, for example, Daniel Spulber’s The Case for Patents and Jonathan Barnett’s Innovation, Firms, and Markets. Patents are a property right, and they do not necessarily convey market power, as the federal government has recognized (see 2017 DOJ-FTC Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property).

Standard setting through standard setting organizations (SSOs) has been a particularly important means of spawning valuable benchmarks (standards) that have enabled new patent-backed technologies to drive innovation and enable mass distribution of new high-tech products, such as smartphones. The licensing of patents that cover and make possible valuable standards—“standard-essential patents” or SEPs—has played a crucial role in bringing to market these products and encouraging follow-on innovations that have driven fast-paced welfare-enhancing product and process quality improvements.

The DOJ and FTC have recognized specific efficiency benefits of IP licensing in their 2017 Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property, stating (citations deleted):

Licensing, cross-licensing, or otherwise transferring intellectual property (hereinafter “licensing”) can facilitate integration of the licensed property with complementary factors of production. This integration can lead to more efficient exploitation of the intellectual property, benefiting consumers through the reduction of costs and the introduction of new products. Such arrangements increase the value of intellectual property to consumers and owners. Licensing can allow an innovator to capture returns from its investment in making and developing an invention through royalty payments from those that practice its invention, thus providing an incentive to invest in innovative efforts. …

[L]imitations on intellectual property licenses may serve procompetitive ends by allowing the licensor to exploit its property as efficiently and effectively as possible. These various forms of exclusivity can be used to give a licensee an incentive to invest in the commercialization and distribution of products embodying the licensed intellectual property and to develop additional applications for the licensed property. The restrictions may do so, for example, by protecting the licensee against free riding on the licensee’s investments by other licensees or by the licensor. They may also increase the licensor’s incentive to license, for example, by protecting the licensor from competition in the licensor’s own technology in a market niche that it prefers to keep to itself.

Unfortunately, however, FTC and DOJ antitrust policies over the last 15 years have too often belied this generally favorable view of licensing practices with respect to SEPs. (See generally here, here, and here). Notably, the antitrust agencies have at various times taken policy postures and enforcement actions indicating that SEP holders may face antitrust challenges if:

  1. they fail to license all comers, including competitors, on fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) terms; and
  2. seek to obtain injunctions against infringers.

In addition, antitrust policy officials (see 2011 FTC Report) have described FRAND price terms as cabined by the difference between the licensing rates for the first (included in the standard) and second (not included in the standard) best competing patented technologies available prior to the adoption of a standard. This pricing measure—based on the “incremental difference” between first and second-best technologies—has been described as necessary to prevent SEP holders from deriving artificial “monopoly rents” that reflect the market power conferred by a standard. (But see then FTC-Commissioner Joshua Wright’s 2013 essay to the contrary, based on the economics of incomplete contracts.)

This approach to SEPs undervalues them, harming the economy. Limitations on seeking injunctions (which are a classic property-right remedy) encourages opportunistic patent infringements and artificially disfavors SEP holders in bargaining over licensing terms with technology implementers, thereby reducing the value of SEPs. SEP holders are further disadvantaged by the presumption that they must license all comers. They also are harmed by the implication that they must be limited to a relatively low hypothetical “ex ante” licensing rate—a rate that totally fails to take into account the substantial economic welfare value that will accrue to the economy due to their contribution to the standard. Considered individually and as a whole, these negative factors discourage innovators from participating in standardization, to the detriment of standards quality. Lower-quality standards translate into inferior standardized produces and processes and reduced innovation.

Recognizing this problem, in 2018 DOJ, Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Makan Delrahim announced a “New Madison Approach” (NMA) to SEP licensing, which recognized:

  1. antitrust remedies are inappropriate for patent-licensing disputes between SEP-holders and implementers of a standard;
  2. SSOs should not allow collective actions by standard-implementers to disfavor patent holders;
  3. SSOs and courts should be hesitant to restrict SEP holders’ right to exclude implementers from access to their patents by seeking injunctions; and
  4. unilateral and unconditional decisions not to license a patent should be per se legal. (See, for example, here and here.)

Acceptance of the NMA would have counter-acted the economically harmful degradation of SEPs stemming from prior government policies.

Regrettably, antitrust-enforcement-agency statements during the last year effectively have rejected the NMA. Most recently, in December 2021, the DOJ issued for public comment a Draft Policy Statement on Licensing Negotiations and Remedies, SEPs, which displaces a 2019 statement that had been in line with the NMA. Unless the FTC and Biden DOJ rethink their new position and decide instead to support the NMA, the anti-innovation approach to SEPs will once again prevail, with unfortunate consequences for American innovation.

The “weaker patents” implications of the draft policy statement would also prove detrimental to national security, as explained in a comment on the statement by a group of leading law, economics, and business scholars (including Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith) convened by the International Center for Law & Economics:

China routinely undermines U.S. intellectual property protections through its industrial policy. The government’s stated goal is to promote “fair and reasonable” international rules, but it is clear that China stretches its power over intellectual property around the world by granting “anti-suit injunctions” on behalf of Chinese smartphone makers, designed to curtail enforcement of foreign companies’ patent rights. …

Insufficient protections for intellectual property will hasten China’s objective of dominating collaborative standard development in the medium to long term. Simultaneously, this will engender a switch to greater reliance on proprietary, closed standards rather than collaborative, open standards. These harmful consequences are magnified in the context of the global technology landscape, and in light of China’s strategic effort to shape international technology standards. Chinese companies, directed by their government authorities, will gain significant control of the technologies that will underpin tomorrow’s digital goods and services.

A Center for Security and International Studies submission on the draft policy statement (signed by a former deputy secretary of the DOD, as well as former directors of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the National Institute of Standards and Technology) also raised China-related national-security concerns:

[T]he largest short-term and long-term beneficiaries of the 2021 Draft Policy Statement are firms based in China. Currently, China is the world’s largest consumer of SEP-based technology, so weakening protection of American owned patents directly benefits Chinese manufacturers. The unintended effect of the 2021 Draft Policy Statement will be to support Chinese efforts to dominate critical technology standards and other advanced technologies, such as 5G. Put simply, devaluing U.S. patents is akin to a subsidized tech transfer to China.

Furthermore, in a more general vein, leading innovation economist David Teece also noted the negative national-security implications in his submission on the draft policy statement:

The US government, in reviewing competition policy issues that might impact standards, therefore needs to be aware that the issues at hand have tremendous geopolitical consequences and cannot be looked at in isolation. … Success in this regard will promote competition and is our best chance to maintain technological leadership—and, along with it, long-term economic growth and consumer welfare and national security.

That’s not all. In its public comment warning against precipitous finalization of the draft policy statement, the Innovation Alliance noted that, in recent years, major foreign jurisdictions have rejected the notion that SEP holders should be deprived the opportunity to seek injunctions. The Innovation Alliance opined in detail on the China national-security issues (footnotes omitted):

[T]he proposed shift in policy will undermine the confidence and clarity necessary to incentivize investments in important and risky research and development while simultaneously giving foreign competitors who do not rely on patents to drive investment in key technologies, like China, a distinct advantage. …

The draft policy statement … would devalue SEPs, and undermine the ability of U.S. firms to invest in the research and development needed to maintain global leadership in 5G and other critical technologies.

Without robust American investments, China—which has clear aspirations to control and lead in critical standards and technologies that are essential to our national security—will be left without any competition. Since 2015, President Xi has declared “whoever controls the standards controls the world.” China has rolled out the “China Standards 2035” plan and has outspent the United States by approximately $24 billion in wireless communications infrastructure, while China’s five-year economic plan calls for $400 billion in 5G-related investment.

Simply put, the draft policy statement will give an edge to China in the standards race because, without injunctions, American companies will lose the incentive to invest in the research and development needed to lead in standards setting. Chinese companies, on the other hand, will continue to race forward, funded primarily not by license fees, but by the focused investment of the Chinese government. …

Public hearings are necessary to take into full account the uncertainty of issuing yet another policy on this subject in such a short time period.

A key part of those hearings and further discussions must be the national security implications of a further shift in patent enforceability policy. Our future safety depends on continued U.S. leadership in areas like 5G and artificial intelligence. Policies that undermine the enforceability of patent rights disincentivize the substantial private sector investment necessary for research and development in these areas. Without that investment, development of these key technologies will begin elsewhere—likely China. Before any policy is accepted, key national-security stakeholders in the U.S. government should be asked for their official input.

These are not the only comments that raised the negative national-security ramifications of the draft policy statement (see here and here). For example, current Republican and Democratic senators, prior International Trade Commissioners, and former top DOJ and FTC officials also noted concerns. What’s more, the Patent Protection Society of China, which represents leading Chinese corporate implementers, filed a rather nonanalytic submission in favor of the draft statement. As one leading patent-licensing lawyer explains: “UC Berkley Law Professor Mark Cohen, whose distinguished government service includes serving as the USPTO representative in China, submitted a thoughtful comment explaining how the draft Policy Statement plays into China’s industrial and strategic interests.”

Finally, by weakening patent protection, the draft policy statement is at odds with  the 2021 National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence Report, which called for the United States to “[d]evelop and implement national IP policies to incentivize, expand, and protect emerging technologies[,]” in response to Chinese “leveraging and exploiting intellectual property (IP) policies as a critical tool within its national strategies for emerging technologies.”

In sum, adoption of the draft policy statement would raise antitrust risks, weaken key property rights protections for SEPs, and undercut U.S. technological innovation efforts vis-à-vis China, thereby undermining U.S. national security.

FTC v. Qualcomm: Misguided enforcement and national security

U.S. national-security interests have been threatened by more than just the recent SEP policy pronouncements. In filing a January 2017 antitrust suit (at the very end of the Obama administration) against Qualcomm’s patent-licensing practices, the FTC (by a partisan 2-1 vote) ignored the economic efficiencies that underpinned this highly successful American technology company’s practices. Had the suit succeeded, U.S. innovation in a critically important technology area would have needlessly suffered, with China as a major beneficiary. A recent Federalist Society Regulatory Transparency Project report on the New Madison Approach underscored the broad policy implications of FTC V. Qualcomm (citations deleted):

The FTC’s Qualcomm complaint reflected the anti-SEP bias present during the Obama administration. If it had been successful, the FTC’s prosecution would have seriously undermined the freedom of the company to engage in efficient licensing of its SEPs.

Qualcomm is perhaps the world’s leading wireless technology innovator. It has developed, patented, and licensed key technologies that power smartphones and other wireless devices, and continues to do so. Many of Qualcomm’s key patents are SEPs subject to FRAND, directed to communications standards adopted by wireless devices makers. Qualcomm also makes computer processors and chips embodied in cutting edge wireless devices. Thanks in large part to Qualcomm technology, those devices have improved dramatically over the last decade, offering consumers a vast array of new services at a lower and lower price, when quality is factored in. Qualcomm thus is the epitome of a high tech American success story that has greatly benefited consumers.

Qualcomm: (1) sells its chips to “downstream” original equipment manufacturers (OEMs, such as Samsung and Apple), on the condition that the OEMs obtain licenses to Qualcomm SEPs; and (2) refuses to license its FRAND-encumbered SEPs to rival chip makers, while allowing those rivals to create and sell chips embodying Qualcomm SEP technologies to those OEMS that have entered a licensing agreement with Qualcomm.

The FTC’s 2017 antitrust complaint, filed in federal district court in San Francisco, charged that Qualcomm’s “no license, no chips” policy allegedly “forced” OEM cell phone manufacturers to pay elevated royalties on products that use a competitor’s baseband processors. The FTC deemed this an illegal “anticompetitive tax” on the use of rivals’ processors, since phone manufacturers “could not run the risk” of declining licenses and thus losing all access to Qualcomm’s processors (which would be needed to sell phones on important cellular networks). The FTC also argued that Qualcomm’s refusal to license its rivals despite its SEP FRAND commitment violated the antitrust laws. Finally, the FTC asserted that a 2011-2016 Qualcomm exclusive dealing contract with Apple (in exchange for reduced patent royalties) had excluded business opportunities for Qualcomm competitors.

