Archives For FTC Act

[The tenth entry in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium comes from guest contributor Kacyn H. Fujii, a 2022 J.D. Candidate at the University of Michigan Law School. Kacyn’s entry comes via Truth on the Market‘s “New Voices” competition, open to untenured or aspiring academics (including students and fellows). You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

On July 9, 2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to “curtail the unfair use of noncompete clauses and other clauses or agreements that may unfairly limit worker mobility.” This executive order raises two questions. First, does the FTC have the authority to issue such a rule? And second, is FTC rulemaking a better solution than adjudication to solve the widespread use of noncompetes? This post contends that the FTC possesses rulemaking authority and that FTC rulemaking is a better solution than adjudication for the problem of noncompete use, especially for low-wage workers.

FTC’s Rulemaking Authority

In 1973, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in National Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC held that the Federal Trade Commission Act permitted the FTC to promulgate rules under its unfair methods of competition (UMC) authority. Specifically, it interpreted Section 6(g), which gives the FTC the authority “to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions in this subchapter,” to allow rulemaking to carry out the FTC’s Section 5 authority. In his remarks at the 2020 FTC workshop on noncompetes, Richard Pierce of George Washington University School of Law argued that no court today would follow National Petroleum’s reasoning, even going so far as to call its logic “preposterous.” BYU Law’s Aaron Nielson agreed that some of National Petroleum’s reasoning was outdated but conceded that its judgment might have been correct. Meanwhile, FTC Chair Lina Khan and former FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra have spoken in favor of the FTC’s competition-rulemaking authority, both from a legal and policy perspective.

National Petroleum’s focus on text is consistent with the approaches that courts today take. The court first addressed appellees’ argument that the FTC may carry out Section 5 only through adjudication, because adjudication was the only form of implementation explicitly mentioned in Section 5. The D.C. Circuit noted that, although Section 5(b) granted the FTC adjudicative authority, nothing in the text limited the FTC only to adjudication as a means to implement Section 5’s substantive protections. It dismissed the appellee’s argument that expressio unius meant that adjudication was the only mechanism the agency had available to implement Section 5. The D.C. Circuit also rejected the district court’s interpretation of the legislative history, because it was too ambiguous to find Congress’s “specific intent.” Similar to the approach courts take today, National Petroleum gave the text primacy over legislative history, putting significant weight on the fact that the language of Sections 5 and 6(g) is broad.

It is true that, as Nielson notes, courts today would not so readily dismiss employing canons like expressio unius. But courts today would not necessarily employ expressio unius either. The language of Section 6(g) authorizing FTC use of rulemaking is clear and broad, expressly including Section 5 among the sections the FTC may implement through rulemaking, so Congress may have not thought it necessary to explicitly mention rulemaking in Section 5. Given how clear the language is, it also does not seem so farfetched that a court today would decide to not apply the expressio unius canon to imply an exception to the language. As the Court has commented in rejecting the expressio unius canon’s implications, “the force of any negative implication [from this canon] depends on context,” and can be negated by indications that an enactment was “not meant to signal any exclusion.”

Others argue that National Petroleum’s interpretation of Sections 5 and 6(g) would not hold up in light of newer interpretive moves deployed by courts. For example, former FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen and former Assistant Attorney General James Rill contend that the FTC should not have broad competition-rulemaking authority because of the “elephants-in-mouseholes” doctrine articulated in Whitman v. American Trucking. They invoke AMG Capital Management v. FTC as evidence that the Court is wary about “allow[ing] a small statutory tail to wag a very large dog.” The Court in AMG considered whether Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, which expressly authorized the FTC to seek injunctive relief from the federal courts, also permitted the agency to seek monetary damages. The Court concluded that the FTC could not seek monetary damages from courts. Permitting this would allow the FTC to bypass its administrative process altogether, thus contravening Congress’ goals by failing to “produce[] a coherent enforcement scheme.” However, Sections 5 and 6(g) are distinguishable from the statutory provision at issue in AMG. Unlike Section 13(b), which did not explicitly grant the FTC authority to seek monetary damages, Section 6(g) does explicitly give the FTC rulemaking authority to carry out the other provisions of the Act with no limitations on this broad language.  Meanwhile, there is no “coherent enforcement scheme” that would be served by limiting Section 6 only to methods to carry out Section 5’s adjudicative authority. Rulemaking authority does not detract from the FTC’s ability to adjudicate.

One could also argue that, according to the “specific over the general” canon, adjudication should be the FTC’s primary implementation method: Section 5(b), which is very specific in its description of the FTC’s adjudicative authority, should govern over Section 6(g), which discusses rulemaking only in general language. But there is no inherent conflict between the general and specific provisions here. Even if adjudication was intended as the primary implementation method, Section 5 does not explicitly preclude rulemaking as an option in its text. There may be valid functional reasons that Congress would want an agency that acts primarily through adjudication to also have substantive rulemaking authority. National Petroleum itself observed that “the evolution of bright-line rules [through adjudication] is often a slow process” and that “legislative-type” rulemaking procedures allow the agency to consider “broad range of data and argument from all those potentially affected.” In addition, as Emily Bremer of Notre Dame Law School observes, Congress consistently sets more specific guidelines for adjudication to meet individual agency and program needs, resulting in “extraordinary procedural diversity” across adjudication regimes. The greater level of specificity with respect to adjudication in Section 5(b) of the FTC Act may simply reflect Congress’ perceived need to delineate adjudication regimes in further detail than it does for rulemaking.

In addition, some who are doubtful about the FTC’s rulemaking authority have cited legislative context. Specifically, Ohlhausen and Rill argue that the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act demonstrates Congress’ concern with the FTC having expansive rulemaking power. Thus, broad competition-rulemaking authority would be inconsistent with the approach Congress took in Magnuson-Moss. However, the passage of Magnuson-Moss also implies that Congress thought the FTC had existing rulemaking power that Congress could limit—thus validating National Petroleum’s overall holding that the FTC did have rulemaking authority. In addition, Congress could have also extended Magnuson-Moss’s limits on rulemakings to competition-rulemaking authority but decided to apply it only to the FTC’s consumer-protection authority. This interpretation is supported by the text as well. The Magnuson-Moss provision expressly states that its changes “shall not affect any authority of the Commission to prescribe rules (including interpretive rules), and general statements of policy, with respect to unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce.” Congress specifically exempted competition rulemaking from Magnuson-Moss’s additional procedural requirements. If anything, this demonstrates that Congress did not want to interfere with the FTC’s competition authority.

The history of the FTC Act also supports that Congress would not have wanted to create an expert agency limited only to adjudicative authority. The FTC Act was passed during a time of unprecedented business growth, in spite of the passage of the Sherman Act in 1890. More specifically, Congress enacted the FTC Act in response to Standard Oil. Standard Oil established rule-of-reason analysis that some decried as a judicial “power grab.” Even though members of Congress disagreed about the proper scope of the FTC’s authority, all of the proposed plans for the FTC reflected Congress’ deep objections to the existing common law approach to antitrust enforcement. Congress was concerned that the existing approach was “yielding a body of law that was inconsistent, unpredictable, and unmoored from congressional intent.” Its solution was to create the FTC. The legislative context supports interpreting the statute to give the FTC all of the tools—including rulemaking—to respond effectively to nascent antitrust threats.

Finally, the FTC’s historical reliance on adjudication does not mean that it lacks the authority to promulgate rules. Assuming the relevance of historical practice—an assumption AMG cast doubt upon when it spurned the FTC’s longstanding interpretation of the FTC Act—there are reasons that an agency may choose adjudication over rulemaking that have nothing to do with its views of its statutory authority. The FTC’s preference for adjudication may simply have reflected the policy-focused views of its leadership. For example, James Miller, who chaired the FTC from 1981 to 1985, had “fundamental objections to marketplace regulation through rulemaking” because he thought Congress would exert too much pressure on rulemaking efforts. He attempted to thwart ongoing rulemaking efforts and instead vowed to take an “aggressive” approach to enforcement through adjudication. But this does not mean he thought the FTC lacked the authority to promulgate rules at all. Over the past several decades, the courts and federal antitrust enforcers have taken a non-interventionist or laissez-faire approach to enforcement. The FTC’s history of not relying on rulemaking may simply be indicators of the agency’s policy preferences and not its views of its authority.

In short, National Petroleum’s interpretive moves are sound and its conclusion that the FTC possesses UMC-rulemaking authority should stand the test of time. 

Benefits of FTC Rulemaking for Curbing Non-Compete Use

President Biden’s executive order also raised the question of whether FTC rulemaking is the right tool to address the problem of liberal noncompete use. This post argues that FTC rulemaking would have tangible benefits over adjudication, especially for noncompetes that bind low-wage workers.

The Problem with Noncompetes

Noncompete clauses, which restrict where an employee may work after they leave their employer, have been used widely even in contexts divorced from the justifications for noncompetes. Typical justifications for noncompetes include protecting trade secrets and goodwill, increasing employers’ incentives to invest in training, and improving employers’ leverage in negotiations with employees. Despite these justifications, noncompetes are used for workers who have no access to trade secrets or customer lists. According to a survey conducted in 2014, 13.3% of workers that made $40,000 per-year or less were subject to a noncompete, and 33% of those workers reported being subject to a noncompete at some point in the past. Noncompete use reduces worker mobility, even for those workers not themselves bound by noncompetes. It also results in lower wages for those bound by noncompetes. Interestingly, these effects on worker mobility and wages are present even in states where noncompetes are unenforceable.

Although noncompetes are typically governed on the state level, the magnitude of noncompete use could pose an antitrust problem. Noncompetes help employers maintain “high levels of market concentration,” which “reduce[s] competition rather than spur[ring] innovation.” However, it can be very difficult for private parties and state enforcers to challenge noncompete use under antitrust law. One employer’s use of noncompetes is unlikely to have an appreciable difference on the labor market. The harm to labor markets is only detectable in aggregate, making it virtually impossible to succeed on an antitrust challenge against an employer’s use of noncompetes. Indeed, University of Chicago Law’s Eric Posner has observed that, as of 2020, there were “a grand total of zero cases in which an employee noncompete was successfully challenged under the antitrust laws.” According to Posner, courts either claim that noncompetes involve “de minimis” effects on competition or do not create “public” injuries for antitrust law to address.

And while there have been a handful of settlements between state attorneys general and companies that use noncompetes—like the settlement between then-New York Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood and WeWork in 2018—these settlements capture only the most egregious uses of noncompetes. There are likely many other companies who use noncompetes in anticompetitive ways, but they do not operate at such scale as to warrant an investigation. State attorneys general have resource constraints that limit them to challenge only the most harmful restraints on workers. Even if these cases went to trial, instead of settling, their precedential effect would thus set only the upper bound for what is an anticompetitive use of noncompete agreements.

Further, the FTC’s current approach of relying on adjudication is unlikely to be effective in curbing widespread noncompete use. Scholars have critiqued the FTC’s historical reliance on adjudication, saying that it has failed to generate “any meaningful guidance as to what constitutes an unfair method of competition.” Part of this is because antitrust law largely relies on rule-of-reason analysis, which involves a “broad and open-ended inquiry” into the competitive effects of particular conduct. Given the highly fact-specific nature of rule-of-reason analysis, the holding of one case can be difficult to extend to another and thus leads to problems in administrability and efficiency. Even judges “have criticized antitrust standards for being highly difficult to administer.” Reliance on the rule of reason also leads to a lack of predictability, which means that market participants and the public have less notice about what the law is.

In addition, private parties cannot litigate UMC claims under Section 5 of the FTC Act; the agency itself must determine what counts as an unfair method of competition. Perhaps because of resource constraints, the FTC has only brought a “modest number” of cases that “provide an insufficient basis from which to attempt to generate substantive rules defining the Commission’s Section 5 authority.”

Benefits of Rulemaking

FTC rulemaking under its UMC authority would avoid many of the problems of a case-by-case approach. First, rulemaking would provide clarity and efficiency. For example, a rule could declare it illegal for employers to use noncompetes for employees making under the median national income. Such a rule clearly articulates the FTC’s policy and is easy to apply. This demonstrates how rulemaking can be more efficient than adjudication. In order to implement a similar policy through adjudication, the FTC may have to bring many cases covering various industries and defendants that employ low-wage workers, given the nature of rule-of-reason analysis.

Rulemaking is also more participatory than adjudication. Interested parties and the general public can weigh in on proposed rules through the notice-and-comment process. Adjudication involves only those who are party to the suit, leaving “broad swaths of market participants watching from the sidelines, lacking an opportunity to contribute their perspective, their analysis, or their expertise, except through one-off amicus briefs.” However, low-wage workers are unlikely to have the resources required to prepare and submit an amicus brief and may not even be aware of the litigation in the first place. In contrast, it is much easier for low-wage workers or their future employers to participate in the notice-and-comment process, which only requires submitting a comment through an online form. Unions or employee-rights organizations can help to facilitate worker participating in rulemaking as well.

A uniform approach through rulemaking means that more workers will be on notice of the FTC’s policy. Worker education is an important factor in solving the problem. Even in states where noncompetes are not enforceable, employers still use and threaten to enforce noncompetes, which reduces worker mobility. A clear policy articulated by the FTC may help workers to understand their rights, perhaps because a national rule will get more media attention than individual adjudications.

Although it may be true that rulemaking is, in general, less adaptable than adjudication, there may be a category of cases where our understanding is unlikely to change over time. For example, agreements to fix prices are so clearly anticompetitive that they are per se illegal under the antitrust laws. Our understanding of the anticompetitive nature of price fixing is highly unlikely to change over time. 

