[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.
This post is authored by Steve Cernak, (Partner, Bona Law).]
The antitrust laws have not been suspended during the current COVID-19 crisis. But based on questions received from clients plus others discussed with other practitioners, the changed economic conditions have raised some new questions and put a new slant on some old ones.
Under antitrust law’s flexible rule of reason standard, courts and enforcers consider the competitive effect of most actions under current and expected economic conditions. Because those conditions have changed drastically, at least temporarily, perhaps the antitrust assessments of certain actions will be different. Also, in a crisis, good businesses consider new options and reconsider others that had been rejected under the old conditions. So antitrust practitioners and enforcers need to be prepared for new questions and reconsiderations of others under new facts. Here are some that might cross their desks.
Benchmarking had its antitrust moment a few years ago as practitioners discovered and began to worry about this form of communication with competitors. Both before and since then, the comparison of processes and metrics to industry bests to determine where improvement efforts should be concentrated has not raised serious antitrust issues – if done properly. Appropriate topic choice and implementation, often involving counsel review and third-party collection, should stay the same during this crisis. Companies implementing new processes might be tempted to reach out to competitors to learn best practices. Any of those companies unfamiliar with the right way to benchmark should get up to speed. Counsel must be prepared to help clients quickly, but properly, benchmark some suddenly important activities, like methods for deep-cleaning workplaces.
Joint ventures where competitors work together to accomplish a task that neither could alone, or accomplish it more efficiently, have always received a receptive antitrust review. Often, those joint efforts have been temporary. Properly structured ones have always required the companies to remain competitors outside the joint venture. Joint efforts among competitors that did not make sense before the crisis might make perfect sense during it. For instance, a company whose distribution warehouse has been shut down by a shelter in place order might be able to use a competitor’s distribution assets to continue to get goods to the market.
Some joint ventures of competitors have received special antitrust assurances for decades. The National Cooperative Research and Production Act of 1993 was originally passed in 1984 to protect research joint ventures of competitors. It was later extended to certain joint production efforts and standard development organizations. The law confirms that certain joint ventures of competitors will be judged under the rule of reason. If the parties file a very short notice with the DOJ Antitrust Division and FTC, they also will receive favorable treatment regarding damages and attorney’s fees in any antitrust lawsuit. For example, competitors cooperating on the development of new virus treatments might be able to use NCRPA to protect joint research and even production of the cure.
Horizontal mergers that permanently combine the assets of two competitors are unlikely to be justified under the antitrust laws by small transitory blips in the economic landscape. A huge crisis, however, might be so large and create such long-lasting effects that certain mergers suddenly might make sense, both on business and antitrust grounds. That rationale was used during the most recent economic crisis to justify several large mergers of banks although other large industrial mergers considered at the same time were abandoned for various reasons. It is not yet clear if that reasoning is present in any industry now.
Remote communication among competitors
On a much smaller but more immediate scale, the new forms of communication being used while so many of us are physically separated have raised questions about the usual antitrust advice regarding communication with competitors. Antitrust practitioners have long advised clients about how to prepare and conduct an in-person meeting of competitors, say at a trade association convention. That same advice would seem to apply if, with the in-person convention cancelled, the meeting will be held via Teams or Zoom. And don’t forget: The reminders that the same rules apply to the cocktail party at the bar after the meeting should also be given for the virtual version conducted via Remo.co.
While antitrust law is focused on actions by private parties that might prevent markets from properly working to serve consumers, the same rationales apply to unnecessary government interference in the market. The current health crisis has turned the spotlight back on certificate of need laws, a form of “brother may I?” government regulation that can allow current competitors to stifle entry by new competitors. Similarly, regulations that have slowed the use of telemedicine have been at least temporarily waived.
Solving the current health crisis and rebuilding the economy will take the best efforts of both our public institutions and private companies. Antitrust law as currently written and enforced can and should continue to play a role in aligning incentives so we need not rely on “the benevolence of the butcher” for our dinner and other necessities. Instead, proper application of antitrust law can allow companies to do their part to (reviving a slogan helpful in a prior national crisis) keep America rolling.