The federal district court held for the FTC. It ordered that Qualcomm end these supposedly anticompetitive practices and renegotiate its many contracts. [Among the beneficiaries of new pro-implementer contract terms would have been a leading Chinese licensee of Qualcomm’s, Huawei, the huge Chinese telecommunications company that has been accused by the U.S. government of using technological “back doors” to spy on the United States.]

Qualcomm appealed, and in August 2020 a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court, holding for Qualcomm. Some of the key points underlying this holding were: (1) Qualcomm had no antitrust duty to deal with competitors, consistent with established Supreme Court precedent (a very narrow exception to this precedent did not apply); (2) Qualcomm’s rates were chip supplier neutral because all OEMs paid royalties, not just rivals’ customers; (3) the lower court failed to show how the “no license, no chips” policy harmed Qualcomm’s competitors; and (4) Qualcomm’s agreements with Apple did not have the effect of substantially foreclosing the market to competitors. The Ninth Circuit as a whole rejected the FTC’s “en banc” appeal for review of the panel decision.

The appellate decision in Qualcomm largely supports pillar four of the NMA, that unilateral and unconditional decisions not to license a patent should be deemed legal under the antitrust laws. More generally, the decision evinces a refusal to find anticompetitive harm in licensing markets without hard empirical support. The FTC and the lower court’s findings of “harm” had been essentially speculative and anecdotal at best. They had ignored the “big picture” that the markets in which Qualcomm operates had seen vigorous competition and the conferral of enormous and growing welfare benefits on consumers, year-by-year. The lower court and the FTC had also turned a deaf ear to a legitimate efficiency-related business rationale that explained Qualcomm’s “no license, no chips” policy – a fully justifiable desire to obtain a fair return on Qualcomm’s patented technology.

Qualcomm is well reasoned, and in line with sound modern antitrust precedent, but it is only one holding. The extent to which this case’s reasoning proves influential in other courts may in part depend on the policies advanced by DOJ and the FTC going forward. Thus, a preliminary examination of the Biden administration’s emerging patent-antitrust policy is warranted. [Subsequent discussion shows that the Biden administration apparently has rejected pro-consumer policies embodied in the 9th U.S. Circuit’s Qualcomm decision and in the NMA.]

Although the 9th Circuit did not comment on them, national-security-policy concerns weighed powerfully against the FTC v. Qualcomm suit. In a July 2019 Statement of Interest (SOI) filed with the circuit court, DOJ cogently set forth the antitrust flaws in the district court’s decision favoring the FTC. Furthermore, the SOI also explained that “the public interest” favored a stay of the district court holding, due to national-security concerns (described in some detail in statements by the departments of Defense and Energy, appended to the SOI):

[T]he public interest also takes account of national security concerns. Winter v. NRDC, 555 U.S. 7, 23-24 (2008). This case presents such concerns. In the view of the Executive Branch, diminishment of Qualcomm’s competitiveness in 5G innovation and standard-setting would significantly impact U.S. national security. A251-54 (CFIUS); LD ¶¶10-16 (Department of Defense); ED ¶¶9-10 (Department of Energy). Qualcomm is a trusted supplier of mission-critical products and services to the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. LD ¶¶5-8; ED ¶¶8-9. Accordingly, the Department of Defense “is seriously concerned that any detrimental impact on Qualcomm’s position as global leader would adversely affect its ability to support national security.” LD ¶16.

The [district] court’s remedy [requiring the renegotiation of Qualcomm’s licensing contracts] is intended to deprive, and risks depriving, Qualcomm of substantial licensing revenue that could otherwise fund time-sensitive R&D and that Qualcomm cannot recover later if it prevails. See, e.g., Op. 227-28. To be sure, if Qualcomm ultimately prevails, vacatur of the injunction will limit the severity of Qualcomm’s revenue loss and the consequent impairment of its ability to perform functions critical to national security. The Department of Defense “firmly believes,” however, “that any measure that inappropriately limits Qualcomm’s technological leadership, ability to invest in [R&D], and market competitiveness, even in the short term, could harm national security. The risks to national security include the disruption of [the Department’s] supply chain and unsure U.S. leadership in 5G.” LD ¶3. Consequently, the public interest necessitates a stay pending this Court’s resolution of the merits. In these rare circumstances, the interest in preventing even a risk to national security—“an urgent objective of the highest order”—presents reason enough not to enforce the remedy immediately. Int’l Refugee Assistance Project, 137 S. Ct. at 2088 (internal quotations omitted).

Not all national-security arguments against antitrust enforcement may be well-grounded, of course. The key point is that the interests of national security and consumer-welfare-centric antitrust are fully aligned when antitrust suits would inefficiently undermine the competitive vigor of a firm or firms that play a major role in supporting U.S. national-security interests. Such was the case in FTC v. Qualcomm. More generally, heightened antitrust scrutiny of efficient patent-licensing practices (as threatened by the Biden administration) would tend to diminish innovation by U.S. patentees, particularly in areas covered by standards that are key to leading global technologies. Such a diminution in innovation will tend to weaken American advantages in important industry sectors that are vital to U.S. national-security interests.

Proposed Federal Antitrust Legislation

Proposed federal antitrust legislation being considered by Congress (see here, here, and here for informed critiques) would prescriptively restrict certain large technology companies’ business transactions. If enacted, such legislation would thereby preclude case-specific analysis of potential transaction-specific efficiencies, thereby undermining the consumer welfare standard at the heart of current sound and principled antitrust enforcement. The legislation would also be at odds with our national-security interests, as a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce paper explains:

Congress is considering new antitrust legislation which, perversely, would weaken leading U.S. technology companies by crafting special purpose regulations under the guise of antitrust to prohibit those firms from engaging in business conduct that is widely acceptable when engaged in by rival competitors.

A series of legislative proposals – some of which already have been approved by relevant Congressional committees – would, among other things: dismantle these companies; prohibit them from engaging in significant new acquisitions or investments; require them to disclose sensitive user data and sensitive IP and trade secrets to competitors, including those that are foreign-owned and controlled; facilitate foreign influence in the United States; and compromise cybersecurity.  These bills would fundamentally undermine American security interests while exempting from scrutiny Chinese and other foreign firms that do not meet arbitrary user and market capitalization thresholds specified in the legislation. …

The United States has never used legislation to punish success. In many industries, scale is important and has resulted in significant gains for the American economy, including small businesses.  U.S. competition law promotes the interests of consumers, not competitors. It should not be used to pick winners and losers in the market or to manage competitive outcomes to benefit select competitors.  Aggressive competition benefits consumers and society, for example by pushing down prices, disrupting existing business models, and introducing innovative products and services.

If enacted, the legislative proposals would drag the United States down in an unfolding global technological competition.  Companies captured by the legislation would be required to compete against integrated foreign rivals with one hand tied behind their backs.  Those firms that are the strongest drivers of U.S. innovation in AI, quantum computing, and other strategic technologies would be hamstrung or even broken apart, while foreign and state-backed producers of these same technologies would remain unscathed and seize the opportunity to increase market share, both in the U.S. and globally. …

Instead of warping antitrust law to punish a discrete group of American companies, the U.S. government should focus instead on vigorous enforcement of current law and on vocally opposing and effectively countering foreign regimes that deploy competition law and other legal and regulatory methods as industrial policy tools to unfairly target U.S. companies.  The U.S. should avoid self-inflicted wounds to our competitiveness and national security that would result from turning antitrust into a weapon against dynamic and successful U.S. firms.      

Consistent with this analysis, former Obama administration Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former Trump administration Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats argued in a letter to U.S. House leadership (see here) that “imposing severe restrictions solely on U.S. giants will pave the way for a tech landscape dominated by China — echoing a position voiced by the Big Tech companies themselves.”

The national-security arguments against current antitrust legislative proposals, like the critiques of the unfounded FTC v. Qualcomm case, represent an alignment between sound antitrust policy and national-security analysis. Unfounded antitrust attacks on efficient business practices by large firms that help maintain U.S. technological leadership in key areas undermine both principled antitrust and national security.

Conclusion

Enlightened antitrust enforcement, centered on consumer welfare, can and should be read in a manner that is harmonious with national-security interests.

The cooperation between U.S. federal antitrust enforcers and the DOD in assessing defense-industry mergers and joint ventures is, generally speaking, an example of successful harmonization. This success reflects the fact that antitrust enforcers carry out their reviews of those transactions with an eye toward accommodating efficiencies that advance defense goals without sacrificing consumer welfare. Close antitrust-agency consultation with DOD is key to that approach.

Unfortunately, federal enforcement directed toward efficient intellectual-property licensing, as manifested in the Qualcomm case, reflects a disharmony between antitrust and national security. This disharmony could be eliminated if DOJ and the FTC adopted a dynamic view of intellectual property and the substantial economic-welfare benefits that flow from restrictive patent-licensing transactions.

In sum, a dynamic analysis reveals that consumer welfare is enhanced, not harmed, by not subjecting such licensing arrangements to antitrust threat. A more permissive approach to licensing is thus consistent with principled antitrust and with the national security interest of protecting and promoting strong American intellectual property (and, in particular, patent) protection. The DOJ and the FTC should keep this in mind and make appropriate changes to their IP-antitrust policies forthwith.

Finally, proposed federal antitrust legislation would bring about statutory changes that would simultaneously displace consumer welfare considerations and undercut national security interests. As such, national security is supported by rejecting unsound legislation, in order to keep in place consumer-welfare-based antitrust enforcement.

President Joe Biden’s July 2021 executive order set forth a commitment to reinvigorate U.S. innovation and competitiveness. The administration’s efforts to pass the America COMPETES Act would appear to further demonstrate a serious intent to pursue these objectives.

Yet several actions taken by federal agencies threaten to undermine the intellectual-property rights and transactional structures that have driven the exceptional performance of U.S. firms in key areas of the global innovation economy. These regulatory missteps together represent a policy “lose-lose” that lacks any sound basis in innovation economics and threatens U.S. leadership in mission-critical technology sectors.

Life Sciences: USTR Campaigns Against Intellectual-Property Rights

In the pharmaceutical sector, the administration’s signature action has been an unprecedented campaign by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to block enforcement of patents and other intellectual-property rights held by companies that have broken records in the speed with which they developed and manufactured COVID-19 vaccines on a mass scale.

Patents were not an impediment in this process. To the contrary: they were necessary predicates to induce venture-capital investment in a small firm like BioNTech, which undertook drug development and then partnered with the much larger Pfizer to execute testing, production, and distribution. If success in vaccine development is rewarded with expropriation, this vital public-health sector is unlikely to attract investors in the future. 

Contrary to increasingly common assertions that the Bayh-Dole Act (which enables universities to seek patents arising from research funded by the federal government) “robs” taxpayers of intellectual property they funded, the development of Covid-19 vaccines by scientist-founded firms illustrates how the combination of patents and private capital is essential to convert academic research into life-saving medical solutions. The biotech ecosystem has long relied on patents to structure partnerships among universities, startups, and large firms. The costly path from lab to market relies on a secure property-rights infrastructure to ensure exclusivity, without which no investor would put capital at stake in what is already a high-risk, high-cost enterprise.  

This is not mere speculation. During the decades prior to the Bayh-Dole Act, the federal government placed strict limitations on the ability to patent or exclusively license innovations arising from federally funded research projects. The result: the market showed little interest in making the investment needed to convert those innovations into commercially viable products that might benefit consumers. This history casts great doubt on the wisdom of the USTR’s campaign to limit the ability of biopharmaceutical firms to maintain legal exclusivity over certain life sciences innovations.

Genomics: FTC Attempts to Block the Illumina/GRAIL Acquisition

In the genomics industry, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has devoted extensive resources to oppose the acquisition by Illumina—the market leader in next-generation DNA-sequencing equipment—of a medical-diagnostics startup, GRAIL (an Illumina spinoff), that has developed an early-stage cancer screening test.

It is hard to see the competitive threat. GRAIL is a pre-revenue company that operates in a novel market segment and its diagnostic test has not yet received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). To address concerns over barriers to potential competitors in this nascent market, Illumina has committed to 12-year supply contracts that would bar price increases or differential treatment for firms that develop oncology-detection tests requiring use of the Illumina platform.