Noncompetes for low-wage workers should be in this category of cases. This use of noncompetes is divorced from traditional justifications for noncompetes. The nature of the work for low-wage workers—say, for janitors or cashiers—is unlikely to ever require significant employer resources for training or disclosure of customer lists or trade secrets. Given the negative effects that noncompetes can have on mobility and wages, even in states where they are not enforceable, they clearly do more harm than good to the labor market. It is difficult to imagine that market conditions or economic understanding would change this.

Further, even though rulemaking can take time, the FTC’s adjudicative process is not necessarily much better. In 2015, adjudications through the FTC’s administrative process typically took two years. Former FTC Commissioner Philip Elman once observed that case-by-case adjudication “may simply be too slow and cumbersome to produce specific and clear standards adequate to the needs of businessmen, the private bar, and the government agencies.” Even if rulemaking takes longer, it may still be more efficient because of a rule’s ability to apply across the board to different industries and types of workers. It may also be more efficient because it is better able to capture all of the relevant considerations through the notice-and-comment process.

It is true that some states already have a bright-line rule against noncompetes by making noncompetes unenforceable. Even so, there is value in establishing a bright-line rule through rulemaking at a federal level: this provides greater uniformity across states. In addition, rulemaking could have some value if it is used to establish notice requirements—for example, the FTC could promulgate a rule requiring employers to notify employees of the relevant noncompete laws. Notice requirements are one example where case-by-case adjudication would be especially ineffective.

Conclusion

In certain contexts, rulemaking is a better alternative to adjudication. Noncompete use for low-wage workers is one such example. Rulemaking provides more uniformity, notice, and opportunity to participate for low-wage workers than adjudication does. And given that both state noncompete law and federal antitrust law require such fact-specific inquiries, rulemaking is also more efficient than adjudication. Thus, the FTC should use its competition-rulemaking authority to ban noncompete use for low-wage workers instead of relying only on adjudication.

[Today’s second guest post, the sixth in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium, comes from Andrew K. Magloughlin and Randolph J. May of the Free State Foundation. See also the related post we published today from Richard J. Pierce Jr. of the George Washington University Law School. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) current leadership appears likely to issue substantive rules concerning “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) at some point. FTC Chair Lina Khan, in an article with former FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra, argued that the commission has the authority to issue UMC rules pursuant to the Federal Trade Commission Act based on Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC and a subsequently enacted provision in 1975. But Petroleum Refiners is a nearly 50-year-old, untested, and heavily criticized opinion that predates the major questions doctrine and widespread adoption of textualism in the courts. Application of the major questions doctrine and modern, textualist methods of statutory interpretation almost certainly would lead to a determination that the commission lacks UMC rulemaking authority.

Our submission to this Truth on the Market symposium argues that today’s Supreme Court would find that the FTC lacks authority to issue UMC rules under the major questions doctrine.[1] Part I reviews the provisions of the FTC Act relevant to UMC rulemaking and scholarly commentary on the issue. Part II argues that, applying the major questions doctrine as the Court has done in recent opinions such as NFIB v. OSHA, the Supreme Court would find that the FTC lacks UMC rulemaking authority because Congress could not have intended such a cryptic delegation to authorize sweeping rules of such economic significance.

Text, Structure, and Interpretation of the FTC Act

The FTC Act establishes the FTC and its authority. Section 5 of the FTC Act declares unlawful “unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce” and empowers the commission to stop them. The law provides specific procedures for an administrative adjudicatory process that the commission “shall” use to stop unfair methods of competition when it identifies them and believes stopping them is in the public interest. The remainder of Section 5 involves provisions related to available remedies and jurisdiction for appeal of final decisions from FTC adjudications. This is the extent of explicit authority the FTC Act contains related to UMC.

In the next portion of the same subchapter, Section 6(g) states: “The Commission shall also have power . . . to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter.” In 1973’s Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit interpreted this provision to grant the commission substantive rulemaking authority to implement Section 5. While Petroleum Refiners involved rules regarding “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” under Section 5, rather than UMC rules, its reasoning, if still valid today, seemingly could authorize the commission to issue UMC rules. But the FTC has never issued UMC rules to date.

Congress responded to Petroleum Refiners by enacting laws in 1975 and 1980 that imposed significant procedural burdens on the FTC’s rulemaking process for unfair or deceptive acts. These burdens, known as the “Magnuson-Moss procedures,” are far more exacting than the Administrative Procedure Act’s notice-and-comment rulemaking process and, since adopted, they have had the effect of stopping the FTC from issuing rules for governing unfair or deceptive acts.

FTC Chair Khan believes that, in adopting the Magnuson-Moss procedures, Congress has implicitly codified Petroleum Refiners‘ holding that the FTC has authority to issue UMC rules. She argues that legislative history for the 1975 amendments show that Congress rejected a version of the bill that applied Magnuson-Moss procedures to all FTC rulemaking, rather than just unfair or deceptive acts rulemaking. And the enacted statute, as well as the conference report for the adopted law, stated that Magnuson-Moss procedures “shall not affect any authority of the Commission to prescribe rules (including interpretive rules), and general statements of policy, with respect to unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce.” Khan believes that this provision implicitly recognized that, in accord with the holding of Petroleum Refiners, that Section 6(g) grants the commission authority to issue substantive UMC rules. Moreover, in her view, if the FTC adopted her position as its official interpretation of the statute, it would be entitled to Chevron deference.

Other commentators disagree persuasively. Richard Pierce notes that the provision Khan points to as implicitly adopting Petroleum Refiners just as easily could be interpreted to clarify that Magnuson-Moss procedures do not apply to interpretative rules and policy statements for UMC adjudications. This argument, though, does not completely eliminate ambiguity, because the statute used the non-exclusive word including in the phrase “rules (including interpretative rules) and general statements of policy” rather than expressly limiting the exemption to those two types of rules.

But Pierce, more forcefully, argues that Khan’s interpretation depends on the Petroleum Refiners interpretation of the FTC Act remaining good law, and this is doubtful. Petroleum Refiners employed a non-textualist method of statutory interpretation that courts do not apply today. That case held that an ambiguous grant “to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter” should be construed to favor the agency’s interpretation of its authority under that provision. This holding appears to conflict with the Supreme Court’s more searching review for identifying congressional delegations to agencies to issue substantive rules in Untied States v. Mead Corp., a case decided more than two decades after Petroleum Refiners. Mead Corp. explained that agencies are entitled to Chevron deference for their application of their authorizing statutes when “Congress delegated authority to the agency generally to make rules carrying the force of law, and that the agency interpretation claiming deference was promulgated in the exercise of that authority.”

The D.C. Circuit itself may have already implicitly overruled Petroleum Refiners while applying Mead Corp. in more recent cases. In American Library Association v. FCC, the D.C. Circuit adopted a far more skeptical reading of a similar general grant of authority—the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) general grant in Title I of the Communications Act, which reads: “The Commission may perform any and all acts, make such rules and regulations, and issue such orders, not inconsistent with this chapter, as may be necessary in the execution of its functions.” The FCC had issued its Broadcast Flag Order relying solely on its general grant of authority in Title I.

But the D.C. Circuit, applying Mead Corp., held that the FCC could only issue substantive rules pursuant to its general grant of authority when: “(1) the Commission’s general jurisdictional grant under Title I covers the subject of the regulations and (2) the regulations are reasonably ancillary to the Commission’s effective performance of its statutorily mandated responsibilities.” In other words, only when the substantive rules reasonably relate to explicit authority contained in the Communications Act. Petroleum Refiners is inconsistent with this subsequent holding of the D.C. Circuit.

Further, William Kovacic—a former FTC chair, commissioner, and general counsel—explains that the unanimous Supreme Court opinion in AMG Capital Management LLC v. FTC implicitly refutes Petroleum Refiners. In AMG, the Court rejected the FTC’s interpretation of Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, which states that the commission “may bring suit in a district court of the United States to enjoin” violations of the law that the FTC enforces. The FTC argued that Section 13(b) empowered it to seek equitable monetary relief, despite the provision’s circumscribed focus on injunctions. But the court explained that this focus on injunctions, as well as the structure of the act as a whole, counseled otherwise. And unlike Section 13(b), other FTC Act provisions expressly empower the commission to seek “other forms of relief” in addition to injunctions, demonstrating that Congress would have explicitly authorized equitable monetary relief if it intended Section 13(b) to provide it.

As Kovacic explains, the AMG opinion was “not so generous” to the FTC’s interpretation of the FTC Act, refuting the deferential approach of Petroleum Refiners. It seems unlikely, given the above criticisms of Petroleum Refiners, that the Court would be any more deferential to an attempt by Khan or a future FTC chair to issue substantive UMC rules. This is especially true because, as explained below, the major questions doctrine likely would resolve the question of the FTC’s UMC authority against the commission.

Today’s Major Questions Doctrine Most Likely Would Slam the Door Shut on FTC UMC Rulemaking

Under current jurisprudence, the Supreme Court’s application of the major questions doctrine most likely would slam the door shut on the FTC’s supposed authority to issue UMC rules. The major questions doctrine is a canon of statutory interpretation that the Court developed as an exception or limitation to application of Chevron deference, even if the Court appears to now apply it independently of Chevron. It applies to judicial review of agency interpretations of statutory authority to issue substantive rules. Put simply, the major questions doctrine is a linguistic canon that requires “Congress to speak clearly when authorizing an agency to exercise powers of vast economic and political significance,” or put more colloquially, that prevents Congress from “hiding elephants in mouseholes.”

The underlying purpose of the major questions doctrine is the protection of separation of powers. However, the context in which it protects separation of powers is not entirely clear because the Court’s views appear to be, at present, unsettled.[2] The “clear statement” version of the major questions doctrine protects separation of powers by preventing the executive branch from relying on strained interpretations of delegated statutory authority. But multiple Supreme Court justices have at times argued for a substantive major questions doctrine—one that would bar certain “major” delegations altogether, regardless of the clarity of the congressional delegation.[3] For our purposes, in this piece, we apply the major questions doctrine as a clear-statement rule, which at present is the controlling law.

There are several factors that the Court has identified as warranting application of the major questions doctrine. The two most common factors can be thought of as (1) claims of sweeping authority, or massive elephants, enabled through (2) cryptic statutory texts, or tiny mouseholes. For example, in Alabama Association of Realtors v. HHS, the Supreme Court applied the major questions doctrine, in part, because the “sheer scope” of the rule in that case was dramatic—affecting 80% of the country’s population and superseding a traditional area of state regulation. In other words, a massive elephant. An example of a tiny mousehole is, in NFIB v. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) reliance on statutory authority for “workplace safety” regulations to require broad public-health mandates like compulsory vaccination, which affects people far beyond the confines of the workplace.

Other relevant factors include assertions of authority despite long-held contrary indications from Congress and the agency itself, or a history of failure to assert similar authority. For example, in Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. v. FDA, the Court found it relevant that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asserted regulatory authority over tobacco products, despite Congress’ creation of a distinct regulatory structure for tobacco outside the purview of the FDA and decades of assertions by Congress and FDA leadership that the FDA lacked authority to regulate tobacco. In NFIB, the Court noted that OSHA’s vaccine mandate was its first sweeping public-health measure under the Occupational Health and Safety Act in its more than 50 years of existence.

Applying the major questions doctrine to the FTC’s supposed UMC rulemaking authority would mean that the commission almost certainly lacks such authority. First, many of the relevant factors for the major questions doctrine are present. The scope of potential UMC rulemaking is sweeping, covering most of our nation’s economy—a big elephant. And the provision supposedly enabling the commission’s rulemaking authority—Section 6(g), which contains general language, rather than an explicit delegation of authority to the commission—amounts to a tiny mousehole. The FTC Act provision Khan points to as implicitly codifying Petroleum Refiners is even less specific; it simply asserts that Section 18a of the FTC Act will have no effect on the FTC’s UMC rulemaking authority. But if the commission never had such rulemaking authority in the first place under Section 6(g), then this provision is irrelevant and provides no implicit codification, let alone the clear statement required by the major questions doctrine. Thus, an even tinier mousehole.

Analysis of the statutory text and legislative history Khan identifies shows precisely how tiny that mousehole is. As mentioned above, Khan believes that Congress’ rejection of a draft bill that applied Magnuson-Moss procedures to UMC rulemaking proves that Congress implicitly endorsed Petroleum Refiners. Not so. Instead, by clarifying that Section 18a “shall not affect any authority of the Commission to prescribe rules … with respect to unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce,” Congress likely was rejecting Petroleum Refiners as applied to UMC rulemaking. Congress did indeed codify the Petroleum Refiners holding that the FTC has authority to issue rules for unfair or deceptive acts or practices by subjecting them to the rigorous Magnuson-Moss procedures. But by stating that those procedures did not affect the FTC’s authority for UMC rules, any authority for the commission to issue such rules depends solely on interpretation of Section 6(g)—or the continued vitality of Petroleum Refiners. A provision that says nothing about the issue at hand is among the tiniest imaginable mouseholes.

Further, the FTC, since its creation in 1914, has failed to issue any UMC rulemakings over the past 108 years. As Richard Pierce explains, between 1914 and 1962, when the unfair or deceptive practice rules under review in Petroleum Refiners were first introduced, “the FTC, Congress, courts, and scholars were unanimous in their belief that the FTC did not have the power to issue legislative rules.” An assertion claiming such authority to issue rules now would be a bureaucratic power-grabbing bridge too far, if not to nowhere.

Should the occasion arise, for all the reasons discussed, we predict the Supreme Court will slam the door shut on FTC UMC rulemaking authority.


[1] It is also possible that any UMC rules issued would be determined to violate the nondelegation doctrine, aside from whether reviewing courts considered the major questions doctrine part and parcel of the nondelegation doctrine. In this essay, we are focusing on current major questions doctrine jurisprudence that often is not tied, at least explicitly, to traditional nondelegation doctrine analysis.