Last week the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) and twelve noted law and economics scholars filed an amicus brief in the Ninth Circuit in FTC v. Qualcomm, in support of appellant (Qualcomm) and urging reversal of the district court’s decision. The brief was authored by Geoffrey A. Manne, President & founder of ICLE, and Ben Sperry, Associate Director, Legal Research of ICLE. Jarod M. Bona and Aaron R. Gott of Bona Law PC collaborated in drafting the brief and they and their team provided invaluable pro bono legal assistance, for which we are enormously grateful. Signatories on the brief are listed at the end of this post.
We’ve written about the case several times on Truth on the Market, as have a number of guest bloggers, in our ongoing blog series on the case here.
The ICLE amicus brief focuses on the ways that the district court exceeded the “error cost” guardrails erected by the Supreme Court to minimize the risk and cost of mistaken antitrust decisions, particularly those that wrongly condemn procompetitive behavior. As the brief notes at the outset:
The district court’s decision is disconnected from the underlying economics of the case. It improperly applied antitrust doctrine to the facts, and the result subverts the economic rationale guiding monopolization jurisprudence. The decision—if it stands—will undercut the competitive values antitrust law was designed to protect.
In essence, the Court’s monopolization case law implements the error cost framework by (among other things) obliging courts to operate under certain decision rules that limit the use of inferences about the consequences of a defendant’s conduct except when the circumstances create what game theorists call a “separating equilibrium.” A separating equilibrium is a
solution to a game in which players of different types adopt different strategies and thereby allow an uninformed player to draw inferences about an informed player’s type from that player’s actions.
The key problem in antitrust is that while the consequence of complained-of conduct for competition (i.e., consumers) is often ambiguous, its deleterious effect on competitors is typically quite evident—whether it is actually anticompetitive or not. The question is whether (and when) it is appropriate to infer anticompetitive effect from discernible harm to competitors.
Except in the narrowly circumscribed (by Trinko) instance of a unilateral refusal to deal, anticompetitive harm under the rule of reason must be proven. It may not be inferred from harm to competitors, because such an inference is too likely to be mistaken—and “mistaken inferences are especially costly, because they chill the very conduct the antitrust laws are designed to protect.” (Brooke Group (quoting yet another key Supreme Court antitrust error cost case, Matsushita (1986)).
Yet, as the brief discusses, in finding Qualcomm liable the district court did not demand or find proof of harm to competition. Instead, the court’s opinion relies on impermissible inferences from ambiguous evidence to find that Qualcomm had (and violated) an antitrust duty to deal with rival chip makers and that its conduct resulted in anticompetitive foreclosure of competition.
We urge you to read the brief (it’s pretty short—maybe the length of three blogs posts) to get the whole argument. Below we draw attention to a few points we make in the brief that are especially significant.
The district court bases its approach entirely on Microsoft — which it misinterprets in clear contravention of Supreme Court case law
The district court doesn’t stay within the strictures of the Supreme Court’s monopolization case law. In fact, although it obligingly recites some of the error cost language from Trinko, it quickly moves away from Supreme Court precedent and bases its approach entirely on its reading of the D.C. Circuit’s Microsoft(2001) decision.
Unfortunately, the district court’s reading of Microsoft is mistaken and impermissible under Supreme Court precedent. Indeed, both the Supreme Court and the D.C. Circuit make clear that a finding of illegal monopolization may not rest on an inference of anticompetitive harm.
The district court cites Microsoft for the proposition that
Where a government agency seeks injunctive relief, the Court need only conclude that Qualcomm’s conduct made a “significant contribution” to Qualcomm’s maintenance of monopoly power. The plaintiff is not required to “present direct proof that a defendant’s continued monopoly power is precisely attributable to its anticompetitive conduct.”
It’s true Microsoft held that, in government actions seeking injunctions, “courts [may] infer ‘causation’ from the fact that a defendant has engaged in anticompetitive conduct that ‘reasonably appears capable of making a significant contribution to maintaining monopoly power.’” (Emphasis added).
But Microsoft never suggested that anticompetitiveness itself may be inferred.