One of Illumina’s few competitors in the global market is the BGI Group, a China-based company that, in 2013, acquired Complete Genomics, a U.S. target that Illumina pursued but relinquished due to anticipated resistance from the FTC in the merger-review process.  The transaction was then cleared by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).

The FTC’s case against Illumina’s re-acquisition of GRAIL relies on theoretical predictions of consumer harm in a market that is not yet operational. Hypothetical market failure scenarios may suit an academic seminar but fall well below the probative threshold for antitrust intervention. 

Most critically, the Illumina enforcement action places at-risk a key element of well-functioning innovation ecosystems. Economies of scale and network effects lead technology markets to converge on a handful of leading platforms, which then often outsource research and development by funding and sometimes acquiring smaller firms that develop complementary technologies. This symbiotic relationship encourages entry and benefits consumers by bringing new products to market as efficiently as possible. 

If antitrust interventions based on regulatory fiat, rather than empirical analysis, disrupt settled expectations in the M&A market that innovations can be monetized through acquisition transactions by larger firms, venture capital may be unwilling to fund such startups in the first place. Independent development or an initial public offering are often not feasible exit options. It is likely that innovation will then retreat to the confines of large incumbents that can fund research internally but often execute it less effectively. 

Wireless Communications: DOJ Takes Aim at Standard-Essential Patents

Wireless communications stand at the heart of the global transition to a 5G-enabled “Internet of Things” that will transform business models and unlock efficiencies in myriad industries.  It is therefore of paramount importance that policy actions in this sector rest on a rigorous economic basis. Unfortunately, a recent policy shift proposed by the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division does not meet this standard.

In December 2021, the Antitrust Division released a draft policy statement that would largely bar owners of standard-essential patents from seeking injunctions against infringers, which are usually large device manufacturers. These patents cover wireless functionalities that enable transformative solutions in myriad industries, ranging from communications to transportation to health care. A handful of U.S. and European firms lead in wireless chip design and rely on patent licensing to disseminate technology to device manufacturers and to fund billions of dollars in research and development. The result is a technology ecosystem that has enjoyed continuous innovation, widespread user adoption, and declining quality-adjusted prices.

The inability to block infringers disrupts this equilibrium by signaling to potential licensees that wireless technologies developed by others can be used at-will, with the terms of use to be negotiated through costly and protracted litigation. A no-injunction rule would discourage innovation while encouraging delaying tactics favored by well-resourced device manufacturers (including some of the world’s largest companies by market capitalization) that occupy bottleneck pathways to lucrative retail markets in the United States, China, and elsewhere.

Rather than promoting competition or innovation, the proposed policy would simply transfer wealth from firms that develop new technologies at great cost and risk to firms that prefer to use those technologies at no cost at all. This does not benefit anyone other than device manufacturers that already capture the largest portion of economic value in the smartphone supply chain.

Conclusion

From international trade to antitrust to patent policy, the administration’s actions imply little appreciation for the property rights and contractual infrastructure that support real-world innovation markets. In particular, the administration’s policies endanger the intellectual-property rights and monetization pathways that support market incentives to invest in the development and commercialization of transformative technologies.

This creates an inviting vacuum for strategic rivals that are vigorously pursuing leadership positions in global technology markets. In industries that stand at the heart of the knowledge economy—life sciences, genomics, and wireless communications—the administration is on a counterproductive trajectory that overlooks the business realities of technology markets and threatens to push capital away from the entrepreneurs that drive a robust innovation ecosystem. It is time to reverse course.

The Jan. 18 Request for Information on Merger Enforcement (RFI)—issued jointly by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ)—sets forth 91 sets of questions (subsumed under 15 headings) that provide ample opportunity for public comment on a large range of topics.

Before chasing down individual analytic rabbit holes related to specific questions, it would be useful to reflect on the “big picture” policy concerns raised by this exercise (but not hinted at in the questions). Viewed from a broad policy perspective, the RFI initiative risks undermining the general respect that courts have accorded merger guidelines over the years, as well as disincentivizing economically beneficial business consolidations.

Policy concerns that flow from various features of the RFI, which could undermine effective merger enforcement, are highlighted below. These concerns counsel against producing overly detailed guidelines that adopt a merger-skeptical orientation.

The RFI Reflects the False Premise that Competition is Declining in the United States

The FTC press release that accompanied the RFI’s release made clear that a supposed weakening of competition under the current merger-guidelines regime is a key driver of the FTC and DOJ interest in new guidelines:

Today, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division launched a joint public inquiry aimed at strengthening enforcement against illegal mergers. Recent evidence indicates that many industries across the economy are becoming more concentrated and less competitive – imperiling choice and economic gains for consumers, workers, entrepreneurs, and small businesses.

This premise is not supported by the facts. Based on a detailed literature review, Chapter 6 of the 2020 Economic Report of the President concluded that “the argument that the U.S. economy is suffering from insufficient competition is built on a weak empirical foundation and questionable assumptions.” More specifically, the 2020 Economic Report explained:

Research purporting to document a pattern of increasing concentration and increasing markups uses data on segments of the economy that are far too broad to offer any insights about competition, either in specific markets or in the economy at large. Where data do accurately identify issues of concentration or supercompetitive profits, additional analysis is needed to distinguish between alternative explanations, rather than equating these market indicators with harmful market power.

Soon to-be-published quantitative research by Robert Kulick of NERA Economic Consulting and the American Enterprise Institute, presented at the Jan. 26 Mercatus Antitrust Forum, is consistent with the 2020 Economic Report’s findings. Kulick stressed that there was no general trend toward increasing industrial concentration in the U.S. economy from 2002 to 2017. In particular, industrial concentration has been declining since 2007; the Herfindahl–Hirschman index (HHI) for manufacturing has declined significantly since 2002; and the economywide four-firm concentration ratio (CR4) in 2017 was approximately the same as in 2002. 

Even in industries where concentration may have risen, “the evidence does not support claims that concentration is persistent or harmful.” In that regard, Kulick’s research finds that higher-concentration industries tend to become less concentrated, while lower-concentration industries tend to become more concentrated over time; increases in industrial concentration are associated with economic growth and job creation, particularly for high-growth industries; and rising industrial concentration may be driven by increasing market competition.

In short, the strongest justification for issuing new merger guidelines is based on false premises: an alleged decline in competition within the Unites States. Given this reality, the adoption of revised guidelines designed to “ratchet up” merger enforcement would appear highly questionable.

The RFI Strikes a Merger-Skeptical Tone Out of Touch with Modern Mainstream Antitrust Scholarship

The overall tone of the RFI reflects a skeptical view of the potential benefits of mergers. It ignores overarching beneficial aspects of mergers, which include reallocating scarce resources to higher-valued uses (through the market for corporate control) and realizing standard efficiencies of various sorts (including cost-based efficiencies and incentive effects, such as the elimination of double marginalization through vertical integration). Mergers also generate benefits by bringing together complementary assets and by generating synergies of various sorts, including the promotion of innovation and scaling up the fruits of research and development. (See here, for example.)

What’s more, as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has explained, “[e]vidence suggests that vertical mergers are generally pro-competitive, as they are driven by efficiency-enhancing motives such as improving vertical co-ordination and realizing economies of scope.”

Given the manifold benefits of mergers in general, the negative and merger-skeptical tone of the RFI is regrettable. It not only ignores sound economics, but it is at odds with recent pronouncements by the FTC and DOJ. Notably, the 2010 DOJ-FTC Horizontal Merger Guidelines (issued by Obama administration enforcers) struck a neutral tone. Those guidelines recognized the duty to challenge anticompetitive mergers while noting the public interest in avoiding unnecessary interference with non-anticompetitive mergers (“[t]he Agencies seek to identify and challenge competitively harmful mergers while avoiding unnecessary interference with mergers that are either competitively beneficial or neutral”). The same neutral approach is found in the 2020 DOJ-FTC Vertical Merger Guidelines (“the Agencies use a consistent set of facts and assumptions to evaluate both the potential competitive harm from a vertical merger and the potential benefits to competition”).

The RFI, however, expresses no concern about unnecessary government interference, and strongly emphasizes the potential shortcomings of the existing guidelines in questioning whether they “adequately equip enforcers to identify and proscribe unlawful, anticompetitive mergers.” Merger-skepticism is also reflected throughout the RFI’s 91 sets of questions. A close reading reveals that they are generally phrased in ways that implicitly assume competitive problems or reject potential merger justifications.

For example, the questions addressing efficiencies, under RFI heading 14, casts efficiencies in a generally negative light. Thus, the RFI asks whether “the [existing] guidelines’ approach to efficiencies [is] consistent with the prevailing legal framework as enacted by Congress and interpreted by the courts,” citing the statement in FTC v. Procter & Gamble (1967) that “[p]ossible economies cannot be used as a defense to illegality.”

The view that antitrust disfavors mergers that enhance efficiencies (the “efficiencies offense”) has been roundly rejected by mainstream antitrust scholarship (see, for example, here, here, and here). It may be assumed that today’s Supreme Court (which has deemed consumer welfare to be the lodestone of antitrust enforcement since Reiter v. Sonotone (1979)) would give short shrift to an “efficiencies offense” justification for a merger challenge.

Another efficiencies-related question, under RFI heading 14.d, may in application fly in the face of sound market-oriented economics: “Where a merger is expected to generate cost savings via the elimination of ‘excess’ or ‘redundant’ capacity or workers, should the guidelines treat these savings as cognizable ‘efficiencies’?”

Consider a merger that generates synergies and thereby expands and/or raises the quality of goods and services produced with reduced capacity and fewer workers. This merger would allow these resources to be allocated to higher-valued uses elsewhere in the economy, yielding greater economic surplus for consumers and producers. But there is the risk that such a merger could be viewed unfavorably under new merger guidelines that were revised in light of this question. (Although heading 14.d includes a separate question regarding capacity reductions that have the potential to reduce supply resilience or product or service quality, it is not stated that this provision should be viewed as a limitation on the first sentence.)

The RFI’s discussion of topics other than efficiencies similarly sends the message that existing guidelines are too “pro-merger.” Thus, for example, under RFI heading 5 (“presumptions”), one finds the rhetorical question: “[d]o the [existing] guidelines adequately identify mergers that are presumptively unlawful under controlling case law?”

This question answers itself, by citing to the Philadelphia National Bank (1963) statement that “[w]ithout attempting to specify the smallest market share which would still be considered to threaten undue concentration, we are clear that 30% presents that threat.” This statement predates all of the merger guidelines and is out of step with the modern economic analysis of mergers, which the existing guidelines embody. It would, if taken seriously, threaten a huge number of proposed mergers that, until now, have not been subject to second-request review by the DOJ and FTC. As Judge Douglas Ginsburg and former Commissioner Joshua Wright have explained:

The practical effect of the PNB presumption is to shift the burden of proof from the plaintiff, where it rightfully resides, to the defendant, without requiring evidence – other than market shares – that the proposed merger is likely to harm competition. . . . The presumption ought to go the way of the agencies’ policy decision to drop reliance upon the discredited antitrust theories approved by the courts in such cases as Brown Shoe, Von’s Grocery, and Utah Pie. Otherwise, the agencies will ultimately have to deal with the tension between taking advantage of a favorable presumption in litigation and exerting a reformative influence on the direction of merger law.

By inviting support for PNB-style thinking, RFI heading 5’s lead question effectively rejects the economic effects-based analysis that has been central to agency merger analysis for decades. Guideline revisions that downplay effects in favor of mere concentration would likely be viewed askance by reviewing courts (and almost certainly would be rejected by the Supreme Court, as currently constituted, if the occasion arose).

These particularly striking examples are illustrative of the questioning tone regarding existing merger analysis that permeates the RFI.

New Merger Guidelines, if Issued, Should Not Incorporate the Multiplicity of Issues Embodied in the RFI

The 91 sets of questions in the RFI read, in large part, like a compendium of theoretical harms to the working of markets that might be associated with mergers. While these questions may be of general academic interest, and may shed some light on particular merger investigations, most of them should not be incorporated into guidelines.