[2] We authored a law review article dedicated to this subject.

[3] See, for example, Justice Neil Gorsuch’s dissent in Gundy v. United States, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas, which argued that the major questions doctrine should step in to replace the Court’s failure to enforce the nondelegation doctrine.

[This guest post from Corbin K. Barthold of TechFreedomthe fourth post in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium—is adapted from his and Berin Szoka’s chapter “The Constitutional Revolution That Wasn’t: Why the FTC Isn’t a Second National Legislature,” in the forthcoming book FTC’s Rulemaking Authority, which will be published by Concurrences later this year. It is the second of two contributions to the symposium posted today, along with this related post from Yale Law School student Leah Samuel. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

In 1972, a case came before the Hon. Aubrey E. Robinson, Jr., a federal trial judge in the District of Columbia, involving the scope of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) regulatory authority. Section 5(a)(1) of the Federal Trade Commission Act outlaws “unfair methods of competition.” Section 6(g) says that the FTC may “make rules and regulations for the purposes of carrying out” the FTC Act.

What is a “rule or regulation” that helps “carry out” a statute? Does Section 6(g) simply permit the FTC to make “procedural” or “housekeeping” rules that set forth how the agency will conduct itself? Or does it instead empower the FTC to make “substantive” or “legislative” rules—precepts, binding on the public, that flesh out which methods of competition are “unfair”? This was the question before Judge Robinson.

If this question interests you, Robinson’s decision in National Petroleum Refiners v. FTC will repay close study.

Robinson kept his eye squarely on the FTC Act’s text and structure. What stood out to him, when he examined the statute, is the glaring structural distinction between Section 5 and Section 6. Section 5 enables the agency to file complaints, hold hearings, make findings of fact, and issue cease-and-desist orders. Section 6 permits the agency to gather and publish information about corporate practices. Each section is closely concerned with its assigned topic: Section 5 explains, in detail, how the FTC shall exercise quasi-judicial powers; Section 6 explains, in detail, how the FTC shall exercise investigative powers. The two sections have little to say to each other. This, concluded Robinson, was a strong signal that Section 6(g) does not leap its fence, progress to Section 5(a)(1), and enable the creation of rules that define “unfair methods of competition.”

That was just the beginning. Why would Congress pair a vague and open-ended rulemaking power with an elaborate and strictly circumscribed quasi-judicial power? If the FTC could make whole categories of conduct unlawful by diktat, why would it endure the rigmarole of Section 5 adjudication? More to the point, why would Congress bother to spell out that process, knowing that the FTC would go around it? In full, moreover, Section 6(g) gives the FTC the power “[f]rom time to time to classify corporations and to make rules and regulations for the purposes of carrying out the provisions of [the Act].” What is the part about “classify[ing]” companies doing there? Read as a whole, Section 6(g) seems merely to equip the FTC to conduct investigations, including, as Robinson put it, by ensuring that the agency has “the power to require reports from all corporations.”

Nor did the clues end there. Other statutes expressly grant the FTC the power to issue discrete consumer-protection rules, such as rules governing the labels of wool products. Congress knew how to grant legislative rulemaking power when it wanted to do so. And the limited grants of such power, in the other statutes, would be superfluous if the FTC already possessed a general “unfair methods” rulemaking authority in Section 6(g).

(Although Robinson did not mention it, a further sign of Section 6(g)’s narrow scope is the absence of statutory penalties for violating an FTC-issued rule. In the era when the FTC Act was passed, Congress never granted the power to make substantive rules without also specifying the price of noncompliance.)

In short, the FTC Act’s text and structure show that Section 6(g) has no intention of helping Section 5(a)(1). And when he checked his work against the FTC Act’s legislative history, Robinson found out why that is so. Section 6(g), he discovered, was originally in a House bill “that conferred only investigative powers on the Commission.” A competing bill in the Senate, meanwhile, contained quasi-judicial powers and the “unfair methods” standard but “made no provision whatever for the promulgation of rules and regulations in any context.” The investigations-only House bill and the no-rulemaking-power Senate bill were eventually stitched together. No wonder Section 6(g) does not seem to support the creation of legislative rules about the meaning of Section 5(a)(1); the two provisions were born into different bills.

If more support were needed, added Robinson, the FTC’s conduct would provide it. It had taken the FTC 50 years to “notice” a vast store of authority hiding in Section 6(g)—yet another revealing indication, Robinson wrote, “that the FTC knew it was not originally granted this rulemaking authority.” Over the years, the agency had even “repeatedly admitted that it has no power to promulgate substantive rules of law.”

Life is not fair. Judge Robinson’s well-crafted order is not good law. It was reversed. And in its place stands an appellate opinion that is longer, more repetitive, less rigorous, less disciplined, and altogether less convincing than the decision it overturns.

“Our duty,” U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Judge J. Skelly Wright pronounced at the outset of his 1973 opinion in National Petroleum Refiners v. FTC, “is not simply to make a policy judgment.” The FTC, after all, “is a creation of Congress, not a creation of judges’ contemporary notions of what is wise policy.” He might then have said: We therefore adopt the careful opinion of Judge Robinson as our own—affirmed.

He did not say that. In opening with a pious renunciation of judicial policymaking, in fact, he protested too much.

Wright’s treatment of the FTC Act’s text is brusque and general. Construing Section 6(g) to allow substantive rulemaking, Wright submitted, would “not in any formal sense circumvent” the quasi-judicial enforcement mechanism of Section 5. Congress, he went on, had not explicitly told the FTC it could only proceed case-by-case. He then discussed a pair of Supreme Court cases that, though concededly not on point, suggest the FTC Act should be read “broad[ly]” and as a “whole.” And he recited Section 6(g) itself, as though its support for his position were self-evident.

This casual nod to text complete, Wright moved on to his true preoccupation—policy considerations. Over and over, he praised the “invaluable resource-saving flexibility” of rulemaking. According to Wright:

  • “[U]se of substantive rule-making is increasingly felt to yield significant benefits. … Increasingly, courts are recognizing that use of rule-making to make innovations in agency policy may actually be fairer to regulated parties than total reliance on case-by-case adjudication.”
  • “[C]ontemporary considerations of practicality and fairness … certainly support the Commission’s position here.”
  • “Such benefits are especially obvious in cases involving the initiation of rules of the sort the FTC has promulgated here.”
  • “[T]he policy innovation involved in this case underscores the need for increased reliance on rule-making rather than adjudication alone.”
  • “[The FTC] has remained hobbled in its task by the delay inherent in repetitious, lengthy litigation[.] … To the extent substantive rule-making … is likely to deal with these problems … [it] should be upheld as [allowed under the FTC Act].”
  • “[T]he Commission will be able to proceed more expeditiously, … and … more efficiently with a mixed system of rule-making and adjudication[.]”
  • “[C]ourts have stressed the advantages of efficiency and expedition which inhere in reliance on rule-making instead of adjudication alone.”

So much for eschewing “judges’ contemporary notions of what is wise policy”! Rulemaking was the wave of the future, as all fashionable and enlightened judges understood. Wright seemed to believe, therefore, that he should insert into the FTC Act the power to make substantive rules. Whether the helpless text could bear such a reading was a secondary concern at best.

When not providing his personal endorsement of the benefits of rulemaking, Wright repeatedly invoked the FTC Act’s “purpose”:

  • “[R]ejecting the claim of rule-making power would run counter to the broad policies … that clearly motivated Congress in 1914.”
  • “[T]he broad, undisputed policies which clearly motivated the framers of the [FTC] Act of 1914 would indeed be furthered by our view[.]”
  • “[R]ule-making is not only consistent with the original framers’ broad purposes, but appears to be a particularly apt means of carrying them out.”
  • The FTC needs rulemaking power “to do the job assigned by Congress.”

But a judge may not appeal to a statute’s “purpose” on the false cry that he is divining what the legislators “really” meant. The Supreme Court in more recent years has explained that “no legislation pursues its purposes at all costs,” and that “it frustrates rather than effectuates legislative intent simplistically to assume that whatever furthers the statute’s primary objective must be the law.”The missing ingredient in Wright’s long document—what should have been the main ingredient—is obedience to the statutory text and structure.

Wright’s opinion in National Petroleum Refiners is a museum piece. It is a fossilized remnant of an extinct species of statutory interpretation. For a court trying to understand the FTC Act today, it is next to useless. Judges may not let their rulings be driven by their sense of “policy,” by their intuitions about statutory “purpose,” or by their desire for a personally satisfying result. The Supreme Court has shut the door on these factors. The judiciary possesses “no roving license,” it has said, to rewrite a statute on the assumption that “Congress ‘must have intended’ something broader.” Judges are “expounders of what the law is,” not “policymakers choosing what the law should be.”

[This guest post from Yale Law School student Leah Samuel—the third post in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposiumis a condensed version of a full-length paper. Please reach out to Leah at leah.samuel@yale.edu if you would like a copy of the full draft. It is the first of two contributions to the symposium posted today, along with this related post from Corbin K. Barthold of TechFreedom. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

Introduction

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) ability to conduct substantive rulemaking under both its “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) and “unfair and deceptive practices” (UDAP) mandates was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1973’s National Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC. Nonetheless, the FTC has seldom exercised this authority with respect to UMC—its antitrust authority. And various scholars and commentators have suggested that such an attempt would quickly be rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

I argue that the plain text and procedural history of the 1975 Magnuson–Moss Warranty Act demonstrate that Congress implicitly ratified the National Petroleum decision as it applied to UMC rulemaking. The scholarly focus on the intentions of the framers of the 1914 Federal Trade Commission Act with respect to substantive rulemaking is therefore misplaced—whether the FTC has exercised its UMC rulemaking powers in recent decades, its ability to do so was affirmed by Congress in 1974.

When the FTC first began to promulgate substantive rules under Section 5, neither the agency nor reviewing courts readily distinguished between UMC and UDAP authority. In 1973, the D.C. Circuit determined that the FTC was empowered to promulgate a legally binding trade regulation rule that required the posting of octane numbers at gas stations as a valid legislative rule under both UMC and UDAP. The given trade regulation rule was not clearly categorized as consumer protection or antitrust by the court. In 1975, Congress passed the Magnuson-Moss Act, which added procedural requirements to UDAP rulemaking without changing the processes applicable to UMC rulemaking as it stood after National Petroleum. In 1980, Congress added additional cumbersome procedural hurdles, as well as certain outright prohibitions to so-called Magnuson-Moss rulemaking with the Federal Trade Commission Improvements Act (FTCIA), still leaving UMC untouched.

Interpretative Method

A textualist reading of the Magnuson-Moss Act should lead to the conclusion that the FTC has the power to conduct substantive UMC rulemaking. Because Congress was actively aware of and responding to the National Petroleum decision and the FTC’s Octane Rule, the Magnuson-Moss Act should be read to leave UMC rulemaking intact under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

Interpreting Magnuson-Moss to acknowledge the existence of, and therefore validate, UMC rulemaking does the least violence to the text, in keeping with the supremacy-of-text principle, as described by Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner in “Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts.” Absent any express statement eliminating or bracketing that authority, the contextual meaning of Magnuson-Moss § 202(a)(2)—“[t]he preceding sentence shall not affect any authority of the Commission to prescribe rules…with respect to unfair methods of competition”—is most clearly understood as protecting the existence of UMC rulemaking as it existed in law at the moment of the bill’s passage. In his famous concurrence in Green v. Bock Laundry Machine Co., Justice Scalia explained that:

The meaning of terms on the statute books ought to be determined, not on the basis of which meaning can be shown to have been understood by a larger handful of the Members of Congress; but rather on the basis of which meaning is . . . most compatible with the surrounding body of law into which the provision must be integrated—a compatibility which, by a benign fiction, we assume Congress always has in mind.

In Branch v. Smith, Scalia applied this method to the Voting Rights Act, reasoning that Congress has a constructive awareness of lower-court decisions when it amends a statute. While that constructive awareness, and the statutory meaning that it implies, cannot trump the plain text of the amended statute, it is an important aid to interpretation. Here, the benign fiction of constructive awareness is actually a demonstrable fact: Congress was aware of National Petroleum and took it to be the legal default. Where the lower court decision-making process and the legislative process were closely intertwined, the presumption that Congress knew and adopted the D.C. Circuit’s reasoning is more defensible from a textualist perspective than any other reading of Section 202.

This is not an argument derived from legislative silence or inaction, canons disfavored by today’s textualists. Here, Congress definitively acted, amending the FTC Act multiple times over the decade. To read into the text of the Magnuson-Moss Act a provision stripping the FTC of its UMC rulemaking authority and overturning National Petroleum would be to violate the omitted case canon, as Scalia and Garner put it: “The absent provision cannot be supplied by the courts. What the legislature ‘would have wanted’ it did not provide, and that is the end of the matter.” In sum, the Congresses of 1974 and 1980 affirmed the existence of UMC rulemaking under APA procedures.

FTC Rulemaking Before the Octane Rule

During its first 50 years, the FTC carried out its mandate exclusively through nonbinding recommendations called “trade practice rules” (TPRs), alongside case-by-case adjudications. TPRs emerged from FTC-facilitated “trade practice conferences,” where industry participants formulated rules around what constituted unfair practices within their industry. In the early 1960s, Kennedy-appointed FTC Chair Phil Elman began to push the agency to shift away from a reactive “mailbag approach” based on individual complaints and toward a systematic approach based on binding agency rules. The result was the promulgation of “trade regulation rules” (TRRs) through notice-and-comment rulemaking, which the FTC initiated by amending its procedural rules to permit binding rulemaking in 1962. The FTC’s first TRR, promulgated in 1964, explicitly relied upon the agency’s UDAP authority. However, its statement of basis and purpose contained a full-throated defense of FTC rulemaking in general, including UMC rulemaking. The history of these early rulemaking efforts has been documented comprehensively by Luke Herrine.