“Causation” and “anticompetitive effect” are not the same thing. Indeed, Microsoft addresses “anticompetitive conduct” and “causation” in separate sections of its decision. And whereas Microsoft allows that courts may infer “causation” in certain government actions, it makes no such allowance with respect to “anticompetitive effect.” In fact, it explicitly rules it out:
[T]he plaintiff… must demonstrate that the monopolist’s conduct indeed has the requisite anticompetitive effect…; no less in a case brought by the Government, it must demonstrate that the monopolist’s conduct harmed competition, not just a competitor.”
The D.C. Circuit subsequently reinforced this clear conclusion of its holding in Microsoft in Rambus:
Deceptive conduct—like any other kind—must have an anticompetitive effect in order to form the basis of a monopolization claim…. In Microsoft… [t]he focus of our antitrust scrutiny was properly placed on the resulting harms to competition.
Finding causation entails connecting evidentiary dots, while finding anticompetitive effect requires an economic assessment. Without such analysis it’s impossible to distinguish procompetitive from anticompetitive conduct, and basing liability on such an inference effectively writes “anticompetitive” out of the law.
Thus, the district court is correct when it holds that it “need not conclude that Qualcomm’s conduct is the sole reason for its rivals’ exits or impaired status.” But it is simply wrong to hold—in the same sentence—that it can thus “conclude that Qualcomm’s practices harmed competition and consumers.” The former claim is consistent with Microsoft; the latter is emphatically not.
Under Trinko and Aspen Skiing the district court’s finding of an antitrust duty to deal is impermissible
Because finding that a company operates under a duty to deal essentially permits a court to infer anticompetitive harm without proof, such a finding “comes dangerously close to being a form of ‘no-fault’ monopolization,” as Herbert Hovenkamp has written. It is also thus seriously disfavored by the Court’s error cost jurisprudence.
In Trinko the Supreme Court interprets its holding in Aspen Skiing to identify essentially a single scenario from which it may plausibly be inferred that a monopolist’s refusal to deal with rivals harms consumers: the existence of a prior, profitable course of dealing, and the termination and replacement of that arrangement with an alternative that not only harms rivals, but also is less profitable for the monopolist.
In an effort to satisfy this standard, the district court states that “because Qualcomm previously licensed its rivals, but voluntarily stopped licensing rivals even though doing so was profitable, Qualcomm terminated a voluntary and profitable course of dealing.”
But it’s not enough merely that the prior arrangement was profitable. Rather, Trinko and Aspen Skiing hold that when a monopolist ends a profitable relationship with a rival, anticompetitive exclusion may be inferred only when it also refuses to engage in an ongoing arrangement that, in the short run, is more profitable than no relationship at all. The key is the relative value to the monopolist of the current options on offer, not the value to the monopolist of the terminated arrangement. In a word, what the Court requires is that the defendant exhibit behavior that, but-for the expectation of future, anticompetitive returns, is irrational.
It should be noted, as John Lopatka (here) and Alan Meese (here) (both of whom joined the amicus brief) have written, that even the Supreme Court’s approach is likely insufficient to permit a court to distinguish between procompetitive and anticompetitive conduct.
But what is certain is that the district court’s approach in no way permits such an inference.
“Evasion of a competitive constraint” is not an antitrust-relevant refusal to deal
In order to infer anticompetitive effect, it’s not enough that a firm may have a “duty” to deal, as that term is colloquially used, based on some obligation other than an antitrust duty, because it can in no way be inferred from the evasion of that obligation that conduct is anticompetitive.
The district court bases its determination that Qualcomm’s conduct is anticompetitive on the fact that it enables the company to avoid patent exhaustion, FRAND commitments, and thus price competition in the chip market. But this conclusion is directly precluded by the Supreme Court’s holding in NYNEX.
Indeed, in Rambus, the D.C. Circuit, citing NYNEX, rejected the FTC’s contention that it may infer anticompetitive effect from defendant’s evasion of a constraint on its monopoly power in an analogous SEP-licensing case: “But again, as in NYNEX, an otherwise lawful monopolist’s end-run around price constraints, even when deceptive or fraudulent, does not alone present a harm to competition.”
[T]he objection to the “evasion” of any constraint approach is… that it opens the door to enforcement actions applied to business conduct that is not likely to harm competition and might be welfare increasing.