As Justice Stephen Breyer has pointed out, antitrust is a legal regime that must account for administrative practicalities. Then-Judge Breyer described the nature of the problem in his 1983 Barry Wright opinion (affirming the dismissal of a Sherman Act Section 2 complaint based on “unreasonably low” prices):

[W]hile technical economic discussion helps to inform the antitrust laws, those laws cannot precisely replicate the economists’ (sometimes conflicting) views. For, unlike economics, law is an administrative system the effects of which depend upon the content of rules and precedents only as they are applied by judges and juries in courts and by lawyers advising their clients. Rules that seek to embody every economic complexity and qualification may well, through the vagaries of administration, prove counter-productive, undercutting the very economic ends they seek to serve.

It follows that any effort to include every theoretical merger-related concern in new merger guidelines would undercut their (presumed) overarching purpose, which is providing useful guidance to the private sector. All-inclusive “guidelines” in reality provide no guidance at all. Faced with a laundry list of possible problems that might prompt the FTC or DOJ to oppose a merger, private parties would face enormous uncertainty, which could deter them from proposing a large number of procompetitive, welfare-enhancing or welfare-neutral consolidations. This would “undercut the very economic ends” of promoting competition that is served by Section 7 enforcement.

Furthermore, all-inclusive merger guidelines could be seen by judges as undermining the rule of law (see here, for example). If DOJ and FTC were able to “pick and choose” at will from an enormously wide array of considerations to justify opposing a proposed merger, they could be seen as engaged in arbitrary enforcement, rather than in a careful weighing of evidence aimed at condemning only anticompetitive transactions. This would be at odds with the promise of fair and dispassionate enforcement found in the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines, namely, to “seek to identify and challenge competitively harmful mergers while avoiding unnecessary interference with mergers that are either competitively beneficial or neutral.”

Up until now, federal courts have virtually always implicitly deferred to (and not questioned) the application of merger-guideline principles by the DOJ and FTC. The agencies have won or lost cases based on courts’ weighing of particular factual and economic evidence, not on whether guideline principles should have been applied by the enforcers.

One would expect courts to react very differently, however, to cases brought in light of ridiculously detailed “guidelines” that did not provide true guidance (particularly if they were heavy on competitive harm possibilities and discounted efficiencies). The agencies’ selective reliance on particular anticompetitive theories could be seen as exercises in arbitrary “pre-cooked” condemnations, not dispassionate enforcement. As such, the courts would tend to be far more inclined to reject (or accord far less deference to) the new guidelines in evaluating agency merger challenges. Even transactions that would have been particularly compelling candidates for condemnation under prior guidelines could be harder to challenge successfully, due to the taint of the new guidelines.

In short, the adoption of highly detailed guidelines that emphasize numerous theories of harm would likely undermine the effectiveness of DOJ and FTC merger enforcement, the precise opposite of what the agencies would have intended.

New Merger Guidelines, if Issued, Should Avoid Relying on Outdated Case Law and Novel Section 7 Theories, and Should Give Due Credit to Economic Efficiencies

The DOJ and FTC could, of course, acknowledge the problem of administrability  and issue more straightforward guideline revisions, of comparable length and detail to prior guidelines. If they choose to do so, they would be well-advised to eschew relying on dated precedents and novel Section 7 theories. They should also give due credit to efficiencies. Seemingly biased guidelines would undermine merger enforcement, not strengthen it.

As discussed above, the RFI’s implicitly favorable references to Philadelphia National Bank and Procter & Gamble are at odds with contemporary economics-based antitrust thinking, which has been accepted by the federal courts. The favorable treatment of those antediluvian holdings, and Brown Shoe Co. v. United States (1962) (another horribly dated case cited multiple times in the RFI), would do much to discredit new guidelines.

In that regard, the suggestion in RFI heading 1 that existing merger guidelines may not “faithfully track the statutory text, legislative history, and established case law around merger enforcement” touts the Brown Shoe and PNB concerns with a “trend toward concentration” and “the danger of subverting congressional intent by permitting a too-broad economic investigation.”

New guidelines that focus on (or even give lip service to) a “trend” toward concentration and eschew overly detailed economic analyses (as opposed, perhaps, to purely concentration-based negative rules of thumb?) would predictably come in for judicial scorn as economically unfounded. Such references would do as much (if not more) to ensure judicial rejection of enforcement-agency guidelines as endless lists of theoretically possible sources of competitive harm, discussed previously.

Of particular concern are those references that implicitly reject the need to consider efficiencies, which is key to modern enlightened merger evaluations. It is ludicrous to believe that a majority of the current Supreme Court would have a merger-analysis epiphany and decide that the RFI’s preferred interventionist reading of Section 7 statutory language and legislative history trumps decades of economically centered consumer-welfare scholarship and agency guidelines.

Herbert Hovenkamp, author of the leading American antitrust treatise and a scholar who has been cited countless times by the Supreme Court, recently put it well (in an article coauthored with Carl Shapiro):

When the FTC investigates vertical and horizontal mergers will it now take the position that efficiencies are irrelevant, even if they are proven? If so, the FTC will face embarrassing losses in court.

Reviewing courts wound no doubt take heed of this statement in assessing any future merger guidelines that rely on dated and discredited cases or that minimize efficiencies.

New Guidelines, if Issued, Should Give Due Credit to Efficiencies

Heading 14 of the RFI—listing seven sets of questions that deal with efficiencies—is in line with the document’s implicitly negative portrayal of mergers. The heading begins inauspiciously, with a question that cites Procter & Gamble in suggesting that the current guidelines’ approach to efficiencies is “[in]consistent with the prevailing legal framework as enacted by Congress and interpreted by the courts.” As explained above, such an anti-efficiencies reference would be viewed askance by most, if not all, reviewing judges.

Other queries in heading 14 also view efficiencies as problematic. They suggest that efficiency claims should be treated negatively because efficiency claims are not always realized after the fact. But merger activity is a private-sector search process, and the ability to predict ex post effects with perfect accuracy is an inevitable part of market activity. Using such a natural aspect of markets as an excuse to ignore efficiencies would prevent many economically desirable consolidations from being achieved.

Furthermore, the suggestion under heading 14 that parties should have to show with certainty that cognizable efficiencies could not have been achieved through alternative means asks the impossible. Theoreticians may be able to dream up alternative means by which efficiencies might have been achieved (say, through convoluted contracts), but such constructs may not be practical in real-world settings. Requiring businesses to follow dubious theoretical approaches to achieve legitimate business ends, rather than allowing them to enter into arrangements they favor that appear efficient, would manifest inappropriate government interference in markets. (It would be just another example of the “pretense of knowledge” that Friedrich Hayek brilliantly described in his 1974 Nobel Prize lecture.)

Other questions under heading 14 raise concerns about the lack of discussion of possible “inefficiencies” in current guidelines, and speculate about possible losses of “product or service quality” due to otherwise efficient reductions in physical capacity and employment. Such theoretical musings offer little guidance to the private sector, and further cast in a negative light potential real resource savings.

Rather than incorporate the unhelpful theoretical efficiencies critiques under heading 14, the agencies should consider a more helpful approach to clarifying the evaluation of efficiencies in new guidelines. Such a clarification could be based on Commissioner Christine Wilson’s helpful discussion of merger efficiencies in recent writings (see, for example, here and here). Wilson has appropriately called for the symmetric treatment of both the potential harms and benefits arising from mergers, explaining that “the agencies readily credit harms but consistently approach potential benefits with extreme skepticism.”

She and Joshua Wright have also explained (see here, here, and here) that overly narrow product-market definitions may sometimes preclude consideration of substantial “out-of-market” efficiencies that arise from certain mergers. The consideration of offsetting “out-of-market” efficiencies that greatly outweigh competitive harms might warrant inclusion in new guidelines.

The FTC and DOJ could be heading for a merger-enforcement train wreck if they adopt new guidelines that incorporate the merger-skeptical tone and excruciating level of detail found in the RFI. This approach would yield a lengthy and uninformative laundry list of potential competitive problems that would allow the agencies to selectively pick competitive harm “stories” best adapted to oppose particular mergers, in tension with the rule of law.

Far from “strengthening” merger enforcement, such new guidelines would lead to economically harmful business uncertainty and would severely undermine judicial respect for the federal merger-enforcement process. The end result would be a “lose-lose” for businesses, for enforcers, and for the American economy.

Conclusion

If the agencies enact new guidelines, they should be relatively short and straightforward, designed to give private parties the clearest possible picture of general agency enforcement intentions. In particular, new guidelines should:

  1. Eschew references to dated and discredited case law;
  2. Adopt a neutral tone that acknowledges the beneficial aspects of mergers;
  3. Recognize the duty to challenge anticompetitive mergers, while at the same time noting the public interest in avoiding unnecessary interference with non-anticompetitive mergers (consistent with the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines); and
  4. Acknowledge the importance of efficiencies, treating them symmetrically with competitive harm and according appropriate weight to countervailing out-of-market efficiencies (a distinct improvement over existing enforcement policy).

Merger enforcement should continue to be based on fact-based case-specific evaluations, informed by sound economics. Populist nostrums that treat mergers with suspicion and that ignore their beneficial aspects should be rejected. Such ideas are at odds with current scholarly thinking and judicial analysis, and should be relegated to the scrap heap of outmoded and bad public policies.

As a new year dawns, the Biden administration remains fixated on illogical, counterproductive “big is bad” nostrums.

Noted economist and former Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry Summers correctly stressed recently that using antitrust to fight inflation represents “science denial,” tweeting that:

In his extended Twitter thread, Summers notes that labor shortages are the primary cause of inflation over time and that lowering tariffs, paring back import restrictions (such as the Buy America Act), and reducing regulatory delays are vital to combat inflation.

Summers’ points, of course, are right on the mark. Indeed, labor shortages, supply-chain issues, and a dramatic increase in regulatory burdens have been key to the dramatic run-up of prices during the Biden administration’s first year. Reducing the weight of government on the private sector and thereby enhancing incentives for increased investment, labor participation, and supply are the appropriate weapons to slow price rises and incentivize economic growth.

More specifically, administration policies can be pinpointed as the cause, not the potential solution to, rapid price increases in specific sectors, particularly the oil and gas industry. As I recently commented, policies that disincentivize new energy production, and fail to lift excessive regulatory burdens, have been a key factor in sparking rises in gasoline prices. Administration claims that anticompetitive activity is behind these prices increases should be discounted. New Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigations of oil and gas companies would waste resources and increase already large governmental burdens on those firms.

The administration, nevertheless, appears committed to using antitrust as an anti-inflationary “tool” against “big business” (or perhaps, really, as a symbolic hammer to shift blame to the private sector for rising prices). Recent  pronouncements about combatting “big meat” are a case in point.

The New ‘Big Meat’ Crusade

Part of the administration’s crusade against “big meat” involves providing direct government financial support for favored firms. A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plan to spend up to $1 billion to assist smaller meat processors is a subsidy that artificially favors one group of competitors. This misguided policy, which bears the scent of special-interest favoritism, wastes taxpayer dollars and distorts free-market outcomes. It will do nothing to cure supply and regulatory problems that affect rising meat prices. It will, however, misallocate resources.

The other key aspect of the big meat initiative smacks more of problematic, old-style, economics-free antitrust. It centers on: (1) threatening possible antitrust actions against four large meat processors based principally on their size and market share; and (2) initiating a planned rulemaking under the Packers and Stockyards Act. (That rulemaking was foreshadowed by language in the July 2021 Biden Administration Executive Order on Competition.)

The administration’s apparent focus on the “dominance” of four large meatpacking firms (which have the temerity to collectively hold greater than 50% market shares in the hog, cattle, and chicken sectors) and the 120% jump in their gross profits since the pandemic began is troubling. It echoes the structuralist “big is bad” philosophy of the 1950s and 1960s. In and of itself, large market share is not, of course, an antitrust problem, nor are large gross profits. Rather, those metrics typically signal a particular firm’s superior efficiency relative to the competition. (Gross profit “reflects the efficiency of a business in terms of making use of its labor, raw material and other supplies.”) Antitrust investigations of firms merely because they are large would inefficiently bloat those companies’ costs and discourage them from engaging in cost-reducing new capacity and production improvements. This would tend to raise, not lower, prices by major firms. It thus would lower consumer welfare, a result at odds with the guiding policy goal of antitrust, which is to promote consumer welfare.