Of the TRRs that the FTC promulgated before the Octane Rule, only one appears to have been explicitly identified as an exercise of antitrust rulemaking under Section 6(g) of the FTC Act. That rule, promulgated in 1968, identified its authority as sections 2(d) and 2(e) of the Clayton Act, rather than UMC under Section 5 of the FTC Act. The agency itself, upon repealing the rule, found that no enforcement actions were ever brought under it. Given the existence, however underutilized, of the 1968 rule—alongside the 1971 Octane Rule described below—it is clear that FTC personnel during the 1960s and 1970s did not understand TRRs to mean only consumer protection rules under UDAP. Furthermore, the Congress that enacted the Magnuson-Moss Act was aware of and legislating against the background fact that the FTC had already promulgated two final rules drawing on antitrust authority.

The National Petroleum Decision

In December 1971, the FTC promulgated a TRR through APA notice-and-comment rulemaking declaring that the failure to post octane ratings on gas pumps constituted a violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act, citing both UMC and UDAP as its authorizing provisions. Quoting from the statement of base and purpose of the 1964 Cigarette Rule, the FTC declared that it was empowered to promulgate the TRR under the “general grant of rulemaking authority in section 6(g) (of the Federal Trade Commission Act), and authority to promulgate it is in any event, implicit in section 5(a) (6) (of the Act) and in the purpose and design of the Trade Commission Act as a whole.”

Like the Octane Rule itself, Judge J. Skelly Wright’s 1973 National Petroleum decision affirming the FTC’s authority to promulgate the rule did not distinguish between UMC and UDAP rulemaking and did not limit its holding to one or the other.

Wright’s opinion rested first on a plain language reading of 15 U.S.C. § 46(g), which provides that the FTC may “[f]rom time to time … classify corporations and … make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of sections 41 to 46 and 47 to 58 of this title.” He rejected appellees’ claim that the placement of § 6(g) in the section of the FTC Act that empowers the commission to systematically investigate and collect industry reports (colloquially referred to as 6(b) orders) manifests Congress’s intent to limit 6(g) rulemaking to the FTC’s “nonadjudicatory, investigative and informative functions.” As he pointed out, the text of 6(g) as adopted applied to section 45, which corresponds to § 5 of the FTC Act.

Wright acknowledged, however, that in theory 6(g) could be limited to rules of procedure and practice—such was the holding of the district court. Wright declined to follow the district court, holding instead that, “while the legislative history of Section 5 and Section 6(g) is ambiguous, it certainly does not compel the conclusion that the Commission was not meant to exercise the power to make substantive rules with binding effect in Section 5(a) adjudications. We also believe that the plain language of Section 6(g)…confirms the framers’ intent to allow exercise of the power claimed here.”Finding the legislative history “cryptic” and inconclusive, Wright argued that “the need to rely on the section’s language is obvious.”

He resolved the matter in the FTC’s favor by focusing on the agency’s need for effective tools to carry out its mandate; to force the agency to proceed solely by adjudication “would render the Commission ineffective to do the job assigned it by Congress. Such a result is not required by the legislative history of the Act.”

While contemporary skeptics of the administrative state might take issue with Wright’s statutory interpretation, it is difficult to argue with his textualist premise: nothing in the text of 6(g) limits the provision to procedural rulemaking.

More importantly, the Magnuson-Moss Act was passed Dec. 19, 1974, only a year and a half after the National Petroleum decision. The text and history of the Magnuson-Moss Act evinces an awareness of and attentiveness to the National Petroleum decision—the proposed legislation and the National Petroleum case were both pending during the early 1970s. The text of Magnuson-Moss canonizes Wright’s authorization of FTC rulemaking powers under both UMC and UDAP, while specifying a more rigorous set of procedural hurdles for UDAP rulemaking.

Legislative History of the Magnuson-Moss Act

Some commentators have suggested that the general purpose of Magnuson-Moss with respect to FTC rulemaking must have been to bog down the rule-promulgation process, because the act added procedural requirements like cross-examination to UDAP rulemaking. From that premise, it may be argued that a Congress hostile to FTC rulemaking would not have simultaneously sandbagged UDAP rulemaking while validating UMC rulemaking under the APA. That logical jump oversimplifies the process of negotiation and compromise that typifies any legislative process, and here it leads to the wrong conclusion. Magnuson-Moss was the result of consumer-protection advocates’ painstaking efforts to strengthen the FTC across many dimensions. The addition of trial-type procedures was a concession that they ultimately offered to business interests to move the bill out of the hostile U.S. House Commerce and Finance Subcommittee. However, the bill moved out of conference committee and to the President Gerald Ford’s desk only after its champions were assured that, in the immediate aftermath of National Petroleum, UMC rulemaking would be unimpaired.

Sen. Warren Magnuson’s (D-Wash.) strategy from the beginning was to marry together the popular and relatively easy-to-understand warranty provisions with a revitalization of the FTC. As early as 1971, President Richard Nixon publicized his support for a watered-down version of a warranty-FTC bill. Notwithstanding the political cover from Nixon, House Republicans were reluctant to move any bill forward. Michael Lemov, counsel to Rep. John E. Moss (D-Calif.) during this period, wrote that the House Commerce Committee in the early 70s was increasingly attentive to business interests and hostile to consumer-protection legislation. It ultimately took Moss’ deal-brokering to make Magnuson’s consumer-protection legacy a reality by unsticking multiple consumer-protection bills from the House “graveyard of consumer bills.” While Magnuson succeeded in passing the Magnuson-Moss draft to a full Senate vote three times in between 1970 and 1974, Moss spent years (and 12 full days of hearings) trying to get the bill out of his Commerce and Finance Subcommittee.

What finally unstuck the bill on the House side, according to Lemov, was the participation of the Nixon-appointed but surprisingly vigorous FTC Chair Lewis Engman. Engman testified before the subcommittee on March 19, 1973, that if the cross-examination provisions couldn’t be cut out of the bill, then all of the rulemaking provisions of the bill should be stripped out. By this time, the National Petroleum Refiners decision was pending, and Engman evidently felt that the FTC could do better with the rulemaking authority that might be left to it by Wright’s decision, rather than the burdensome procedure set out in the House draft. The National Petroleum decision came down June 28, 1973, and by Feb. 25, 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court had denied certiorari, such that Congress could and did consider Wright’s decision to be the state of the law. According to Lemov, Moss was upset that Engman blindsided him with his demand to leave the entirety of Section 5 rulemaking under the National Petroleum standard. In response, he doubled down and brokered a deal with key Republican committee member Rep. Jim Broyhill (R-N.C.), which would keep cross-examination but limit it to material issues of fact, not policy or minutia. After being further weakened in the full House Commerce Committee, the bill made it to a floor vote and along to the conference committee on Sept. 19, 1974, to be reconciled with the stronger Senate version.

In conference, the bill was somewhat resuscitated. It made it out of the House and Senate in December 1974 and was signed by Ford in January 1975. The House’s industry-influenced version of cross-examination made it into law, since the Senate version would have left the entirety of FTC rulemaking power under the National Petroleum holding. In short, the burdensome procedures included in the Magnuson-Moss Act, particularly cross-examination, were either devised by or advocated for by industry-friendly interests intending to tie the FTC’s hands. However, at the urging of Engman, both the Senate and House were attentive to the progress of the National Petroleum decision, and ultimately conferred on a bill that deliberately left UMC rulemaking under the simpler APA process permitted by that decision’s precedent.

The Plain Meaning of Magnuson-Moss

The text of the critical passage of the Magnuson-Moss Act, as codified at 15 U.S.C. § 57a, has not been substantially changed since 1975, though two modifications appear in italics:

(a) Authority of Commission to prescribe rules and general statements of policy

(1) Except as provided in subsection (h), the Commission may prescribe–

(A) interpretive rules and general statements of policy with respect to unfair or deceptive acts or practices […] and

(B) rules which define with specificity acts or practices which are unfair or deceptive acts or practices […], except that the Commission shall not develop or promulgate any trade rule or regulation with regard to the regulation of the development and utilization of the standards and certification activities pursuant to this section.Rules under this subparagraph may include requirements prescribed for the purpose of preventing such acts or practices.

(2) The Commission shall have no authority under this subchapter, other than its authority under this section, to prescribe any rule with respect to unfair or deceptive acts or practices […]. The preceding sentence shall not affect any authority of the Commission to prescribe rules (including interpretive rules), and general statements of policy, with respect to unfair methods of competition

Both of the two changes in italics were the result of the 1980 FTCIA, which is discussed in more depth below. An uncodified section of the bill, labeled “15 USC 57a Note,” reads as follows:

(C)(1) The amendment made by subsections (a) and (b) of this section shall not affect the validity of any rule which was promulgated under section 6(g) of the Federal Trade Commission act prior to the date of enactment of this section. Any proposed rule under section 6(g) of such act with respect to which presentation of data, views, and arguments was substantially completed before such date may be promulgated in the same manner and with the same validity as such rule could have been promulgated had this section not been enacted.

Taken together, the language of Section 202 and 202(c) display a consciousness of the FTC’s prior norms of rulemaking authorized by Section 6(g), and an intent to bifurcate the treatment of UDAP and UMC rulemaking. Section 202 (a)(2) limits UDAP rulemaking, whether interpretive or legislative, to the new boundaries established in the bill, while explicitly leaving UMC rulemaking, including, but not limited to, interpretative rules and statements of policy, outside the new constraints and tethered to Section 6(g).

Clearly UMC is subject to the residual of FTC rulemaking authority—but the interpreter is left to determine whether that residual:

  1. eliminates UMC rulemaking altogether;
  2. leaves UMC rulemaking viable under 6(g) and the APA procedures as established in National Petroleum; or
  3. is agnostic to UMC rulemaking but repudiates National Petroleum, thereby leaving UMC rulemaking open to interpretation based on the meaning of the 1914 FTCA.

Without reference to legislative history, a textualist approach to determining which of the three possibilities is most plausible is to ask what an enacting Congress with a clear preference would have done (see, e.g., Scalia’s majority opinion in Edmond v. United States). Congress could, with even greater parsimony and clarity in drafting, have limited all rulemaking to the Magnuson-Moss procedures by simply referencing Section 5 in the first sentence of (a)(2), or in the first sentences of (a)(1)(A) and (B). Alternately, if the objective was to prohibit UMC rulemaking while allowing a more procedurally limited form of UDAP rulemaking, Congress could have written the second sentence of (a)(2) as: “The preceding sentence shall not authorize the Commission to prescribe rules (including interpretive rules), and general statements of policy, with respect to unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce” or “The preceding sentence shall not authorize the Commission to prescribe rules, except interpretive rules and general statements of policy, with respect to unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce.”

We presume that Congress enacted the Magnuson-Moss Act with, as Scalia put it in Bock Laundry, a meaning “most compatible with the surrounding body of law into which the provision must be integrated—a compatibility which, by a benign fiction, we assume Congress always has in mind.” Therefore, while a textualist would not admit the legislative history and administrative history of the FTC to this interpretation, the history is relevant inasmuch as we presume that Congress legislates against the existing state of the law as it understands it. The foregoing history demonstrates conclusively that Congress was aware of and accounting for the National Petroleum decision at multiple stages of the legislative process. The FTC’s UMC rulemaking history further lends support to the fact that Congress and the agency understood UMC rulemaking power to exist before and after the enactment of Magnuson-Moss.

Rulemaking After the Magnuson-Moss Act and the 1980 FTCIA

Returning to the current statutory text, both of the changes in italics were the result of the 1980 FTCIA, which was designed to rein in perceived FTC overreach in the consumer-protection space. The reference to Subsection (h) incorporates an explicit halt to the FTC’s then-pending consumer-protection rulemaking relating to advertising directed at children. The exception codified at (a)(1)(B) targeted the FTC’s ongoing rulemaking in standards and certification.

The Standards and Certifications Rule was the most significant attempt at competition rulemaking after the Octane Rule, although it was never finalized. Two staff reports indicate that FTC staff in both 1978 and 1983 believed that the agency’s authority to make rules under UMC authority was not abrogated by Magnuson-Moss, nor by the FTCIA. The proposed rule would have authorized the FTC to define situations in which the process of developing standards and certifications for a wide variety of industries may give rise to competitive injuries in violation of Section 5. The 1978 proposed rule and staff teport drew on both UMC and UDAP authority, noting that, in the years since National Petroleum, Magnuson-Moss had codified the FTC’s rulemaking authority and added procedural requirements, but that the act, by its own terms, applied only to UDAP rulemaking. Accordingly, the FTC’s “authority to promulgate rules relating to unfair methods of competition was expressly left unchanged by the Act.” Because of the bifurcation in UMC and UDAP rulemaking procedures, Bureau of Consumer Protection (BCP) staff opted to proceed with the standards and certification rulemaking under the new Magnuson-Moss procedures, on the understanding that meeting the higher procedural bar of Magnuson-Moss would also satisfy the requirements of § 553 of the APA.

By 1983, however, BCP staff had shifted gears. The standards and certification final staff report of April 1983, which would have been delivered to the FTC commissioners for a vote on whether to promulgate the rule or not, recommended UMC rulemaking under 6(g). In drawing on its 6(g) authority, BCP staff acknowledged that the 1980 FTCIA had explicitly removed commission authority to promulgate a standards and certification rule under Section 18 of the FTC Act, referring to the new UDAP section.