Thus NYNEX and Rambus (and linkLine) reinforce the Court’s repeated holding that an inference of harm to competition is permissible only where conduct points clearly to anticompetitive effect—and, bad as they may be, evading obligations under other laws or violating norms of “business morality” do not suffice.
The district court’s elaborate theory of harm rests fundamentally on the claim that Qualcomm injures rivals—and the record is devoid of evidence demonstrating actual harm to competition. Instead, the court infers it from what it labels “unreasonably high” royalty rates, enabled by Qualcomm’s evasion of competition from rivals. In turn, the court finds that that evasion of competition can be the source of liability if what Qualcomm evaded was an antitrust duty to deal. And, in impermissibly circular fashion, the court finds that Qualcomm indeed evaded an antitrust duty to deal—because its conduct allowed it to sustain “unreasonably high” prices.
The Court’s antitrust error cost jurisprudence—from Brooke Group to NYNEX to Trinko & linkLine—stands for the proposition that no such circular inferences are permitted.
The district court’s foreclosure analysis also improperly relies on inferences in lieu of economic evidence
Because the district court doesn’t perform a competitive effects analysis, it fails to demonstrate the requisite “substantial” foreclosure of competition required to sustain a claim of anticompetitive exclusion. Instead the court once again infers anticompetitive harm from harm to competitors.
The district court makes no effort to establish the quantity of competition foreclosed as required by the Supreme Court. Nor does the court demonstrate that the alleged foreclosure harms competition, as opposed to just rivals. Foreclosure per se is not impermissible and may be perfectly consistent with procompetitive conduct.
Again citing Microsoft, the district court asserts that a quantitative finding is not required. Yet, as the court’s citation to Microsoft should have made clear, in its stead a court must find actual anticompetitive effect; it may not simply assert it. As Microsoft held:
It is clear that in all cases the plaintiff must… prove the degree of foreclosure. This is a prudential requirement; exclusivity provisions in contracts may serve many useful purposes.
The court essentially infers substantiality from the fact that Qualcomm entered into exclusive deals with Apple (actually, volume discounts), from which the court concludes that Qualcomm foreclosed rivals’ access to a key customer. But its inference that this led to substantial foreclosure is based on internal business statements—so-called “hot docs”—characterizing the importance of Apple as a customer. Yet, as Geoffrey Manne and Marc Williamson explain, such documentary evidence is unreliable as a guide to economic significance or legal effect:
Business people will often characterize information from a business perspective, and these characterizations may seem to have economic implications. However, business actors are subject to numerous forces that influence the rhetoric they use and the conclusions they draw….
There are perfectly good reasons to expect to see “bad” documents in business settings when there is no antitrust violation lurking behind them.
Assuming such language has the requisite economic or legal significance is unsupportable—especially when, as here, the requisite standard demands a particular quantitative significance.
Moreover, the court’s “surcharge” theory of exclusionary harm rests on assumptions regarding the mechanism by which the alleged surcharge excludes rivals and harms consumers. But the court incorrectly asserts that only one mechanism operates—and it makes no effort to quantify it.
The court cites “basic economics” via Mankiw’s Principles of Microeconomics text for its conclusion:
The surcharge affects demand for rivals’ chips because as a matter of basic economics, regardless of whether a surcharge is imposed on OEMs or directly on Qualcomm’s rivals, “the price paid by buyers rises, and the price received by sellers falls.” Thus, the surcharge “places a wedge between the price that buyers pay and the price that sellers receive,” and demand for such transactions decreases. Rivals see lower sales volumes and lower margins, and consumers see less advanced features as competition decreases.
But even assuming the court is correct that Qualcomm’s conduct entails such a surcharge, basic economics does not hold that decreased demand for rivals’ chips is the only possible outcome.
In actuality, an increase in the cost of an input for OEMs can have three possible effects:
OEMs can pass all or some of the cost increase on to consumers in the form of higher phone prices. Assuming some elasticity of demand, this would mean fewer phone sales and thus less demand by OEMs for chips, as the court asserts. But the extent of that effect would depend on consumers’ demand elasticity and the magnitude of the cost increase as a percentage of the phone price. If demand is highly inelastic at this price (i.e., relatively insensitive to the relevant price change), it may have a tiny effect on the number of phones sold and thus the number of chips purchased—approaching zero as price insensitivity increases.