The administration’s announcement that the USDA “will also propose rules this year to strengthen enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act” is troublesome. That act, dating back to 1921, uses broad terms that extend beyond antitrust law (such as a prohibition on “giv[ing] any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any particular person”) and threatens to penalize efficient conduct by individual competitors. “Ratcheting up” enforcement under this act also could undermine business efficiency and paradoxically raise, not lower, prices.

Obviously, the specifics of the forthcoming proposed rules have not yet been revealed. Nevertheless, the administration’s “big is bad” approach to “big meat” strongly signals that one may expect rules to generate new costly and inefficient restrictions on meat-packer conduct. Such restrictions, of course, would be at odds with vibrant competition and consumer-welfare enhancement.    

This is not to say, of course, that meat packing should be immune from antitrust attention. Such scrutiny, however, should not be transfixed by “big is bad” concerns. Rather, it should center on the core antitrust goal of combatting harmful business conduct that unreasonably restrains competition and reduces consumer welfare. A focus on ferreting out collusive agreements among meat processors, such as price-fixing schemes, should have pride of place. The U.S. Justice Department’s already successful ongoing investigation into price fixing in the broiler-chicken industry is precisely the sort of antitrust initiative on which the administration should expend its scarce enforcement resources.

Conclusion

In sum, the Biden administration could do a lot of good in antitrust land if it would only set aside its nostalgic “big is bad” philosophy. It should return to the bipartisan enlightened understanding that antitrust is a consumer-welfare prescription that is based on sound and empirically based economics and is concerned with economically inefficient conduct that softens or destroys competition.

If it wants to stray beyond mere enforcement, the administration could turn its focus toward dismantling welfare-reducing anticompetitive federal regulatory schemes, rather than adding to private-sector regulatory burdens. For more about how to do this, we recommend that the administration consult a just-released Mercatus Center policy brief that Andrew Mercado and I co-authored.

Even as delivery services work to ship all of those last-minute Christmas presents that consumers bought this season from digital platforms and other e-commerce sites, the U.S. House and Senate are contemplating Grinch-like legislation that looks to stop or limit how Big Tech companies can “self-preference” or “discriminate” on their platforms.

A platform “self-preferences” when it blends various services into the delivery of a given product in ways that third parties couldn’t do themselves. For example, Google self-preferences when it puts a Google Shopping box at the top of a Search page for Adidas sneakers. Amazon self-preferences when it offers its own AmazonBasics USB cables alongside those offered by Apple or Anker. Costco’s placement of its own Kirkland brand of paper towels on store shelves can also be a form of self-preferencing.

Such purportedly “discriminatory” behavior constitutes much of what platforms are designed to do. Virtually every platform that offers a suite of products and services will combine them in ways that users find helpful, even if competitors find it infuriating. It surely doesn’t help Yelp if Google Search users can see a Maps results box next to a search for showtimes at a local cinema. It doesn’t help other manufacturers of charging cables if Amazon sells a cheaper version under a brand that consumers trust. But do consumers really care about Yelp or Apple’s revenues, when all they want are relevant search results and less expensive products?

Until now, competition authorities have judged this type of conduct under the consumer welfare standard: does it hurt consumers in the long run, or does it help them? This test does seek to evaluate whether the conduct deprives consumers of choice by foreclosing rivals, which could ultimately allow the platform to exploit its customers. But it doesn’t treat harm to competitors—in the form of reduced traffic and profits for Yelp, for example—as a problem in and of itself.

“Non-discrimination” bills introduced this year in both the House and Senate aim to change that, but they would do so in ways that differ in important respects.

The House bill would impose a blanket ban on virtually all “discrimination” by platforms. This means that even such benign behavior as Facebook linking to Facebook Marketplace on its homepage would become presumptively unlawful. The measure would, as I’ve written before, break a lot of the Internet as we know it, but it has the virtue of being explicit and clear about its effects.

The Senate bill is, in this sense, a lot more circumspect. Instead of a blanket ban, it would prohibit what the bill refers to as “unfair” discrimination that “materially harm[s] competition on the covered platform,” with a carve-out exception for discrimination that was “necessary” to maintain or enhance the “core functionality” of the platform. In theory, this would avoid a lot of the really crazy effects of the House bill. Apple likely still could, for example, pre-install a Camera app on the iPhone.

But this greater degree of reasonableness comes at the price of ambiguity. The bill does not define “unfair discrimination,” nor what it would mean for something to be “necessary” to improve the core functionality of a platform. Faced with this ambiguity, companies would be wise to be overly cautious, given the steep penalties they would face for conduct found to be “unfair”: 15% of total U.S. revenues earned during the period when the conduct was ongoing. That’s a lot of money to risk over a single feature!

Also unlike the House legislation, the Senate bill would not create a private right of action, thereby limiting litigation to enforce the bill’s terms to actions brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), or state attorneys general.

Put together, these features create the perfect recipe for extensive discretionary power held by a handful of agencies. With such vague criteria and such massive penalties for lawbreaking, the mere threat of a lawsuit could force a company to change its behavior. The rules are so murky that companies might even be threatened with a lawsuit over conduct in one area in order to make them change their behavior in another.

It’s hardly unprecedented for powers like this to be misused. During the Obama administration, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was alleged to have targeted conservative groups for investigation, for which the agency eventually had to apologize (and settle a lawsuit brought by some of the targeted groups). More than a decade ago, the Bank Secrecy Act was used to uncover then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s involvement in an international prostitution ring. Back in 2008, the British government used anti-terrorism powers to seize the assets of some Icelandic banks that had become insolvent and couldn’t repay their British depositors. To this day, municipal governments in Britain use anti-terrorism powers to investigate things like illegal waste dumping and people who wrongly park in spots reserved for the disabled.

The FTC itself has a history of abusing its authority. As Commissioners Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson remind us, the commission was nearly shut down in the 1970s after trying to use its powers to “protect” children from seeing ads for sugary foods, interpreting its consumer-protection mandate so broadly that it considered tooth decay as falling within its scope.

As I’ve written before, both Chair Lina Khan and Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter appear to believe that the FTC ought to take a broad vision of its goals. Slaughter has argued that antitrust ought to be “antiracist.” Khan believes that the “the dispersion of political and economic control” is the proper goal of antitrust, not consumer welfare or some other economic goal.

Khan in particular does not appear especially bound by the usual norms that might constrain this sort of regulatory overreach. In recent weeks, she has pushed through contentious decisions by relying on more than 20 “zombie votes” cast by former Commissioner Rohit Chopra on the final day before he left the agency. While it has been FTC policy since 1984 to count votes cast by departed commissioners unless they are superseded by their successors, Khan’s FTC has invoked this relatively obscure rule to swing more decisions than every single predecessor combined.

Thus, while the Senate bill may avoid immediately breaking large portions of the Internet in ways the House bill would, it would instead place massive discretionary powers into the hands of authorities who have expansive views about the goals those powers ought to be used to pursue.

This ought to be concerning to anyone who disapproves of public policy being made by unelected bureaucrats, rather than the people’s chosen representatives. If Republicans find an empowered Khan-led FTC worrying today, surely Democrats ought to feel the same about an FTC run by Trump-style appointees in a few years. Both sides may come to regret creating an agency with so much unchecked power.

Recent antitrust forays on both sides of the Atlantic have unfortunate echoes of the oldie-but-baddie “efficiencies offense” that once plagued American and European merger analysis (and, more broadly, reflected a “big is bad” theory of antitrust). After a very short overview of the history of merger efficiencies analysis under American and European competition law, we briefly examine two current enforcement matters “on both sides of the pond” that impliedly give rise to such a concern. Those cases may regrettably foreshadow a move by enforcers to downplay the importance of efficiencies, if not openly reject them.

Background: The Grudging Acceptance of Merger Efficiencies

Not long ago, economically literate antitrust teachers in the United States enjoyed poking fun at such benighted 1960s Supreme Court decisions as Procter & Gamble (following in the wake of Brown Shoe andPhiladelphia National Bank). Those holdings—which not only rejected efficiencies justifications for mergers, but indeed “treated efficiencies more as an offense”—seemed a thing of the past, put to rest by the rise of an economic approach to antitrust. Several early European Commission merger-control decisions also arguably embraced an “efficiencies offense.”  

Starting in the 1980s, the promulgation of increasingly economically sophisticated merger guidelines in the United States led to the acceptance of efficiencies (albeit less then perfectly) as an important aspect of integrated merger analysis. Several practitioners have claimed, nevertheless, that “efficiencies are seldom credited and almost never influence the outcome of mergers that are otherwise deemed anticompetitive.” Commissioner Christine Wilson has argued that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) still have work to do in “establish[ing] clear and reasonable expectations for what types of efficiency analysis will and will not pass muster.”

In its first few years of merger review, which was authorized in 1989, the European Commission was hostile to merger-efficiency arguments.  In 2004, however, the EC promulgated horizontal merger guidelines that allow for the consideration of efficiencies, but only if three cumulative conditions (consumer benefit, merger specificity, and verifiability) are satisfied. A leading European competition practitioner has characterized several key European Commission merger decisions in the last decade as giving rather short shrift to efficiencies. In light of that observation, the practitioner has advocated that “the efficiency offence theory should, once again, be repudiated by the Commission, in order to avoid deterring notifying parties from bringing forward perfectly valid efficiency claims.”

In short, although the actual weight enforcers accord to efficiency claims is a matter of debate, efficiency justifications are cognizable, subject to constraints, as a matter of U.S. and European Union merger-enforcement policy. Whether that will remain the case is, unfortunately, uncertain, given DOJ and FTC plans to revise merger guidelines, as well as EU talk of convergence with U.S. competition law.

Two Enforcement Matters with ‘Efficiencies Offense’ Overtones

Two Facebook-related matters currently before competition enforcers—one in the United States and one in the United Kingdom—have implications for the possible revival of an antitrust “efficiencies offense” as a “respectable” element of antitrust policy. (I use the term Facebook to reference both the platform company and its corporate parent, Meta.)

FTC v. Facebook

The FTC’s 2020 federal district court monopolization complaint against Facebook, still in the motion to dismiss the amended complaint phase (see here for an overview of the initial complaint and the judge’s dismissal of it), rests substantially on claims that Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp harmed competition. As Facebook points out in its recent reply brief supporting its motion to dismiss the FTC’s amended complaint, Facebook appears to be touting merger-related efficiencies in critiquing those acquisitions. Specifically:

[The amended complaint] depends on the allegation that Facebook’s expansion of both Instagram and WhatsApp created a “protective ‘moat’” that made it harder for rivals to compete because Facebook operated these services at “scale” and made them attractive to consumers post-acquisition. . . . The FTC does not allege facts that, left on their own, Instagram and WhatsApp would be less expensive (both are free; Facebook made WhatsApp free); or that output would have been greater (their dramatic expansion at “scale” is the linchpin of the FTC’s “moat” theory); or that the products would be better in any specific way.

The FTC’s concerns about a scale-based merger-related output expansion that benefited consumers and thereby allegedly enhanced Facebook’s market position eerily echoes the commission’s concerns in Procter & Gamble that merger-related cost-reducing joint efficiencies in advertising had an anticompetitive “entrenchment” effect. Both positions, in essence, characterize output-increasing efficiencies as harmful to competition: in other words, as “efficiencies offenses.”

UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) v. Facebook

The CMA announced Dec. 1 that it had decided to block retrospectively Facebook’s 2020 acquisition of Giphy, which is “a company that provides social media and messaging platforms with animated GIF images that users can embed in posts and messages. . . .  These platforms license the use of Giphy for its users.”

The CMA theorized that Facebook could harm competition by (1) restricting access to Giphy’s digital libraries to Facebook’s competitors; and (2) prevent Giphy from developing into a potential competitor to Facebook’s display advertising business.