Clearly, the 1980 FTCIA was intended as a rebuke to the FTC’s efforts at consumer-protection rulemaking. However, the fact that earlier House and Senate drafts contemplated removing all FTC rulemaking authority, or removing standards and certification rulemaking authority for both UMC and UDAP, strongly suggests that Congress understood that the two rulemaking powers existed, had been affirmed by Magnuson-Moss, and continued to be legally viable, even as their exercise became politically infeasible.

BCP staff was bolstered in this interpretation by the D.C. District Court, which granted summary judgment in February 1982 against the American National Standards Institute, which brought suit against the commission claiming that the proposed Standards and Certification Rule proceeding under 6(g) violated the FTCIA of 1980.In an unpublished opinion, the court held that “the text and legislative history of the FTCIA belie Plaintiffs’ claims,” while also defending the continuing dispositivity of National Petroleum on the question of § 6(g) rulemaking. ANSI did not appeal the district court’s decision.

BCP staff forged ahead with the final report in April 1983, acknowledging that, to the extent that certain substantive requirements around disclosures from the 1978 proposed rule were directed at preventing “deception,” the FTC was no longer able to proceed with such rules. To the extent that such disclosures “would have alleviated unfair methods of competition,” the final rule could “provide similar relief.” The Standards and Certifications Rule was never adopted, however, because by 1983, FTC leadership was actively hostile to regulation. The only mentions of “unfair methods of competition” in the rulemaking context in the Federal Register after the Standards and Certification Rule appears to be in the context of repeals.

Conclusion

The Magnuson-Moss Act explicitly left UMC rulemaking unchanged when establishing an additional set of procedural hurdles for UDAP rulemaking. Congress in 1974 both constructively and demonstrably knew that the legal default against which these changes were made was Judge Wright’s National Petroleum decision, as well as the final agency action embodied in the Octane Rule. A textualist reading of the Magnuson-Moss Act must begin with this background legal context to avoid doing violence to the text of the statute. This interpretation is further reinforced by the FTCIA, which also left UMC rulemaking intact, while banning specific instances of UDAP rulemaking. In short, the FTC has substantive UMC rulemaking authority under FTC Act Section 5.

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.

The U.S. House this week passed H.R. 2668, the Consumer Protection and Recovery Act (CPRA), which authorizes the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to seek monetary relief in federal courts for injunctions brought under Section 13(b) of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

Potential relief under the CPRA is comprehensive. It includes “restitution for losses, rescission or reformation of contracts, refund of money, return of property … and disgorgement of any unjust enrichment that a person, partnership, or corporation obtained as a result of the violation that gives rise to the suit.” What’s more, under the CPRA, monetary relief may be obtained for violations that occurred up to 10 years before the filing of the suit in which relief is requested by the FTC.

The Senate should reject the House version of the CPRA. Its monetary-recovery provisions require substantial narrowing if it is to pass cost-benefit muster.

The CPRA is a response to the Supreme Court’s April 22 decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC, which held that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act does not authorize the commission to obtain court-ordered equitable monetary relief. As I explained in an April 22 Truth on the Market post, Congress’ response to the court’s holding should not be to grant the FTC carte blanche authority to obtain broad monetary exactions for any and all FTC Act violations. I argued that “[i]f Congress adopts a cost-beneficial error-cost framework in shaping targeted legislation, it should limit FTC monetary relief authority (recoupment and disgorgement) to situations of consumer fraud or dishonesty arising under the FTC’s authority to pursue unfair or deceptive acts or practices.”

Error cost and difficulties of calculation counsel against pursuing monetary recovery in FTC unfair methods of competition cases. As I explained in my post:

Consumer redress actions are problematic for a large proportion of FTC antitrust enforcement (“unfair methods of competition”) initiatives. Many of these antitrust cases are “cutting edge” matters involving novel theories and complex fact patterns that pose a significant threat of type I [false positives] error. (In comparison, type I error is low in hardcore collusion cases brought by the U.S. Justice Department where the existence, nature, and effects of cartel activity are plain). What’s more, they generally raise extremely difficult if not impossible problems in estimating the degree of consumer harm. (Even DOJ price-fixing cases raise non-trivial measurement difficulties.)

These error-cost and calculation difficulties became even more pronounced as of July 1. On that date, the FTC unwisely voted 3-2 to withdraw a bipartisan 2015 policy statement providing that the commission would apply consumer welfare and rule-of-reason (weighing efficiencies against anticompetitive harm) considerations in exercising its unfair methods of competition authority (see my commentary here). This means that, going forward, the FTC will arrogate to itself unbounded discretion to decide what competitive practices are “unfair.” Business uncertainty, and the costly risk aversion it engenders, would be expected to grow enormously if the FTC could extract monies from firms due to competitive behavior deemed “unfair,” based on no discernible neutral principle.

Error costs and calculation problems also strongly suggest that monetary relief in FTC consumer-protection matters should be limited to cases of fraud or clear deception. As I noted:

[M]atters involving a higher likelihood of error and severe measurement problems should be the weakest candidates for consumer redress in the consumer protection sphere. For example, cases involve allegedly misleading advertising regarding the nature of goods, or allegedly insufficient advertising substantiation, may generate high false positives and intractable difficulties in estimating consumer harm. As a matter of judgment, given resource constraints, seeking financial recoveries solely in cases of fraud or clear deception where consumer losses are apparent and readily measurable makes the most sense from a cost-benefit perspective.

In short, the Senate should rewrite its Section 13(b) amendments to authorize FTC monetary recoveries only when consumer fraud and dishonesty is shown.

Finally, the Senate would be wise to sharply pare back the House language that allows the FTC to seek monetary exactions based on conduct that is a decade old. Serious problems of making accurate factual determinations of economic effects and specific-damage calculations would arise after such a long period of time. Allowing retroactive determinations based on a shorter “look-back” period prior to the filing of a complaint (three years, perhaps) would appear to strike a better balance in allowing reasonable redress while controlling error costs.

There is little doubt that Federal Trade Commission (FTC) unfair methods of competition rulemaking proceedings are in the offing. Newly named FTC Chair Lina Khan and Commissioner Rohit Chopra both have extolled the benefits of competition rulemaking in a major law review article. What’s more, in May, Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter (during her stint as acting chair) established a rulemaking unit in the commission’s Office of General Counsel empowered to “explore new rulemakings to prohibit unfair or deceptive practices and unfair methods of competition” (emphasis added).

In short, a majority of sitting FTC commissioners apparently endorse competition rulemaking proceedings. As such, it is timely to ask whether FTC competition rules would promote consumer welfare, the paramount goal of competition policy.

In a recently published Mercatus Center research paper, I assess the case for competition rulemaking from a competition perspective and find it wanting. I conclude that, before proceeding, the FTC should carefully consider whether such rulemakings would be cost-beneficial. I explain that any cost-benefit appraisal should weigh both the legal risks and the potential economic policy concerns (error costs and “rule of law” harms). Based on these considerations, competition rulemaking is inappropriate. The FTC should stick with antitrust enforcement as its primary tool for strengthening the competitive process and thereby promoting consumer welfare.

A summary of my paper follows.

Section 6(g) of the original Federal Trade Commission Act authorizes the FTC “to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter.” Section 6(g) rules are enacted pursuant to the “informal rulemaking” requirements of Section 553 of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), which apply to the vast majority of federal agency rulemaking proceedings.

Before launching Section 6(g) competition rulemakings, however, the FTC would be well-advised first to weigh the legal risks and policy concerns associated with such an endeavor. Rulemakings are resource-intensive proceedings and should not lightly be undertaken without an eye to their feasibility and implications for FTC enforcement policy.

Only one appeals court decision addresses the scope of Section 6(g) rulemaking. In 1971, the FTC enacted a Section 6(g) rule stating that it was both an “unfair method of competition” and an “unfair act or practice” for refiners or others who sell to gasoline retailers “to fail to disclose clearly and conspicuously in a permanent manner on the pumps the minimum octane number or numbers of the motor gasoline being dispensed.” In 1973, in the National Petroleum Refiners case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the FTC’s authority to promulgate this and other binding substantive rules. The court rejected the argument that Section 6(g) authorized only non-substantive regulations concerning regarding the FTC’s non-adjudicatory, investigative, and informative functions, spelled out elsewhere in Section 6.

In 1975, two years after National Petroleum Refiners was decided, Congress granted the FTC specific consumer-protection rulemaking authority (authorizing enactment of trade regulation rules dealing with unfair or deceptive acts or practices) through Section 202 of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which added Section 18 to the FTC Act. Magnuson-Moss rulemakings impose adjudicatory-type hearings and other specific requirements on the FTC, unlike more flexible section 6(g) APA informal rulemakings. However, the FTC can obtain civil penalties for violation of Magnuson-Moss rules, something it cannot do if 6(g) rules are violated.

In a recent set of public comments filed with the FTC, the Antitrust Section of the American Bar Association stated:

[T]he Commission’s [6(g)] rulemaking authority is buried in within an enumerated list of investigative powers, such as the power to require reports from corporations and partnerships, for example. Furthermore, the [FTC] Act fails to provide any sanctions for violating any rule adopted pursuant to Section 6(g). These two features strongly suggest that Congress did not intend to give the agency substantive rulemaking powers when it passed the Federal Trade Commission Act.

Rephrased, this argument suggests that the structure of the FTC Act indicates that the rulemaking referenced in Section 6(g) is best understood as an aid to FTC processes and investigations, not a source of substantive policymaking. Although the National Petroleum Refiners decision rejected such a reading, that ruling came at a time of significant judicial deference to federal agency activism, and may be dated.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s April 2021 decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC further bolsters the “statutory structure” argument that Section 6(g) does not authorize substantive rulemaking. In AMG, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, which empowers the FTC to seek a “permanent injunction” to restrain an FTC Act violation, does not authorize the FTC to seek monetary relief from wrongdoers. The court’s opinion rejected the FTC’s argument that the term “permanent injunction” had historically been understood to include monetary relief. The court explained that the injunctive language was “buried” in a lengthy provision that focuses on injunctive, not monetary relief (note that the term “rules” is similarly “buried” within 6(g) language dealing with unrelated issues). The court also pointed to the structure of the FTC Act, with detailed and specific monetary-relief provisions found in Sections 5(l) and 19, as “confirm[ing] the conclusion” that Section 13(b) does not grant monetary relief.

By analogy, a court could point to Congress’ detailed enumeration of substantive rulemaking provisions in Section 18 (a mere two years after National Petroleum Refiners) as cutting against the claim that Section 6(g) can also be invoked to support substantive rulemaking. Finally, the Supreme Court in AMG flatly rejected several relatively recent appeals court decisions that upheld Section 13(b) monetary-relief authority. It follows that the FTC cannot confidently rely on judicial precedent (stemming from one arguably dated court decision, National Petroleum Refiners) to uphold its competition rulemaking authority.

In sum, the FTC will have to overcome serious fundamental legal challenges to its section 6(g) competition rulemaking authority if it seeks to promulgate competition rules.

Even if the FTC’s 6(g) authority is upheld, it faces three other types of litigation-related risks.

First, applying the nondelegation doctrine, courts might hold that the broad term “unfair methods of competition” does not provide the FTC “an intelligible principle” to guide the FTC’s exercise of discretion in rulemaking. Such a judicial holding would mean the FTC could not issue competition rules.

Second, a reviewing court might strike down individual proposed rules as “arbitrary and capricious” if, say, the court found that the FTC rulemaking record did not sufficiently take into account potentially procompetitive manifestations of a condemned practice.

Third, even if a final competition rule passes initial legal muster, applying its terms to individual businesses charged with rule violations may prove difficult. Individual businesses may seek to structure their conduct to evade the particular strictures of a rule, and changes in commercial practices may render less common the specific acts targeted by a rule’s language.

Economic Policy Concerns Raised by Competition Rulemaking

In addition to legal risks, any cost-benefit appraisal of FTC competition rulemaking should consider the economic policy concerns raised by competition rulemaking. These fall into two broad categories.

First, competition rules would generate higher error costs than adjudications. Adjudications cabin error costs by allowing for case-specific analysis of likely competitive harms and procompetitive benefits. In contrast, competition rules inherently would be overbroad and would suffer from a very high rate of false positives. By characterizing certain practices as inherently anticompetitive without allowing for consideration of case-specific facts bearing on actual competitive effects, findings of rule violations inevitably would condemn some (perhaps many) efficient arrangements.

Second, competition rules would undermine the rule of law and thereby reduce economic welfare. FTC-only competition rules could lead to disparate legal treatment of a firm’s business practices, depending upon whether the FTC or the U.S. Justice Department was the investigating agency. Also, economic efficiency gains could be lost due to the chilling of aggressive efficiency-seeking business arrangements in those sectors subject to rules.

Conclusion

A combination of legal risks and economic policy harms strongly counsels against the FTC’s promulgation of substantive competition rules.

First, litigation issues would consume FTC resources and add to the costly delays inherent in developing competition rules in the first place. The compounding of separate serious litigation risks suggests a significant probability that costs would be incurred in support of rules that ultimately would fail to be applied.

Second, even assuming competition rules were to be upheld, their application would raise serious economic policy questions. The inherent inflexibility of rule-based norms is ill-suited to deal with dynamic evolving market conditions, compared with matter-specific antitrust litigation that flexibly applies the latest economic thinking to particular circumstances. New competition rules would also exacerbate costly policy inconsistencies stemming from the existence of dual federal antitrust enforcement agencies, the FTC and the Justice Department.

In conclusion, an evaluation of rule-related legal risks and economic policy concerns demonstrates that a reallocation of some FTC enforcement resources to the development of competition rules would not be cost-effective. Continued sole reliance on case-by-case antitrust litigation would generate greater economic welfare than a mixture of litigation and competition rules.