OEMs can absorb the cost increase and realize lower profits but continue to sell the same number of phones and purchase the same number of chips. This would not directly affect demand for chips or their prices.
OEMs can respond to a price increase by purchasing fewer chips from rivals and more chips from Qualcomm. While this would affect rivals’ chip sales, it would not necessarily affect consumer prices, the total number of phones sold, or OEMs’ margins—that result would depend on whether Qualcomm’s chips cost more or less than its rivals’. If the latter, it would even increase OEMs’ margins and/or lower consumer prices and increase output.
Alternatively, of course, the effect could be some combination of these.
Whether any of these outcomes would substantially exclude rivals is inherently uncertain to begin with. But demonstrating a reduction in rivals’ chip sales is a necessary but not sufficient condition for proving anticompetitive foreclosure. The FTC didn’t even demonstrate that rivals were substantially harmed, let alone that there was any effect on consumers—nor did the district court make such findings.
Doing so would entail consideration of whether decreased demand for rivals’ chips flows from reduced consumer demand or OEMs’ switching to Qualcomm for supply, how consumer demand elasticity affects rivals’ chip sales, and whether Qualcomm’s chips were actually less or more expensive than rivals’. Yet the court determined none of these.
Contrary to established Supreme Court precedent, the district court’s decision relies on mere inferences to establish anticompetitive effect. The decision, if it stands, would render a wide range of potentially procompetitive conduct presumptively illegal and thus harm consumer welfare. It should be reversed by the Ninth Circuit.
Joining ICLE on the brief are:
Donald J. Boudreaux, Professor of Economics, George Mason University
Kenneth G. Elzinga, Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics, University of Virginia
Janice Hauge, Professor of Economics, University of North Texas
Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, Associate Professor of Law, University of Nebraska College of Law; Director of Law & Economics Programs, ICLE
Thomas A. Lambert, Wall Chair in Corporate Law and Governance, University of Missouri Law School
John E. Lopatka, A. Robert Noll Distinguished Professor of Law, Penn State University Law School
Daniel Lyons, Professor of Law, Boston College Law School
Geoffrey A. Manne, President and Founder, International Center for Law & Economics; Distinguished Fellow, Northwestern University Center on Law, Business & Economics
Alan J. Meese, Ball Professor of Law, William & Mary Law School
Paul H. Rubin, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics Emeritus, Emory University
Vernon L. Smith, George L. Argyros Endowed Chair in Finance and Economics, Chapman University School of Business; Nobel Laureate in Economics, 2002
Michael Sykuta, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Missouri
Today’s Canadian Competition Bureau (CCB) Google decision marks yet another regulator joining the chorus of competition agencies around the world that have already dismissed similar complaints relating to Google’s Search or Android businesses (including the US FTC, the Korea FTC, the Taiwan FTC, and AG offices in Texas and Ohio).
A number of courts around the world have also rejected competition complaints against the company, including courts in the US, France, the UK, Germany, and Brazil.
After an extensive, three-year investigation into Google’s business practices in Canada, the CCB
did not find sufficient evidence that Google engaged in [search manipulation, preferential treatment of Google services, syndication agreements, distribution agreements, exclusion of competitors from its YouTube mobile app, or tying of mobile ads with those on PCs and tablets] for an anti-competitive purpose, and/or that the practices resulted in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in any relevant market.
Like the US FTC, the CCB did find fault with Google’s use of restriction on its AdWords API — but Google had already revised those terms worldwide following the FTC investigation, and has committed to the CCB to maintain the revised terms for at least another 5 years.
Other than a negative ruling from Russia’s competition agency last year in favor of Yandex — essentially “the Russian Google,” and one of only a handful of Russian tech companies of significance (surely a coincidence…) — no regulator has found against Google on the core claims brought against it.
True, investigations in a few jurisdictions, including the EU and India, are ongoing. And a Statement of Objections in the EU’s Android competition investigation appears imminent. But at some point, regulators are going to have to take a serious look at the motivations of the entities that bring complaints before wasting more investigatory resources on their behalf.