As a CapX analysis explains, the CMA’s theory of harm to competition, based on theoretical speculation, is problematic. First, a behavioral remedy short of divestiture, such as requiring Facebook to maintain open access to its gif libraries, would deal with the threat of restricted access. Indeed, Facebook promised at the time of the acquisition that Giphy would maintain its library and make it widely available. Second, “loss of a single, relatively small, potential competitor out of many cannot be counted as a significant loss for competition, since so many other potential and actual competitors remain.” Third, given the purely theoretical and questionable danger to future competition, the CMA “has blocked this deal on relatively speculative potential competition grounds.”

Apart from the weakness of the CMA’s case for harm to competition, the CMA appears to ignore a substantial potential dynamic integrative efficiency flowing from Facebook’s acquisition of Giphy. As David Teece explains:

Facebook’s acquisition of Giphy maintained Giphy’s assets and furthered its innovation in Facebook’s ecosystem, strengthening that ecosystem in competition with others; and via Giphy’s APIs, strengthening the ecosystems of other service providers as well.

There is no evidence that CMA seriously took account of this integrative efficiency, which benefits consumers by offering them a richer experience from Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram, and which spurs competing ecosystems to enhance their offerings to consumers as well. This is a failure to properly account for an efficiency. Moreover, to the extent that the CMA viewed these integrative benefits as somehow anticompetitive (to the extent that it enhanced Facebook’s competitive position) the improvement of Facebook’s ecosystem could have been deemed a type of “efficiencies offense.”

Are the Facebook Cases Merely Random Straws in the Wind?

It might appear at first blush to be reading too much into the apparent slighting of efficiencies in the two current Facebook cases. Nevertheless, recent policy rhetoric suggests that economic efficiencies arguments (whose status was tenuous at enforcement agencies to begin with) may actually be viewed as “offensive” by the new breed of enforcers.

In her Sept. 22 policy statement on “Vision and Priorities for the FTC,” Chair Lina Khan advocated focusing on the possible competitive harm flowing from actions of “gatekeepers and dominant middlemen,” and from “one-sided [vertical] contract provisions” that are “imposed by dominant firms.” No suggestion can be found in the statement that such vertical relationships often confer substantial benefits on consumers. This hints at a new campaign by the FTC against vertical restraints (as opposed to an emphasis on clearly welfare-inimical conduct) that could discourage a wide range of efficiency-producing contracts.

Chair Khan also sponsored the FTC’s July 2021 rescission of its Section 5 Policy Statement on Unfair Methods of Competition, which had emphasized the primacy of consumer welfare as the guiding principle underlying FTC antitrust enforcement. A willingness to set aside (or place a lower priority on) consumer welfare considerations suggests a readiness to ignore efficiency justifications that benefit consumers.

Even more troubling, a direct attack on the consideration of efficiencies is found in the statement accompanying the FTC’s September 2021 withdrawal of the 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines:

The statement by the FTC majority . . . notes that the 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines had improperly contravened the Clayton Act’s language with its approach to efficiencies, which are not recognized by the statute as a defense to an unlawful merger. The majority statement explains that the guidelines adopted a particularly flawed economic theory regarding purported pro-competitive benefits of mergers, despite having no basis of support in the law or market reality.

Also noteworthy is Khan’s seeming interest (found in her writings here, here, and here) in reviving Robinson-Patman Act enforcement. What’s worse, President Joe Biden’s July 2021 Executive Order on Competition explicitly endorses FTC investigation of “retailers’ practices on the conditions of competition in the food industries, including any practices that may violate [the] Robinson-Patman Act” (emphasis added). Those troubling statements from the administration ignore the widespread scholarly disdain for Robinson-Patman, which is almost unanimously viewed as an attack on efficiencies in distribution. For example, in recommending the act’s repeal in 2007, the congressionally established Antitrust Modernization Commission stressed that the act “protects competitors against competition and punishes the very price discounting and innovation and distribution methods that the antitrust otherwise encourage.”

Finally, newly confirmed Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Jonathan Kanter (who is widely known as a Big Tech critic) has expressed his concerns about the consumer welfare standard and the emphasis on economics in antitrust analysis. Such concerns also suggest, at least by implication, that the Antitrust Division under Kanter’s leadership may manifest a heightened skepticism toward efficiencies justifications.

Conclusion

Recent straws in the wind suggest that an anti-efficiencies hay pile is in the works. Although antitrust agencies have not yet officially rejected the consideration of efficiencies, nor endorsed an “efficiencies offense,” the signs are troubling. Newly minted agency leaders’ skepticism toward antitrust economics, combined with their de-emphasis of the consumer welfare standard and efficiencies (at least in the merger context), suggest that even strongly grounded efficiency explanations may be summarily rejected at the agency level. In foreign jurisdictions, where efficiencies are even less well-established, and enforcement based on mere theory (as opposed to empiricism) is more widely accepted, the outlook for efficiencies stories appears to be no better.     

One powerful factor, however, should continue to constrain the anti-efficiencies movement, at least in the United States: the federal courts. As demonstrated most recently in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ FTC v. Qualcomm decision, American courts remain committed to insisting on empirical support for theories of harm and on seriously considering business justifications for allegedly suspect contractual provisions. (The role of foreign courts in curbing prosecutorial excesses not grounded in economics, and in weighing efficiencies, depends upon the jurisdiction, but in general such courts are far less of a constraint on enforcers than American tribunals.)

While the DOJ and FTC (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, foreign enforcers) will have to keep the judiciary in mind in deciding to bring enforcement actions, the denigration of efficiencies by the agencies still will have an unfortunate demonstration effect on the private sector. Given the cost (both in resources and in reputational capital) associated with antitrust investigations, and the inevitable discounting for the risk of projects caught up in such inquiries, a publicly proclaimed anti-efficiencies enforcement philosophy will do damage. On the margin, it will lead businesses to introduce fewer efficiency-seeking improvements that could be (wrongly) characterized as “strengthening” or “entrenching” market dominance. Such business decisions, in turn, will be welfare-inimical; they will deny consumers the benefit of efficiencies-driven product and service enhancements, and slow the rate of business innovation.

As such, it is to be hoped that, upon further reflection, U.S. and foreign competition enforcers will see the light and publicly proclaim that they will fully weigh efficiencies in analyzing business conduct. The “efficiencies offense” was a lousy tune. That “oldie-but-baddie” should not be replayed.

Large group of people in the shape of two puzzle pieces on a white background.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has taken another step away from case-specific evaluation of proposed mergers and toward an ex ante regulatory approach in its Oct. 25 “Statement of the Commission on Use of Prior Approval Provisions in Merger Orders.” Though not unexpected, this unfortunate initiative once again manifests the current FTC leadership’s disdain for long-accepted economically sound antitrust-enforcement principles.

Discussion

High levels of merger activity should, generally speaking, be viewed as a symptom of a vibrant economy, not a reason for economic concern. Horizontal mergers typically are driven by the potential to realize real cost savings, unrelated to anticompetitive reductions in output.

Non-horizontal mergers often put into force welfare-enhancing reductions of double marginalization, while uniting complements and achieving synergies in ways that seek efficiencies. More generally, proposed acquisitions frequently reflect an active market for corporate control that seeks to reallocate scarce resources to higher-valued uses (see, for example, Henry Manne’s seminal article on “Mergers and the Market for Corporate Control”). Finally, by facilitating cost reductions, synergies, and improvements in resource allocations within firms, mergers may allow the new consolidated entity to compete more effectively in the marketplace, thereby enhancing competition.

Given the economic benefits frequently generated by mergers, government antitrust enforcers should not discourage them, nor should they intervene to block them, absent a strong showing that a particular transaction would likely reduce competition and harm consumer welfare. In the United States, the Hart-Scott-Rodino Premerger Notification Act of 1976 (HSR) and its implementing regulations generally have reflected this understanding. They have done this by requiring that proposed transactions above a certain size threshold be notified to the FTC and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), and by providing a framework for timely review, allowing most notified mergers to close promptly.

In the relatively few cases where agency enforcement staff have identified competitive problems, the HSR framework usually has enabled timely negotiation of possible competitive fixes (divestitures and, less typically, behavioral remedies). Where fixes have not been feasible, filing parties generally have been able to decide whether to drop a transaction or prepare for litigation within a reasonable time period. Under the HSR framework, enforcers generally have respected the time sensitivity of merger proposals and acted expeditiously (with a few exceptions) to review complicated and competitively sensitive transactions. The vast majority of HSR filings that facially raise no plausible competitive issues historically have been dealt with swiftly—often through “early termination” policies that provide the merging parties an antitrust go-ahead well before the end of HSR’s initial 30-day review period.

In short, although far from perfect, HSR processes have sought to minimize regulatory impediments to merger activity, consistent with the statutory mandate to identify and prevent anticompetitive mergers.      

Regrettably, under the leadership of Chair Lina M. Khan, the FTC has taken unprecedented steps to undermine the well-understood HSR framework. As I wrote recently:

For decades, parties proposing mergers that are subject to statutory Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act pre-merger notification requirements have operated under the understanding that:

1. The FTC and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) will routinely grant “early termination” of review (before the end of the initial 30-day statutory review period) to those transactions posing no plausible competitive threat; and

2. An enforcement agency’s decision not to request more detailed documents (“second requests”) after an initial 30-day pre-merger review effectively serves as an antitrust “green light” for the proposed acquisition to proceed.

Those understandings, though not statutorily mandated, have significantly reduced antitrust uncertainty and related costs in the planning of routine merger transactions. The rule of law has been advanced through an effective assurance that business combinations that appear presumptively lawful will not be the target of future government legal harassment. This has advanced efficiency in government, as well; it is a cost-beneficial optimal use of resources for DOJ and the FTC to focus exclusively on those proposed mergers that present a substantial potential threat to consumer welfare.

Two recent FTC pronouncements (one in tandem with DOJ), however, have generated great uncertainty by disavowing (at least temporarily) those two welfare-promoting review policies. Joined by DOJ, the FTC on Feb. 4 announced that the agencies would temporarily suspend early terminations, citing an “unprecedented volume of filings” and a transition to new leadership. More than six months later, this “temporary” suspension remains in effect.

Citing “capacity constraints” and a “tidal wave of merger filings,” the FTC subsequently published an Aug. 3 blog post that effectively abrogated the 30-day “green lighting” of mergers not subject to a second request. It announced that it was sending “warning letters” to firms reminding them that FTC investigations remain open after the initial 30-day period, and that “[c]ompanies that choose to proceed with transactions that have not been fully investigated are doing so at their own risk.”

The FTC’s actions interject unwarranted uncertainty into merger planning and undermine the rule of law. Preventing early termination on transactions that have been approved routinely not only imposes additional costs on business; it hints that some transactions might be subject to novel theories of liability that fall outside the antitrust consensus.

The FTC’s merger-review reign of error continues. Most recently, it released a policy guidance statement that effectively transforms the commission into a merger regulator whose assent is required for a specific category of mergers. This policy is at odds with HSR, which is designed to facilitate merger reviews, not to serve as a regulatory-approval mechanism. As the FTC explains in its Oct. 25 statement(citation to 1995 Statement omitted) (approved by a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Noah Joshua Phillips and Christine S. Wilson dissenting):

On July 21, 2021, the Commission voted to rescind the 1995 Policy Statement on Prior Approval and Prior Notice Provisions (“1995 Statement”). The 1995 Statement ended the Commission’s then-longstanding practice of incorporating prior approval and prior notice provisions in Commission orders addressing mergers. With the rescission of the 1995 statement, the Commission returns now to its prior practice of routinely requiring merging parties subject to a Commission order to obtain prior approval from the FTC before closing any future transaction affecting each relevant market for which a violation was alleged. . . .

In addition, from now on, in matters where the Commission issues a complaint to block a merger and the parties subsequently abandon the transaction, the agency will engage in a case-specific determination as to whether to pursue a prior approval order, focusing on the factors identified below with respect to use of broader prior approval provisions. The fact that parties may abandon a merger after litigation commences does not guarantee that the

Commission will not subsequently pursue an order incorporating a prior approval provision. . . .
In some situations where stronger relief is needed, the Commission may decide to seek a prior approval provision that covers product and geographic markets beyond just the relevant product and geographic markets affected by the merger. No single factor is dispositive; rather, the Commission will take a holistic view of the circumstances when determining the length and breadth of prior approval provisions. [Six factors listed include the nature of the transaction; the level of market concentration; the degree to which the transaction increases concentration; the degree to which one of the parties pre-merger likely had market power; the parties’ history of acquisitiveness; and evidence of anticompetitive market dynamics.]