The Eleventh Circuit’s LabMD opinion came out last week and has been something of a rorschach test for those of us who study consumer protection law.

Neil Chilson found the result to be a disturbing sign of slippage in Congress’s command that the FTC refrain from basing enforcement on “public policy.” Berin Szóka, on the other hand, saw the ruling as a long-awaited rebuke against the FTC’s expansive notion of its “unfairness” authority. Whereas Daniel Solove and Woodrow Hartzog described the decision as “quite narrow and… far from crippling,” in part, because “[t]he opinion says very little about the FTC’s general power to enforce Section 5 unfairness.” Even among the ICLE crew, our understandings of the opinion reflect our priors, from it being best understood as expressing due process concerns about injury-based enforcement of Section 5, on the one hand, to being about the meaning of Section 5(n)’s causation requirement, on the other.

You can expect to hear lots more about these and other LabMD-related issues from us soon, but for now we want to write about the only thing more exciting than dueling histories of the FTC’s 1980 Unfairness Statement: administrative law.

While most of those watching the LabMD case come from some nexus of FTC watchers, data security specialists, and privacy lawyers, the reality is that the case itself is mostly about administrative law (the law that governs how federal agencies are given and use their power). And the court’s opinion is best understood from a primarily administrative law perspective.

From that perspective, the case should lead to some significant introspection at the Commission. While the FTC may find ways to comply with the letter of the opinion without substantially altering its approach to data security cases, it will likely face difficulty defending that approach before the courts. True compliance with this decision will require the FTC to define what makes certain data security practices unfair in a more-coherent and far-more-readily ascertainable fashion.

The devil is in the (well-specified) details

The actual holding in the case comes in Part III of the 11th Circuit’s opinion, where the court finds for LabMD on the ground that, owing to a fatal lack of specificity in the FTC’s proposed order, “the Commission’s cease and desist order is itself unenforceable.”  This is the punchline of the opinion, to which we will return. But it is worth spending some time on the path that the court takes to get there.

It should be stressed at the outset that Part II of the opinion — in which the Court walks through the conceptual and statutory framework that supports an “unfairness” claim — is surprisingly unimportant to the court’s ultimate holding. This was the meat of the case for FTC watchers and privacy and data security lawyers, and it is a fascinating exposition. Doubtless it will be the focus of most analysis of the opinion.

But, for purposes of the court’s disposition of the case, it’s of (perhaps-frustratingly) scant importance. In short, the court assumes, arguendo, that the FTC has sufficient basis to make out an unfairness claim against LabMD before moving on to Part III of the opinion analyzing the FTC’s order given that assumption.

It’s not clear why the court took this approach — and it is dangerous to assume any particular explanation (although it is and will continue to be the subject of much debate). There are several reasonable explanations for the approach, ranging from the court thinking it obvious that the FTC’s unfairness analysis was correct, to it side-stepping the thorny question of how to define injury under Section 5, to the court avoiding writing a decision that could call into question the fundamental constitutionality of a significant portion of the FTC’s legal portfolio. Regardless — and regardless of its relative lack of importance to the ultimate holding — the analysis offered in Part II bears, and will receive, significant attention.

The FTC has two basic forms of consumer protection authority: It can take action against 1) unfair acts or practices and 2) deceptive acts or practices. The FTC’s case against LabMD was framed in terms of unfairness. Unsurprisingly, “unfairness” is a broad, ambiguous concept — one that can easily grow into an amorphous blob of ill-defined enforcement authority.

As discussed by the court (as well as by us, ad nauseum), in the 1970s the FTC made very aggressive use of its unfairness authority to regulate the advertising industry, effectively usurping Congress’ authority to legislate in that area. This over-aggressive enforcement didn’t sit well with Congress, of course, and led it to shut down the FTC for a period of time until the agency adopted a more constrained understanding of the meaning of its unfairness authority. This understanding was communicated to Congress in the FTC’s 1980 Unfairness Statement. That statement was subsequently codified by Congress, in slightly modified form, as Section 5(n) of the FTC Act.

Section 5(n) states that

The Commission shall have no authority under this section or section 57a of this title to declare unlawful an act or practice on the grounds that such 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.

The meaning of Section 5(n) has been the subject of intense debate for years (for example, here, here and here). In particular, it is unclear whether Section 5(n) defines a test for what constitutes unfair conduct (that which “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”) or whether instead imposes a necessary, but not necessarily sufficient, condition on the extent of the FTC’s authority to bring cases. The meaning of “cause” under 5(n) is also unclear because, unlike causation in traditional legal contexts, Section 5(n) also targets conduct that is “likely to cause” harm.

Section 5(n) concludes with an important, but also somewhat inscrutable, discussion of the role of “public policy” in the Commission’s unfairness enforcement, indicating that that Commission is free to consider “established public policies” as evidence of unfair conduct, but may not use such considerations “as a primary basis” for its unfairness enforcement.

Just say no to public policy

Section 5 empowers and directs the FTC to police unfair business practices, and there is little reason to think that bad data security practices cannot sometimes fall under its purview. But the FTC’s efforts with respect to data security (and, for that matter, privacy) over the past nearly two decades have focused extensively on developing what it considers to be a comprehensive jurisprudence to address data security concerns. This creates a distinct impression that the FTC has been using its unfairness authority to develop a new area of public policy — to legislate data security standards, in other words — as opposed to policing data security practices that are unfair under established principles of unfairness.

This is a subtle distinction — and there is frankly little guidance for understanding when the agency is acting on the basis of public policy versus when it is proscribing conduct that falls within the meaning of unfairness.

But it is an important distinction. If it is the case — or, more precisely, if the courts think that it is the case — that the FTC is acting on the basis of public policy, then the FTC’s data security efforts are clearly problematic under Section 5(n)’s prohibition on the use of public policy as the primary basis for unfairness actions.

And this is where the Commission gets itself into trouble. The Commission’s efforts to develop its data security enforcement program looks an awful lot like something being driven by public policy, and not so much as merely enforcing existing policy as captured by, in the LabMD court’s words (echoing the FTC’s pre-Section 5(n) unfairness factors), “well-established legal standard[s], whether grounded in statute, the common law, or the Constitution.”

The distinction between effecting public policy and enforcing legal norms is… not very clear. Nonetheless, exploring and respecting that distinction is an important task for courts and agencies.

Unfortunately, this case does not well describe how to make that distinction. The opinion is more than a bit muddled and difficult to clearly interpret. Nonetheless, reading the court’s dicta in Part II is instructive. It’s clearly the case that some bad security practices, in some contexts, can be unfair practices. So the proper task for the FTC is to discover how to police “unfairness” within data security cases rather than setting out to become a first-order data security enforcement agency.

How does public policy become well-established law?

Part II of the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion — even if dicta — is important for future interpretations of Section 5 cases. The court goes to great lengths to demonstrate, based on the FTC’s enforcement history and related Congressional rebukes, that the Commission may not rely upon vague “public policy” standards for bringing “unfairness” actions.

But this raises a critical question about the nature of the FTC’s unfairness authority. The Commission was created largely to police conduct that could not readily be proscribed by statute or simple rules. In some cases this means conduct that is hard to label or describe in text with any degree of precision — “I know it when I see it” kinds of acts and practices. In other cases, it may refer to novel or otherwise unpredictable conduct that could not be foreseen by legislators or regulators. In either case, the very purpose of the FTC is to be able to protect consumers from conduct that is not necessarily proscribed elsewhere.

This means that the Commission must have some ability to take action against “unfair” conduct that has not previously been enshrined as “unfair” in “well-established legal standard[s], whether grounded in statute, the common law, or the Constitution.” But that ability is not unbounded, of course.

The court explained that the Commission could expound upon what acts fall within the meaning of “unfair” in one of two ways: It could use its rulemaking authority to issue Congressionally reviewable rules, or it could proceed on a case-by-case basis.

In either case, the court’s discussion of how the Commission is to determine what is “unfair” within the constraints of Section 5(n) is frustratingly vague. The earlier parts of the opinion tell us that unfairness is to be adjudged based upon “well-established legal standards,” but here the court tells us that the scope of unfairness can be altered — that is, those well-established legal standards can be changed — through adjudication. It is difficult to square what the court means by this. Regardless, it is the guidance that we have been given by the court.

This is Admin Law 101

And yet perhaps there is some resolution to this conundrum in administrative law. For administrative law scholars, the 11th Circuit’s discussion of the permissibility of agencies developing binding legal norms using either rulemaking or adjudication procedures, is straight out of Chenery II.

Chenery II is a bedrock case of American administrative law, standing broadly for the proposition (as echoed by the 11th Circuit) that agencies can generally develop legal rules through either rulemaking or adjudication, that there may be good reasons to use either in any given case, and that (assuming Congress has empowered the agency to use both) it is primarily up to the agency to determine which approach is preferable in any given case.

But, while Chenery II certainly allows agencies to proceed on a case-by-case basis, that permission is not a broad license to eschew the development of determinate legal standards. And the reason is fairly obvious: if an agency develops rules that are difficult to know ex ante, they can hardly provide guidance for private parties as they order their affairs.

Chenery II places an important caveat on the use of case-by-case adjudication. Much like the judges in the LabMD opinion, the Chenery II court was concerned with specificity and clarity, and tells us that agencies may not rely on vague bases for their rules or enforcement actions and expect courts to “chisel” out the details. Rather:

If the administrative action is to be tested by the basis upon which it purports to rest, that basis must be set forth with such clarity as to be understandable. It will not do for a court to be compelled to guess at the theory underlying the agency’s action; nor can a court be expected to chisel that which must be precise from what the agency has left vague and indecisive. In other words, ‘We must know what a decision means before the duty becomes ours to say whether it is right or wrong.’ (emphasis added)

The parallels between the 11th Circuit’s opinion in LabMD and the Supreme Court’s opinion in Chenery II 70 years earlier are uncanny. It is also not very surprising that the 11th Circuit opinion would reflect the principles discussed in Chenery II, nor that it would do so without reference to Chenery II: these are, after all, bedrock principles of administrative law.  

The principles set out in Chenery II, of course, do not answer the data-security law question whether the FTC properly exercised its authority in this (or any) case under Section 5. But they do provide an intelligible basis for the court sidestepping this question, and asking whether the FTC sufficiently defined what it was doing in the first place.  

Conclusion

The FTC’s data security mission has been, in essence, a voyage of public policy exploration. Its method of case-by-case adjudication, based on ill-defined consent decrees, non-binding guidance documents, and broadly-worded complaints creates the vagueness that the Court in Chenery II rejected, and that the 11th Circuit held results in unenforceable remedies.

Even in its best light, the Commission’s public materials are woefully deficient as sources of useful (and legally-binding) guidance. In its complaints the FTC does typically mention some of the facts that led it to investigate, and presents some rudimentary details of how those facts relate to its Section 5 authority. Yet the FTC issues complaints based merely on its “reason to believe” that an unfair act has taken place. This is a far different standard than that faced in district court, and undoubtedly leads the Commission to construe facts liberally in its own favor.

Moreover, targets of complaints settle for myriad reasons, and no outside authority need review the sufficiency of a complaint as part of a settlement. And the consent orders themselves are largely devoid of legal and even factual specificity. As a result, the FTC’s authority to initiate an enforcement action  is effectively based on an ill-defined series of hunches — hardly a sufficient basis for defining a clear legal standard.

So, while the court’s opinion in this case was narrowly focused on the FTC’s proposed order, the underlying legal analysis that supports its holding should be troubling to the Commission.

The specificity the 11th Circuit demands in the remedial order must exist no less in the theories of harm the Commission alleges against targets. And those theories cannot be based on mere public policy preferences. Courts that follow the Eleventh Circuit’s approach — which indeed Section 5(n) reasonably seems to require — will look more deeply into the Commission’s allegations of “unreasonable” data security in order to determine if it is actually attempting to pursue harms by proving something like negligence, or is instead simply ascribing “unfairness” to certain conduct that the Commission deems harmful.

The FTC may find ways to comply with the letter of this particular opinion without substantially altering its overall approach — but that seems unlikely. True compliance with this decision will require the FTC to respect real limits on its authority and to develop ascertainable data security requirements out of much more than mere consent decrees and kitchen-sink complaints.

The FTC will hold an “Informational Injury Workshop” in December “to examine consumer injury in the context of privacy and data security.” Defining the scope of cognizable harm that may result from the unauthorized use or third-party hacking of consumer information is, to be sure, a crucial inquiry, particularly as ever-more information is stored digitally. But the Commission — rightly — is aiming at more than mere definition. As it notes, the ultimate objective of the workshop is to address questions like:

How do businesses evaluate the benefits, costs, and risks of collecting and using information in light of potential injuries? How do they make tradeoffs? How do they assess the risks of different kinds of data breach? What market and legal incentives do they face, and how do these incentives affect their decisions?

How do consumers perceive and evaluate the benefits, costs, and risks of sharing information in light of potential injuries? What obstacles do they face in conducting such an evaluation? How do they evaluate tradeoffs?

Understanding how businesses and consumers assess the risk and cost “when information about [consumers] is misused,” and how they conform their conduct to that risk, entails understanding not only the scope of the potential harm, but also the extent to which conduct affects the risk of harm. This, in turn, requires an understanding of the FTC’s approach to evaluating liability under Section 5 of the FTC Act.

The problem, as we discuss in comments submitted by the International Center for Law & Economics to the FTC for the workshop, is that the Commission’s current approach troublingly mixes the required separate analyses of risk and harm, with little elucidation of either.