Competitor after competitor has filed complaints against Google that amount to, essentially, a claim that Google’s superior services make it too hard to compete. But competition law doesn’t require that Google or any other large firm make life easier for competitors. Without a finding of exclusionary harm/abuse of dominance (and, often, injury to consumers), this just isn’t anticompetitive conduct — it’s competition. And the overwhelming majority of competition authorities that have examined the company have agreed.
Exactly when will regulators be a little more skeptical of competitors trying to game the antitrust laws for their own advantage?
Canada joins the chorus
The Canadian decision mirrors the reasoning that regulators around the world have employed in reaching the decision that Google hasn’t engaged in anticompetitive conduct.
Two of the more important results in the CCB’s decision relate to preferential treatment of Google’s services (e.g., promotion of its own Map or Shopping results, instead of links to third-party aggregators of the same services) — the tired “search bias” claim that started all of this — and the distribution agreements that Google enters into with device manufacturers requiring inclusion of Google search as a default installation on Google Android phones.
On these key issues the CCB was unequivocal in its conclusions.
On search bias:
The Bureau sought evidence of the harm allegedly caused to market participants in Canada as a result of any alleged preferential treatment of Google’s services. The Bureau did not find adequate evidence to support the conclusion that this conduct has had an exclusionary effect on rivals, or that it has resulted in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in a market.
And on search distribution agreements:
Google competes with other search engines for the business of hardware manufacturers and software developers. Other search engines can and do compete for these agreements so they appear as the default search engine…. Consumers can and do change the default search engine on their desktop and mobile devices if they prefer a different one to the pre-loaded default…. Google’s distribution agreements have not resulted in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in Canada.
And here is the crucial point of the CCB’s insight (which, so far, everyone but Russia seems to appreciate): Despite breathless claims from rivals alleging they can’t compete in the face of their placement in Google’s search results, data barriers to entry, or default Google search on mobile devices, Google does actually face significant competition. Both the search bias and Android distribution claims were dismissed essentially because, whatever competitors may prefer Google do, its conduct doesn’t actually preclude access to competing services.
The True North strong and free [of meritless competitor complaints]
Exclusionary conduct must, well, exclude. But surfacing Google’s own “subjective” search results, even if they aren’t as high quality, doesn’t exclude competitors, according to the CCB and the other regulatory agencies that have also dismissed such claims. Similarly, consumers’ ability to switch search engines (“competition is just a click away,” remember), as well as OEMs’ ability to ship devices with different search engine defaults, ensure that search competitors can access consumers.
Former FTC Commissioner Josh Wright’s analysis of “search bias” in Google’s results applies with equal force to these complaints:
It is critical to recognize that bias alone is not evidence of competitive harm and it must be evaluated in the appropriate antitrust economic context of competition and consumers, rather [than] individual competitors and websites… [but these results] are not useful from an antitrust policy perspective because they erroneously—and contrary to economic theory and evidence—presume natural and procompetitive product differentiation in search rankings to be inherently harmful.
The competitors that bring complaints to antitrust authorities seek to make a demand of Google that is rarely made of any company: that it must provide access to its competitors on equal terms. But one can hardly imagine a valid antitrust complaint arising because McDonald’s refuses to sell a Whopper. The law on duties to deal is heavily circumscribed for good reason, as Josh Wright and I have pointed out:
The [US Supreme] Court [in Trinko] warned that the imposition of a duty to deal would threaten to “lessen the incentive for the monopolist, the rival, or both to invest in… economically beneficial facilities.”… Because imposition of a duty to deal with rivals threatens to decrease the incentive to innovate by creating new ways of producing goods at lower costs, satisfying consumer demand, or creating new markets altogether, courts and antitrust agencies have been reluctant to expand the duty.
Requiring Google to link to other powerful and sophisticated online search companies, or to provide them with placement on Google Android mobile devices, on the precise terms it does its own products would reduce the incentives of everyone to invest in their underlying businesses to begin with.
This is the real threat to competition. And kudos to the CCB for recognizing it.
The CCB’s investigation was certainly thorough, and its decision appears to be well-reasoned. Other regulators should take note before moving forward with yet more costly investigations.