The Oct. 25 Statement is highly problematic in several respects. Its oversight requirements may discourage highly effective consent decree “fixes” of potential mergers, leading to wasteful litigation—or, alternatively, the abandonment of efficient transactions. What’s more, the threat of FTC prior approval orders (based on multiple criteria subject to manipulation by the FTC), even when parties abandon a proposed transaction (and thus, effectively have “done nothing”), smacks of unwarranted regulation of future corporate plans of disfavored firms, raising questions of fundamental fairness.

All told, the new requirements, combined with the FTC’s policies to end early terminations and to stop “greenlighting” routine merger transactions after a 30-day review, are yet signs that the well-understood HSR consensus has been unilaterally abandoned by the FTC, based on purely partisan commission votes, despite the lack of any public consultation. The FTC’s abrupt and arbitrary merger-review-related actions will harm the economy by discouraging welfare-promoting consolidations. These actions also fly in the face of sound public administration.  

Conclusion

The FTC continues to move from its historic role of antitrust enforcer to that of antitrust regulator at warp speed, based on a series of 3-2 votes. In particular, the commission’s abandonment of a well-established bipartisan approach to HSR policy is particularly troublesome, given the new risks it creates for private parties considering acquisitions. These new risks will likely deter an unknown number of efficiency-enhancing, innovative combinations that could have benefited consumers and substantially strengthened the American economy.

Perhaps the imminent confirmation of Jonathan Kanter—an individual with many years of practical experience as a leading antitrust practitioner—to be assistant attorney general for antitrust will bring a more reasonable perspective to antitrust agency HSR policies. It may even convince a majority of the commission to return to the bipartisan HSR merger-review framework that has served the American economy well.

If not, perhaps congressional overseers might wish to investigate the implications for the American innovation economy and the rule of law stemming from the FTC’s de facto abandonment of HSR principles. Whether to fundamentally alter merger-review procedures should be up to Congress, not to three unelected officials.    

The leading contribution to sound competition policy made by former Assistant U.S. Attorney General Makan Delrahim was his enunciation of the “New Madison Approach” to patent-antitrust enforcement—and, in particular, to the antitrust treatment of standard essential patent licensing (see, for example, here, here, and here). In short (citations omitted):

The New Madison Approach (“NMA”) advanced by former Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Makan Delrahim is a simple analytical framework for understanding the interplay between patents and antitrust law arising out of standard setting. A key aspect of the NMA is its rejection of the application of antitrust law to the “hold-up” problem, whereby patent holders demand supposedly supra-competitive licensing fees to grant access to their patents that “read on” a standard – standard essential patents (“SEPs”). This scenario is associated with an SEP holder’s prior commitment to a standard setting organization (“SSO”), that is: if its patented technology is included in a proposed new standard, it will license its patents on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (“FRAND”) terms. “Hold-up” is said to arise subsequently, when the SEP holder reneges on its FRAND commitment and demands that a technology implementer pay higher-than-FRAND licensing fees to access its SEPs.

The NMA has four basic premises that are aimed at ensuring that patent holders have adequate incentives to innovate and create welfare-enhancing new technologies, and that licensees have appropriate incentives to implement those technologies:

1. Hold-up is not an antitrust problem. Accordingly, an antitrust remedy is not the correct tool to resolve patent licensing disputes between SEP-holders and implementers of a standard.

2. SSOs should not allow collective actions by standard-implementers to disfavor patent holders in setting the terms of access to patents that cover a new standard.

3. A fundamental element of patent rights is the right to exclude. As such, SSOs and courts should be hesitant to restrict SEP holders’ right to exclude implementers from access to their patents, by, for example, seeking injunctions.

4. Unilateral and unconditional decisions not to license a patent should be per se legal.

Delrahim emphasizes that the threat of antitrust liability, specifically treble damages, distorts the incentives associated with good faith negotiations with SSOs over patent inclusion. Contract law, he goes on to note, is perfectly capable of providing an ex post solution to licensing disputes between SEP holders and implementers of a standard. Unlike antitrust law, a contract law framework allows all parties equal leverage in licensing negotiations.

As I have explained elsewhere, the NMA is best seen as a set of policies designed to spark dynamic economic growth:

[P]atented technology serves as a catalyst for the wealth-creating diffusion of innovation. This occurs through numerous commercialization methods; in the context of standardized technologies, the development of standards is a process of discovery. At each [SSO], the process of discussion and negotiation between engineers, businesspersons, and all other relevant stakeholders reveals the relative value of alternative technologies and tends to result in the best patents being integrated into a standard.

The NMA supports this process of discovery and implementation of the best patented technology born of the labors of the innovators who created it. As a result, the NMA ensures SEP valuations that allow SEP holders to obtain an appropriate return for the new economic surplus that results from the commercialization of standard-engendered innovations. It recognizes that dynamic economic growth is fostered through the incentivization of innovative activities backed by patents.

In sum, the NMA seeks to promote innovation by offering incentives for SEP-driven technological improvements. As such, it rejects as ill-founded prior Federal Trade Commission (FTC) litigation settlements and Obama-era U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) Antitrust Division policy statements that artificially favored implementor licensees’ interests over those of SEP licensors (see here).

In light of the NMA, DOJ cooperated with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in issuing a 2019 SEP Policy Statement clarifying that an SEP holder’s promise to license a patent on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms does not bar it from seeking any available remedy for patent infringement, including an injunction. This signaled that SEPs and non-SEP patents enjoy equivalent legal status.

DOJ also issued a 2020 supplement to its 2015 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) business review letter. The 2015 letter had found no legal fault with revised IEEE standard-setting policies that implicitly favored implementers of standardized technology over SEP holders. The 2020 supplement characterized key elements of the 2015 letter as “outdated,” and noted that the anti-SEP bias of that document could “harm competition and chill innovation.”   

Furthermore, DOJ issued a July 2019 Statement of Interest before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in FTC v. Qualcomm, explaining that unilateral and unconditional decisions not to license a patent are legal under the antitrust laws. In October 2020, the 9th Circuit reversed a district court decision and rejected the FTC’s monopolization suit against Qualcomm. The circuit court, among other findings, held that Qualcomm had no antitrust duty to license its SEPs to competitors.

Regrettably, the Biden Administration appears to be close to rejecting the NMA and to reinstituting the anti-strong patents SEP-skeptical views of the Obama administration (see here and here). DOJ already has effectively repudiated the 2020 supplement to the 2015 IEEE letter and the 2019 SEP Policy Statement. Furthermore, written responses to Senate Judiciary Committee questions by assistant attorney general nominee Jonathan Kanter suggest support for renewed antitrust scrutiny of SEP licensing. These developments are highly problematic if one supports dynamic economic growth.

Conclusion

The NMA represents a pro-American, pro-growth innovation policy prescription. Its abandonment would reduce incentives to invest in patents and standard-setting activities, to the detriment of the U.S. economy. Such a development would be particularly unfortunate at a time when U.S. Supreme Court decisions have weakened American patent rights (see here); China is taking steps to strengthen Chinese patents and raise incentives to obtain Chinese patents (see here); and China is engaging in litigation to weaken key U.S. patents and undermine American technological leadership (see here).

The rejection of NMA would also be in tension with the logic of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2021 HTC v. Ericsson decision, which held that the non-discrimination portion of the FRAND commitment required Ericsson to give HTC the same licensing terms as given to larger mobile-device manufacturers. Furthermore, recent important European court decisions are generally consistent with NMA principles (see here).

Given the importance of dynamic competition in an increasingly globalized world economy, Biden administration officials may wish to take a closer look at the economic arguments supporting the NMA before taking final action to condemn it. Among other things, the administration might take note that major U.S. digital platforms, which are the subject of multiple U.S. and foreign antitrust enforcement investigations, tend to firmly oppose strong patents rights. As one major innovation economist recently pointed out:

If policymakers and antitrust gurus are so concerned about stemming the rising power of Big Tech platforms, they should start by first stopping the relentless attack on IP. Without the IP system, only the big and powerful have the privilege to innovate[.]

A bipartisan group of senators unveiled legislation today that would dramatically curtail the ability of online platforms to “self-preference” their own services—for example, when Apple pre-installs its own Weather or Podcasts apps on the iPhone, giving it an advantage that independent apps don’t have. The measure accompanies a House bill that included similar provisions, with some changes.

1. The Senate bill closely resembles the House version, and the small improvements will probably not amount to much in practice.

The major substantive changes we have seen between the House bill and the Senate version are:

  1. Violations in Section 2(a) have been modified to refer only to conduct that “unfairly” preferences, limits, or discriminates between the platform’s products and others, and that “materially harm[s] competition on the covered platform,” rather than banning all preferencing, limits, or discrimination.
  2. The evidentiary burden required throughout the bill has been changed from  “clear and convincing” to a “preponderance of evidence” (in other words, greater than 50%).
  3. An affirmative defense has been added to permit a platform to escape liability if it can establish that challenged conduct that “was narrowly tailored, was nonpretextual, and was necessary to… maintain or enhance the core functionality of the covered platform.”
  4. The minimum market capitalization for “covered platforms” has been lowered from $600 billion to $550 billion.
  5. The Senate bill would assess fines of 15% of revenues from the period during which the conduct occurred, in contrast with the House bill, which set fines equal to the greater of either 15% of prior-year revenues or 30% of revenues from the period during which the conduct occurred.
  6. Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill does not create a private right of action. Only the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and state attorneys-generals could bring enforcement actions on the basis of the bill.

Item one here certainly mitigates the most extreme risks of the House bill, which was drafted, bizarrely, to ban all “preferencing” or “discrimination” by platforms. If that were made law, it could literally have broken much of the Internet. The softened language reduces that risk somewhat.

However, Section 2(b), which lists types of conduct that would presumptively establish a violation under Section 2(a), is largely unchanged. As outlined here, this would amount to a broad ban on a wide swath of beneficial conduct. And “unfair” and “material” are notoriously slippery concepts. As a practical matter, their inclusion here may not significantly alter the course of enforcement under the Senate legislation from what would ensue under the House version.

Item three, which allows challenged conduct to be defended if it is “necessary to… maintain or enhance the core functionality of the covered platform,” may also protect some conduct. But because the bill requires companies to prove that challenged conduct is not only beneficial, but necessary to realize those benefits, it effectively implements a “guilty until proven innocent” standard that is likely to prove impossible to meet. The threat of permanent injunctions and enormous fines will mean that, in many cases, companies simply won’t be able to justify the expense of endeavoring to improve even the “core functionality” of their platforms in any way that could trigger the bill’s liability provisions. Thus, again, as a practical matter, the difference between the Senate and House bills may be only superficial.

The effect of this will likely be to diminish product innovation in these areas, because companies could not know in advance whether the benefits of doing so would be worth the legal risk. We have previously highlighted existing conduct that may be lost if a bill like this passes, such as pre-installation of apps or embedding maps and other “rich” results in boxes on search engine results pages. But the biggest loss may be things we don’t even know about yet, that just never happen because the reward from experimentation is not worth the risk of being found to be “discriminating” against a competitor.

We dove into the House bill in Breaking Down the American Choice and Innovation Online Act and Breaking Down House Democrats’ Forthcoming Competition Bills.

2. The prohibition on “unfair self-preferencing” is vague and expansive and will make Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple’s products worse. Consumers don’t want digital platforms to be dumb pipes, or to act like a telephone network or sewer system. The Internet is filled with a superabundance of information and options, as well as a host of malicious actors. Good digital platforms act as middlemen, sorting information in useful ways and taking on some of the risk that exists when, inevitably, we end up doing business with untrustworthy actors.

When users have the choice, they tend to prefer platforms that do quite a bit of “discrimination”—that is, favoring some sellers over others, or offering their own related products or services through the platform. Most people prefer Amazon to eBay because eBay is chaotic and riskier to use.