The core of the problem arises from the Commission’s reliance on what it calls a “reasonableness” standard for its evaluation of data security. By its nature, a standard that assigns liability for only unreasonable conduct should incorporate concepts resembling those of a common law negligence analysis — e.g., establishing a standard of due care, determining causation, evaluating the costs of and benefits of conduct that would mitigate the risk of harm, etc. Unfortunately, the Commission’s approach to reasonableness diverges from the rigor of a negligence analysis. In fact, as it has developed, it operates more like a strict liability regime in which largely inscrutable prosecutorial discretion determines which conduct, which firms, and which outcomes will give rise to liability.

Most troublingly, coupled with the Commission’s untenably lax (read: virtually nonexistent) evidentiary standards, the extremely liberal notion of causation embodied in its “reasonableness” approach means that the mere storage of personal information, even absent any data breach, could amount to an unfair practice under the Act — clearly not a “reasonable” result.

The notion that a breach itself can constitute injury will, we hope, be taken up during the workshop. But even if injury is limited to a particular type of breach — say, one in which sensitive, personal information is exposed to a wide swath of people — unless the Commission’s definition of what it means for conduct to be “likely to cause” harm is fixed, it will virtually always be the case that storage of personal information could conceivably lead to the kind of breach that constitutes injury. In other words, better defining the scope of injury does little to cabin the scope of the agency’s discretion when conduct creating any risk of that injury is actionable.

Our comments elaborate on these issues, as well as providing our thoughts on how the subjective nature of informational injuries can fit into Section 5, with a particular focus on the problem of assessing informational injury given evolving social context, and the need for appropriately assessing benefits in any cost-benefit analysis of conduct leading to informational injury.

ICLE’s full comments are available here.

The comments draw upon our article, When ‘Reasonable’ Isn’t: The FTC’s Standard-Less Data Security Standard, forthcoming in the Journal of Law, Economics and Policy.

Section 5(a)(2) of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act authorizes the FTC to “prevent persons, partnerships, or corporations, except . . . common carriers subject to the Acts to regulate commerce . . . from using unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.”  On August 29, in FTC v. AT&T, the Ninth Circuit issued a decision that exempts non-common carrier data services from U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) jurisdiction, merely because they are offered by a company that has common carrier status.  This case involved an FTC allegation that AT&T had “throttled” data (slowed down Internet service) for “unlimited mobile data” customers without adequate consent or disclosures, in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act.  The FTC had claimed that although AT&T mobile wireless voice services were a common carrier service, the company’s mobile wireless data services were not, and, thus, were subject to FTC oversight.  Reversing a federal district court’s refusal to grant AT&T’s motion to dismiss, the Ninth Circuit concluded that “when Congress used the term ‘common carrier’ in the FTC Act, [there is no indication] it could only have meant ‘common carrier to the extent engaged in common carrier activity.’”  The Ninth Circuit therefore determined that “a literal reading of the words Congress selected simply does comport with [the FTC’s] activity-based approach.”  The FTC’s pending case against AT&T in the Northern District of California (which is within the Ninth Circuit) regarding alleged unfair and deceptive advertising of satellite services by AT&T subsidiary DIRECTTV (see here) could be affected by this decision.

The Ninth Circuit’s AT&T holding threatens to further extend the FCC’s jurisdictional reach at the expense of the FTC.  It comes on the heels of the divided D.C. Circuit’s benighted and ill-reasoned decision (see here) upholding the FCC’s “Open Internet Order,” including its decision to reclassify Internet broadband service as a common carrier service.  That decision subjects broadband service to heavy-handed and costly FCC “consumer protection” regulation, including in the area of privacy.  The FCC’s overly intrusive approach stands in marked contrast to the economic efficiency considerations (albeit not always perfectly applied) that underlie FTC consumer protection mode of analysis.  As I explained in a May 2015 Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum,  the FTC’s highly structured, analytic, fact-based methodology, combined with its vast experience in privacy and data security investigations, make it a far better candidate than the FCC to address competition and consumer protection problems in the area of broadband.

I argued in this space in March 2016 that, should the D.C. Circuit uphold the FCC’s Open Internet Order, Congress should carefully consider whether to strip the FCC of regulatory authority in this area (including, of course, privacy practices) and reassign it to the FTC.  The D.C. Circuit’s decision upholding that Order, combined with the Ninth Circuit’s latest ruling, makes the case for potential action by the next Congress even more urgent.

While it is at it, the next Congress should also weigh whether to repeal the FTC’s common carrier exemption, as well as all special exemptions for specified categories of institutions, such as banks, savings and loans, and federal credit unions (see here).  In so doing, Congress might also do away with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an unaccountable bureaucracy whose consumer protection regulatory responsibilities should cease (see my February 2016 Heritage Legal Memorandum here).

Finally, as Heritage Foundation scholars have urged, Congress should look into enacting additional regulatory reform legislation, such as requiring congressional approval of new major regulations issued by agencies (including financial services regulators) and subjecting “independent” agencies (including the FCC) to executive branch regulatory review.

That’s enough for now.  Stay tuned.

The FCC’s proposed “Open Internet Order,” which would impose heavy-handed “common carrier” regulation of Internet service providers (the Order is being appealed in federal court and there are good arguments for striking it down) in order to promote “net neutrality,” is fundamentally misconceived.  If upheld, it will slow innovation, impose substantial costs, and harm consumers (see Heritage Foundation commentaries on FCC Internet regulation here, here, here, and here).  What’s more, it is not needed to protect consumers and competition from potential future abuse by Internet firms.  As I explain in a Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum published yesterday, should the Open Internet Order be struck down, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has ample authority under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act) to challenge any harmful conduct by entities involved in Internet broadband services markets when such conduct undermines competition or harms consumers.

Section 5 of the FTC Act authorizes the FTC to prevent persons, partnerships, or corporations from engaging in “unfair methods of competition” or “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” in or affecting commerce.  This gives it ample authority to challenge Internet abuses raising antitrust (unfair methods) and consumer protection (unfair acts or practices) issues.

On the antitrust side, in evaluating individual business restraints under a “rule of reason,” the FTC relies on objective fact-specific analyses of the actual economic and consumer protection implications of a particular restraint.  Thus, FTC evaluations of broadband industry restrictions are likely to be more objective and predictable than highly subjective “public interest” assessments by the FCC, leading to reduced error and lower planning costs for purveyors of broadband and related services.  Appropriate antitrust evaluation should accord broad leeway to most broadband contracts.  As FTC Commissioner Josh Wright put it in testifying before Congress, “fundamental observation and market experience [demonstrate] that the business practices at the heart of the net neutrality debate are generally procompetitive.”  This suggests application of a rule of reason that will fully weigh efficiencies but not shy away from challenging broadband-related contractual arrangements that undermine the competitive process.

On the consumer protection side, the FTC can attack statements made by businesses that mislead and thereby impose harm on consumers (including business purchasers) who are acting reasonably.  It can also challenge practices that, though not literally false or deceptive, impose substantial harm on consumers (including business purchasers) that they cannot reasonably avoid, assuming the harm is greater than any countervailing benefits.  These are carefully designed and cabined sources of authority that require the FTC to determine the presence of actual consumer harm before acting.  Application of the FTC’s unfairness and deception powers therefore lacks the uncertainty associated with the FCC’s uncabined and vague “public interest” standard of evaluation.  As in the case of antitrust, the existence of greater clarity and a well-defined analytic methodology suggests that reliance on FTC rather than FCC enforcement in this area is preferable from a policy standpoint.

Finally, arguments for relying on FTC Internet policing are based on experience as well – the FTC is no Internet policy novice.  It closely monitors Internet activity and, over the years, it has developed substantial expertise in Internet topics through research, hearings, and enforcement actions.

Most recently, for example, the FTC sued AT&T in federal court for allegedly slowing wireless customers’ Internet speeds, although the customers had subscribed to “unlimited” data usage plans.  The FTC asserted that in offering renewals to unlimited-plan customers, AT&T did not adequately inform them of a new policy to “throttle” (drastically reduce the speed of) customer data service once a certain monthly data usage cap was met. The direct harm of throttling was in addition to the high early termination fees that dissatisfied customers would face for early termination of their services.  The FTC characterized this behavior as both “unfair” and “deceptive.”  Moreover, the commission claimed that throttling-related speed reductions and data restrictions were not determined by real-time network congestion and thus did not even qualify as reasonable network management activity.  This case illustrates that the FTC is perfectly capable of challenging potential “network neutrality” violations that harm consumer welfare (since “throttled” customers are provided service that is inferior to the service afforded customers on “tiered” service plans) and thus FCC involvement is unwarranted.

In sum, if a court strikes down the latest FCC effort to regulate the Internet, the FTC has ample authority to address competition and consumer protection problems in the area of broadband, including questions related to net neutrality.  The FTC’s highly structured, analytic, fact-based approach to these issues is superior to FCC net neutrality regulation based on vague and unfocused notions of the public interest.  If a court does not act, Congress might wish to consider legislation to prohibit FCC Internet regulation and leave oversight of potential competitive and consumer abuses to the FTC.

Co-authored with Berin Szoka

FTC Commissioner Wright issued today his Policy Statement on enforcement of Section 5 of the FTC Act against Unfair Methods of Competition (UMC)—the one he promised in April. Wright introduced the Statement in an important policy speech this morning before the Executive Committee Meeting of the New York State Bar Association’s Antitrust Section. Both the Statement and the speech are essential reading, and, collectively, they present a compelling and comprehensive vision for Section 5 UMC reform at the Commission.

As we’ve been saying for some time, and as Wright notes at the outset of his Statement:

In order for enforcement of its unfair methods of competition authority to promote consistently the Commission’s mission of protecting competition, the Commission must articulate a clear framework for its application.

Significantly, in addition to offering important certainty to guide business actions, Wright bases his proposed Policy Statement on the error cost framework:

The Commission must formulate a standard that distinguishes between acceptable business practices and business practices that constitute an unfair method of competition in order to provide firms with adequate guidance as to what conduct may be unlawful.  Articulating a clear and predictable standard for what constitutes an unfair method of competition is important because the Commission’s authority to condemn unfair methods of competition allows it to break new ground and challenge conduct based upon theories not previously enshrined in Sherman Act or Clayton Act jurisprudence.

As far as we know, this Statement is the most significant effort yet to cabin FTC enforcement decisions within a coherent error-cost framework, and it is especially welcome.

Ironically, this is former Chairman Jon Leibowitz’s true legacy: His efforts to expand Section 5 to challenge conduct under novel theories, devoid of economic grounding and without proof of anticompetitive harm (in cases like Intel, N-Data and Google, among others) brought into stark relief the potential risks of an unfettered, active Section 5. Commissioner Wright’s Statement can be seen as the unintended culmination of—and backlash against—Leibowitz’s Section 5 campaign.

Particularly given the novelty of circumstances that might come within Section 5’s ambit, the error-cost minimizing structure of Commissioner Wright’s proposed Statement is enormously important. As one of us (Manne) notes in the paper, Innovation and the Limits of Antitrust (co-authored with then-Professor Wright),

Both product and business innovations involve novel practices, and such practices generally result in monopoly explanations from the economics profession followed by hostility from the courts (though sometimes in reverse order) and then a subsequent, more nuanced economic understanding of the business practice usually recognizing its procompetitive virtues.

And as Wright’s Statement notes,

This is particularly true if business conduct is novel or takes place within an emerging or rapidly changing industry, and thus where there is little empirical evidence about the conduct’s potential competitive effects.

The high cost and substantial risk of over-enforcement arising from unbounded Section 5 authority counsel strongly in favor of Wright’s Statement restricting Section 5 to minimize these error costs.

Thus, while the specifics matter, of course, the real import of Commissioner Wright’s Statement is in some ways structural: If adopted, it would both bring much needed, basic guidance to the scope of the FTC’s Section 5 authority; just as important, it would constrain (an important aspect of) the FTC’s enforcement discretion within the error cost framework, bringing the sound economic grounding of antitrust law and economics to Section 5, benefiting consumers as well as commerce generally:

This Policy Statement benefits both consumers and the business community by relying on modern economics and antitrust jurisprudence to strengthen the agency’s ability to target anticompetitive conduct and provide clear guidance about the contours of the Commission’s Section 5 authority.

For Wright, this is about saving Section 5 from its ill-defined and improperly deployed history. As he noted in his speech this morning,

In undertaking this task, I think it is important to recall why the Commission’s use of Section 5 has failed to date. In my view, this failure is principally because the Commission has sought to do too much with Section 5, and in so doing, called into serious question whether it has any limits whatsoever. In order to save Section 5, and to fulfill the vision Congress had for this important statute, the Commission must recast its unfair methods of competition authority with an eye toward regulatory humility in order to effectively target plainly anticompetitive conduct….. I believe that doing anything less would betray our obligation as responsible stewards of the Commission and its competition mission, and may ultimately result in the Commission having its Section 5 authority defined for it by the courts, or worse, having that authority completely revoked by Congress.

This means circumscribing the FTC’s Section 5 authority to limit enforcement to cases where the Commission shows both actual harm to competition and the absence of cognizable efficiencies.

The Status Quo

Both together and separately, we’ve discussed the problems with the Section 5 status quo in numerous places, including:

To summarize: The problem is that Section 5 enforcement standards in the unfairness context are non-existent. Former Chairman Jon Leibowitz and former Commissioner Tom Rosch, in particular, have, in several places, argued for expanded use of Section 5, both as a way around judicial limits on the scope of Sherman Act enforcement, as well as as an affirmative tool to enforce the FTC’s mandate. As the Commission’s statement in the N-Data case concluded:

We recognize that some may criticize the Commission for broadly (but appropriately) applying our unfairness authority to stop the conduct alleged in this Complaint. But the cost of ignoring this particularly pernicious problem is too high. Using our statutory authority to its fullest extent is not only consistent with the Commission’s obligations, but also essential to preserving a free and dynamic marketplace.