Competitors that decry self-preferencing by the largest platforms—integrating two different products with each other, like putting a maps box showing only the search engine’s own maps on a search engine results page—argue that the conduct is enabled only by a platform’s market dominance and does not benefit consumers.

Yet these companies often do exactly the same thing in their own products, regardless of whether they have market power. Yelp includes a map on its search results page, not just restaurant listings. DuckDuckGo does the same. If these companies offer these features, it is presumably because they think their users want such results. It seems perfectly plausible that Google does the same because it thinks its users—literally the same users, in most cases—also want them.

Fundamentally, and as we discuss in Against the Vertical Disrcimination Presumption, there is simply no sound basis to enact such a bill (even in a slightly improved version):

The notion that self-preferencing by platforms is harmful to innovation is entirely speculative. Moreover, it is flatly contrary to a range of studies showing that the opposite is likely true. In reality, platform competition is more complicated than simple theories of vertical discrimination would have it, and there is certainly no basis for a presumption of harm.

We discussed self-preferencing further in Platform Self-Preferencing Can Be Good for Consumers and Even Competitors, and showed that platform “discrimination” is often what consumers want from digital platforms in On the Origin of Platforms: An Evolutionary Perspective.

3. The bill massively empowers an FTC that seems intent to use antitrust to achieve political goals. The House bill would enable competitors to pepper covered platforms with frivolous lawsuits. The bill’s sponsors presumably hope that removing the private right of action will help to avoid that. But the bill still leaves intact a much more serious risk to the rule of law: the bill’s provisions are so broad that federal antitrust regulators will have enormous discretion over which cases they take.

This means that whoever is running the FTC and DOJ will be able to threaten covered platforms with a broad array of lawsuits, potentially to influence or control their conduct in other, unrelated areas. While some supporters of the bill regard this as a positive, most antitrust watchers would greet this power with much greater skepticism. Fundamentally, both bills grant antitrust enforcers wildly broad powers to pursue goals unrelated to competition. FTC Chair Lina Khan has, for example, argued that “the dispersion of political and economic control” ought to be antitrust’s goal. Commissioner Rebecca Kelly-Slaughter has argued that antitrust should be “antiracist”.

Whatever the desirability of these goals, the broad discretionary authority the bills confer on the antitrust agencies means that individual commissioners may have significantly greater scope to pursue the goals that they believe to be right, rather than Congress.

See discussions of this point at What Lina Khan’s Appointment Means for the House Antitrust Bills, Republicans Should Tread Carefully as They Consider ‘Solutions’ to Big Tech, The Illiberal Vision of Neo-Brandeisian Antitrust, and Alden Abbott’s discussion of FTC Antitrust Enforcement and the Rule of Law.

4. The bill adopts European principles of competition regulation. These are, to put it mildly, not obviously conducive to the sort of innovation and business growth that Americans may expect. Europe has no tech giants of its own, a condition that shows little sign of changing. Apple, alone, is worth as much as the top 30 companies in Germany’s DAX index, and the top 40 in France’s CAC index. Landmark European competition cases have seen Google fined for embedding Shopping results in the Search page—not because it hurt consumers, but because it hurt competing pricecomparison websites.

A fundamental difference between American and European competition regimes is that the U.S. system is far more friendly to businesses that obtain dominant market positions because they have offered better products more cheaply. Under the American system, successful businesses are normally given broad scope to charge high prices and refuse to deal with competitors. This helps to increase the rewards and incentive to innovate and invest in order to obtain that strong market position. The European model is far more burdensome.

The Senate bill adopts a European approach to refusals to deal—the same approach that led the European Commission to fine Microsoft for including Windows Media Player with Windows—and applies it across Big Tech broadly. Adopting this kind of approach may end up undermining elements of U.S. law that support innovation and growth.

For more, see How US and EU Competition Law Differ.

5. The proposals are based on a misunderstanding of the state of competition in the American economy, and of antitrust enforcement. It is widely believed that the U.S. economy has seen diminished competition. This is mistaken, particularly with respect to digital markets. Apparent rises in market concentration and profit margins disappear when we look more closely: local-level concentration is falling even as national-level concentration is rising, driven by more efficient chains setting up more stores in areas that were previously served by only one or two firms.

And markup rises largely disappear after accounting for fixed costs like R&D and marketing.

Where profits are rising, in areas like manufacturing, it appears to be mainly driven by increased productivity, not higher prices. Real prices have not risen in line with markups. Where profitability has increased, it has been mainly driven by falling costs.

Nor have the number of antitrust cases brought by federal antitrust agencies fallen. The likelihood of a merger being challenged more than doubled between 1979 and 2017. And there is little reason to believe that the deterrent effect of antitrust has weakened. Many critics of Big Tech have decided that there must be a problem and have worked backwards from that conclusion, selecting whatever evidence supports it and ignoring the evidence that does not. The consequence of such motivated reasoning is bills like this.

See Geoff’s April 2020 written testimony to the House Judiciary Investigation Into Competition in Digital Markets here.

A debate has broken out among the four sitting members of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in connection with the recently submitted FTC Report to Congress on Privacy and Security. Chair Lina Khan argues that the commission “must explore using its rulemaking tools to codify baseline protections,” while Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter has urged the FTC to initiate a broad-based rulemaking proceeding on data privacy and security. By contrast, Commissioners Noah Joshua Phillips and Christine Wilson counsel against a broad-based regulatory initiative on privacy.

Decisions to initiate a rulemaking should be viewed through a cost-benefit lens (See summaries of Thom Lambert’s masterful treatment of regulation, of which rulemaking is a subset, here and here). Unless there is a market failure, rulemaking is not called for. Even in the face of market failure, regulation should not be adopted unless it is more cost-beneficial than reliance on markets (including the ability of public and private litigation to address market-failure problems, such as data theft). For a variety of reasons, it is unlikely that FTC rulemaking directed at privacy and data security would pass a cost-benefit test.

Discussion

As I have previously explained (see here and here), FTC rulemaking pursuant to Section 6(g) of the FTC Act (which authorizes the FTC “to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter”) is properly read as authorizing mere procedural, not substantive, rules. As such, efforts to enact substantive competition rules would not pass a cost-benefit test. Such rules could well be struck down as beyond the FTC’s authority on constitutional law grounds, and as “arbitrary and capricious” on administrative law grounds. What’s more, they would represent retrograde policy. Competition rules would generate higher error costs than adjudications; could be deemed to undermine the rule of law, because the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) could not apply such rules; and innovative efficiency-seeking business arrangements would be chilled.

Accordingly, the FTC likely would not pursue 6(g) rulemaking should it decide to address data security and privacy, a topic which best fits under the “consumer protection” category. Rather, the FTC presumably would most likely initiate a “Magnuson-Moss” rulemaking (MMR) under Section 18 of the FTC Act, which authorizes the commission to prescribe “rules which define with specificity acts or practices which are unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce within the meaning of Section 5(a)(1) of the Act.” Among other things, Section 18 requires that the commission’s rulemaking proceedings provide an opportunity for informal hearings at which interested parties are accorded limited rights of cross-examination. Also, before commencing an MMR proceeding, the FTC must have reason to believe the practices addressed by the rulemaking are “prevalent.” 15 U.S.C. Sec. 57a(b)(3).

MMR proceedings, which are not governed under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), do not present the same degree of legal problems as Section 6(g) rulemakings (see here). The question of legal authority to adopt a substantive rule is not raised; “rule of law” problems are far less serious (the DOJ is not a parallel enforcer of consumer-protection law); and APA issues of “arbitrariness” and “capriciousness” are not directly presented. Indeed, MMR proceedings include a variety of procedures aimed at promoting fairness (see here, for example). An MMR proceeding directed at data privacy predictably would be based on the claim that the failure to adhere to certain data-protection norms is an “unfair act or practice.”

Nevertheless, MMR rules would be subject to two substantial sources of legal risk.

The first of these arises out of federalism. Three states (California, Colorado, and Virginia) recently have enacted comprehensive data-privacy laws, and a large number of other state legislatures are considering data-privacy bills (see here). The proliferation of state data-privacy statutes would raise the risk of inconsistent and duplicative regulatory norms, potentially chilling business innovations addressed at data protection (a severe problem in the Internet Age, when business data-protection programs typically will have interstate effects).

An FTC MMR data-protection regulation that successfully “occupied the field” and preempted such state provisions could eliminate that source of costs. The Magnuson–Moss Warranty Act, however, does not contain an explicit preemption clause, leaving in serious doubt the ability of an FTC rule to displace state regulations (see here for a summary of the murky state of preemption law, including the skepticism of textualist Supreme Court justices toward implied “obstacle preemption”). In particular, the long history of state consumer-protection and antitrust laws that coexist with federal laws suggests that the case for FTC rule-based displacement of state data protection is a weak one. The upshot, then, of a Section 18 FTC data-protection rule enactment could be “the worst of all possible worlds,” with drawn-out litigation leading to competing federal and state norms that multiplied business costs.

The second source of risk arises out of the statutory definition of “unfair practices,” found in Section 5(n) of the FTC Act. Section 5(n) codifies the meaning of unfair practices, and thereby constrains the FTC’s application of rulemakings covering such practices. Section 5(n) states:

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

In effect, Section 5(n) implicitly subjects unfair practices to a well-defined cost-benefit framework. Thus, in promulgating a data-privacy MMR, the FTC first would have to demonstrate that specific disfavored data-protection practices caused or were likely to cause substantial harm. What’s more, the commission would have to show that any actual or likely harm would not be outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition. One would expect that a data-privacy rulemaking record would include submissions that pointed to the efficiencies of existing data-protection policies that would be displaced by a rule.

Moreover, subsequent federal court challenges to a final FTC rule likely would put forth the consumer and competitive benefits sacrificed by rule requirements. For example, rule challengers might point to the added business costs passed on to consumers that would arise from particular rule mandates, and the diminution in competition among data-protection systems generated by specific rule provisions. Litigation uncertainties surrounding these issues could be substantial and would cast into further doubt the legal viability of any final FTC data protection rule.

Apart from these legal risk-based costs, an MMR data privacy predictably would generate error-based costs. Given imperfect information in the hands of government and the impossibility of achieving welfare-maximizing nirvana through regulation (see, for example, here), any MMR data-privacy rule would erroneously condemn some economically inefficient business protocols and disincentivize some efficiency-seeking behavior. The Section 5(n) cost-benefit framework, though helpful, would not eliminate such error. (For example, even bureaucratic efforts to accommodate some business suggestions during the rulemaking process might tilt the post-rule market in favor of certain business models, thereby distorting competition.) In the abstract, it is difficult to say whether the welfare benefits of a final MMA data-privacy rule (measured by reductions in data-privacy-related consumer harm) would outweigh the costs, even before taking legal costs into account.

Conclusion

At least two FTC commissioners (and likely a third, assuming that President Joe Biden’s highly credentialed nominee Alvaro Bedoya will be confirmed by the U.S. Senate) appear to support FTC data-privacy regulation, even in the absence of new federal legislation. Such regulation, which presumably would be adopted as an MMR pursuant to Section 18 of the FTC Act, would probably not prove cost-beneficial. Not only would adoption of a final data-privacy rule generate substantial litigation costs and uncertainty, it would quite possibly add an additional layer of regulatory burdens above and beyond the requirements of proliferating state privacy rules. Furthermore, it is impossible to say whether the consumer-privacy benefits stemming from such an FTC rule would outweigh the error costs (manifested through competitive distortions and consumer harm) stemming from the inevitable imperfections of the rule’s requirements. All told, these considerations counsel against the allocation of scarce FTC resources to a Section 18 data-privacy rulemaking initiative.

But what about legislation? New federal privacy legislation that explicitly preempted state law would eliminate costs arising from inconsistencies among state privacy rules. Ideally, if such legislation were to be pursued, it should to the extent possible embody a cost-benefit framework designed to minimize the sum of administrative (including litigation) and error costs. The nature of such a possible law, and the role the FTC might play in administering it, however, is a topic for another day.