The problem is that neither the Commission, the courts nor Congress has defined what, exactly, the “fullest extent” of the FTC’s statutory authority is. As Commissioner Wright noted in this morning’s speech,

In practice, however, the scope of the Commission’s Section 5 authority today is as broad or as narrow as a majority of the commissioners believes that it is.

The Commission’s claim that it applied its authority “broadly (but appropriately)” in N-Data is unsupported and unsupportable. As Commissioner Ohlhausen put it in her dissent in In re Bosch,

I simply do not see any meaningful limiting principles in the enforcement policy laid out in these cases. The Commission statement emphasizes the context here (i.e. standard setting); however, it is not clear why the type of conduct that is targeted here (i.e. a breach of an allegedly implied contract term with no allegation of deception) would not be targeted by the Commission in any other context where the Commission believes consumer harm may result. If the Commission continues on the path begun in N-Data and extended here, we will be policing garden variety breach-of-contract and other business disputes between private parties….

It is important that government strive for transparency and predictability. Before invoking Section 5 to address business conduct not already covered by the antitrust laws (other than perhaps invitations to collude), the Commission should fully articulate its views about what constitutes an unfair method of competition, including the general parameters of unfair conduct and where Section 5 overlaps and does not overlap with the antitrust laws, and how the Commission will exercise its enforcement discretion under Section 5. Otherwise, the Commission runs a serious risk of failure in the courts and a possible hostile legislative reaction, both of which have accompanied previous FTC attempts to use Section 5 more expansively.

This consent does nothing either to legitimize the creative, yet questionable application of Section 5 to these types of cases or to provide guidance to standard-setting participants or the business community at large as to what does and does not constitute a Section 5 violation. Rather, it raises more questions about what limits the majority of the Commission would place on its expansive use of Section 5 authority.

Commissioner Wright’s proposed Policy Statement attempts to remedy these defects, and, in the process, explains why the Commission’s previous, broad applications of the statute are not, in fact, appropriate.

Requirement #1: Harm to Competition

It should go without saying that anticompetitive harm is a basic prerequisite of the FTC’s UMC enforcement. Sadly, however, this has not been the case. As the FTC has, in recent years, undertaken enforcement actions intended to expand its antitrust authority, it has interpreted far too expansively the Supreme Court’s statement in FTC v. Indiana Federation of Dentists that Section 5 contemplates

not only practices that violate the Sherman Act and the other antitrust laws, but also practices that the Commission determines are against public policy for other reasons.

But “against public policy for other reasons” does not mean “without economic basis,” and there is no indication that Congress intended to give the FTC unfettered authority unbounded by economically sensible limits on what constitutes a cognizable harm. As one of us (Manne) has written,

Following Sherman Act jurisprudence, traditionally the FTC has understood (and courts have demanded) that antitrust enforcement . . . requires demonstrable consumer harm to apply. But this latest effort reveals an agency pursuing an interpretation of Section 5 that would give it unprecedented and largely-unchecked authority. In particular, the definition of “unfair” competition wouldn’t be confined to the traditional antitrust measures — reduction in output or an output-reducing increase in price — but could expand to, well, just about whatever the agency deems improper.

Commissioner Wright’s Statement and its reasoning are consistent with Congressional intent on the limits of the “public policy” rationale in Section 5’s “other” unfairness authority, now enshrined in Section 45(n) of the FTC Act:

The Commission shall have no authority under this section or section 57a of this title to declare unlawful an act or practice on the grounds that such 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.

While not entirely foreclosing the possibility of other indicia of harm to competition, Wright provides a clear statement of what would constitute Section 5 UMC harm under his standard:

Conduct that results in harm to competition, and in turn, in harm to consumer welfare, typically does so through increased prices, reduced output, diminished quality, or weakened incentives to innovate.

This means is that, among other things, “reduction in consumer choice” is not, by itself, a cognizable harm under Section 5, just as it is not under the antitrust laws. As one of us (Manne) has discussed previously:

Most problematically, Commissioner Rosch has suggested that Section Five could address conduct that has the effect of “reducing consumer choice” without requiring any evidence that conduct actually reduces consumer welfare…. Troublingly, “reducing consumer choice” seems to be a euphemism for “harm to competitors, not competition,” where the reduction in choice is the reduction of choice of competitors who may be put out of business by a competitor’s conduct.

The clear limit on “consumer choice” claims contemplated by Wright’s Statement is another of its important benefits.

But Wright emphatically rejects proposals to limit Section 5 to mean only what the antitrust laws themselves mean. Section 5 does extend beyond the limits of the antitrust laws in encompassing conduct that is likely to result in harm to competition, although it hasn’t yet.

Because prospective enforcement of Section 5 against allegedly anticompetitive practices that may turn out not to be harmful imposes significant costs, Wright very nicely here also incorporates an error cost approach, requiring a showing of greater harm where the risk of harm is lower:

When the act or practice has not yet harmed competition, the Commission’s assessment must include both the magnitude and probability of competitive harm.  Where the probability of competitive harm is smaller, the Commission will not find an unfair method of competition without reason to believe the act or practice poses a risk of substantial harm.

In this category are the uncontroversial “invitation to collude” cases long agreed by just about everyone to be within the ambit of Section 5. But Commissioner Wright also suggests Section 5 is appropriate to prevent

the use by a firm of unfair methods of competition to acquire market power that does not yet rise to the level of monopoly power necessary for a violation of the Sherman Act.

This is somewhat more controversial as it contemplates (as the Statement’s illustrative examples make clear) deception that results in the acquisition of market power.

But most important to note is that, while deception was the basis for the Commission’s enforcement action in Rambus (later reversed by the D.C. Circuit), Commissioner Wright’s Statement would codify the important limitation (partly developed in Wright’s own work) on such cases that the deception must be the cause of an acquisition of market power.

Requirement #2: Absence of Cognizable Efficiencies

The real work in Wright’s Statement is done by the limitation on UMC enforcement in cases where the complained-of practice produces cognizable efficiencies. This is not a balancing test or a rule of reason. It is a safe harbor for cases where conduct is efficient, regardless of its effect on competition otherwise:

The Commission therefore creates a clear safe harbor that provides firms with certainty that their conduct can be challenged as an unfair method of competition only in the absence of efficiencies.

As noted at the outset, this is the most important and ambitious effort we know of to incorporate the error cost framework into FTC antitrust enforcement policy. This aspect of the Statement takes seriously the harm that can arise from the agency’s discretion, uncertainty over competitive effects (especially in “likely to cause” cases) and the imbalance of power and costs inherent in the FTC’s Part III adjudication to tip the scale back toward avoidance of erroneous over-enforcement.

Importantly, Commissioner Wright called out the last of these in his speech this morning, describing the fundamental imbalance that his Statement seeks to address:

The uncertainty surrounding the scope of Section 5 is exacerbated by the administrative procedures available to the Commission for litigating unfair methods claims. This combination gives the Commission the ability to, in some cases, take advantage of the uncertainty surrounding Section 5 by challenging conduct as an unfair method of competition and eliciting a settlement even though the conduct in question very likely would not violate the traditional federal antitrust laws. This is because firms typically will prefer to settle a Section 5 claim rather than going through lengthy and costly administrative litigation in which they are both shooting at a moving target and have the chips stacked against them. Such settlements only perpetuate the uncertainty that exists as a result of ambiguity associated with the Commission’s Section 5 authority by encouraging a process by which the contours of the Commission’s unfair methods of competition authority are drawn without any meaningful adversarial proceeding or substantive analysis of the Commission’s authority.

In essence, by removing the threat of Section 5 enforcement where efficiencies are cognizable, Wright’s Statement avoids the risk of Type I error, prioritizing the possible realization of efficiencies over possible anticompetitive harm with a bright line rule that avoids attempting to balance the one against the other:

The Commission employs an efficiencies screen to establish a test with clear and predictable results that prevents arbitrary enforcement of the agency’s unfair methods of competition authority, to focus the agency’s resources on conduct most likely to harm consumers, and to avoid deterring consumer welfare-enhancing business practices.

Moreover, the FTC bears the burden of demonstrating that its enforcement meets the efficiencies test, ensuring that the screen doesn’t become simply a rule of reason balancing:

The Commission bears the ultimate burden in establishing that the act or practice lacks cognizable efficiencies. Once a firm has offered initial evidence to substantiate its efficiency claims, the Commission must demonstrate why the efficiencies are not cognizable.

Fundamentally, as Commissioner Wright explained in his speech,

Anticompetitive conduct that lacks cognizable efficiencies is the most likely to harm consumers because it is without any redeeming consumer benefits. The efficiency screen also works to ensure that welfare-enhancing conduct is not inadvertently deterred…. The Supreme Court has long recognized that erroneous condemnation of procompetitive conduct significantly reduces consumer welfare by deterring investment in efficiency-enhancing business practices. To avoid deterring consumer welfare-enhancing conduct, my proposed Policy Statement limits the use of Section 5 to conduct that lacks cognizable efficiencies.

The Big Picture

Wright’s proposed Policy Statement is well thought out and much needed. It offers clear guidance for companies navigating the FTC’s murky Section 5 waters, and it offers clear, economically grounded limits on the FTC’s UMC enforcement authority. While preserving a scope of enforcement authority for Section 5 beyond the antitrust statutes (including against deceptive conduct that harms competition without any corresponding efficiency justification), it nevertheless reins in the most troubling abuses of that authority by clearly prohibiting the agency’s unprincipled enforcement actions in cases like N-Data, Google and Rambus, all of which failed to establish a connection between the complained-of conduct and harm to competition or else ignored clear efficiencies (particularly Google).

No doubt some agency watchers will criticize the Statement, labeling it reflexively deregulatory. But remember this isn’t being proposed in a vacuum. Commissioner Wright’s Statement defines only what should be a fairly narrow set of cases beyond the antitrust statutes’ reach. The Sherman Act doesn’t disappear because Section 5 is circumscribed, and the most recent controversial Section 5 cases could all theoretically have been plead solely as Section 2 cases (although they may well have failed).

What does change is the possibility of recourse to Section 5 as a means of avoiding the standards established by the courts in enforcing and interpreting the Sherman Act.

The Statement does not represent a restriction of antitrust enforcement authority unless you take as your starting point the agency’s recent unsupported and expansive interpretation of Section 5—a version of Section 5 that was never intended to, and doesn’t, exist. Wright’s Statement is, rather, a bulwark against unprincipled regulatory expansion: a sensible grounding of a statute with a checkered past and a penchant for mischief.

Chairman Leibowitz and Commissioner Rosch, in defending the use and expansion of Section 5, argued in Intel that it was necessary to circumvent judicial limitations on the enforcement of Section 2 aimed only at private plaintiffs (like, you know, demonstration of anticompetitive harm, basic pleading standards…)—basically the FTC’s “get out of Trinko free” card. According to Leibowitz, the Court’s economically rigorous, error-cost jurisprudence in cases like linkline, Trinko, Leegin, Twombly, and Brook Group were aimed at private plaintiffs, not agency actions:

But I also believe that the result, at least in the aggregate, is that some anticompetitive behavior is not being stopped—in part because the FTC and DOJ are saddled with court-based restrictions that are designed to circumscribe private litigation. Simply put, consumers can still suffer plenty of harm for reasons not encompassed by the Sherman Act as it is currently enforced in the federal courts.

The claim is meritless (as one of us (Manne) discussed here, for example). But it helps to make clear what the problem with current Section 5 standards are: There are no standards, only post hoc rationalizations to justify pursuing Section 2 cases without the cumbersome baggage of its jurisprudential limits.

The recent Supreme Court cases mentioned above are only the most recent examples of a decades-long jurisprudential trend incorporating modern economic thinking into antitrust law and recognizing the error-cost tradeoff. These cases have served to remove certain conduct (at least without appropriate evidence and analysis) from the reach of Section 2 in a measured, accretive fashion over the last 40 years or so. They have by no means made antitrust irrelevant, and the agencies and private plaintiffs alike bring and win cases all the time—and this doesn’t even measure the conduct that is deterred by the threat of enforcement.  The limits on Section 5 suggested by Commissioner Wright’s Statement are marginal limits on the scope of antitrust beyond the Sherman Act, Clayton Act and other statutes. There is nothing in the legislative history or plain language of Section 5 to suggest adopting a more expansive approach, in effect using it to undo what the courts have methodically done.

It is also worth noting that not only the antitrust laws, but also the the Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices (UDAP) prong of Section 5 exerts a regulatory constraint on business conduct, proscribing deception, for example, as a consumer protection matter—without having to prove the existence of market power or its abuse. This also forms a piece of the institutional backdrop against which Wright’s proposed Policy Statement must be adjudged.

Wright was a leading critic of the agency’s expansive use of Section 5 before he joined the Commission, both at Truth on the Market as well as in longer writing.  He has, correctly, seen it as a serious problem in need of remedying for quite some time. It is gratifying that Wright is continuing this work now that he is on the Commission, where he is no longer relegated merely to critiquing the agency but is in a position to try to transform it himself.

What remains needed is the political will to move this draft Policy Statement to adoption by the full Commission—something Chairman Ramirez is not likely to embrace without considerable pressure from Congress and/or the antitrust community. In the modest service of fulfilling this need, ICLE and TechFreedom intend to host later this year the first of what we hope will be several workshops on Commissioner Wright’s Statement and the broader topic of Section 5 enforcement reform. If the Commission won’t do it, the private sector will have to step in. For a taste of our perspective, check out the amicus brief we recently filed with FTC law scholars (Todd Zywicki, Paul Rubin and Gus Hurwitz) in the case of FTC v. Wyndham, which may be the first case to really test how the FTC uses is unfairness authority in consumer protection cases.