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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan’s Sept. 22 memorandum to FTC commissioners and staff—entitled “Vision and Priorities for the FTC” (VP Memo)—offers valuable insights into the chair’s strategy and policy agenda for the commission. Unfortunately, it lacks an appreciation for the limits of antitrust and consumer-protection law; it also would have benefited from greater regulatory humility. After summarizing the VP Memo’s key sections, I set forth four key takeaways from this rather unusual missive.

Introduction

The VP Memo begins appropriately enough, with praise for commission staff and a call to focus on key FTC strategic priorities and operational objectives. So far, so good. Regrettably, the introductory section is the memo’s strongest feature.

Strategic Approach

The VP Memo’s first substantive section, which lays out Khan’s strategic approach, raises questions that require further clarification.

This section is long on glittering generalities. First, it begins with the need to take a “holistic approach” that recognizes law violations harm workers and independent businesses, as well as consumers. Legal violations that reflect “power asymmetries” and harm to “marginalized communities” are emphasized, but not defined. Are new enforcement standards to supplement or displace consumer welfare enhancement being proposed?

Second, similar ambiguity surrounds the need to target enforcement efforts toward “root causes” of unlawful conduct, rather than “one-off effects.” Root causes are said to involve “structural incentives that enable unlawful conduct” (such as conflicts of interest, business models, or structural dominance), as well as “upstream” examination of firms that profit from such conduct. How these observations may be “operationalized” into case-selection criteria (and why these observations are superior to alternative means for spotting illegal behavior) is left unexplained.

Third, the section endorses a more “rigorous and empiricism-driven approach” to the FTC’s work, a “more interdisciplinary approach” that incorporates “a greater range of analytical tools and skillsets.” This recommendation is not problematic on its face, though it is a bit puzzling. The FTC already relies heavily on economics and empirical work, as well as input from technologists, advertising specialists, and other subject matter experts, as required. What other skillsets are being endorsed? (A more far-reaching application of economic thinking in certain consumer-protection cases would be helpful, but one suspects that is not the point of the paragraph.)

Fourth, the need to be especially attentive to next-generation technologies, innovations, and nascent industries is trumpeted. Fine, but the FTC already does that in its competition and consumer-protection investigations.

Finally, the need to “democratize” the agency is highlighted, to keep the FTC in tune with “the real problems that Americans are facing in their daily lives and using that understanding to inform our work.” This statement seems to imply that the FTC is not adequately dealing with “real problems.” The FTC, however, has not been designated by Congress to be a general-purpose problem solver. Rather, the agency has a specific statutory remit to combat anticompetitive activity and unfair acts or practices that harm consumers. Ironically, under Chair Khan, the FTC has abruptly implemented major changes in key areas (including rulemaking, the withdrawal of guidance, and merger-review practices) without prior public input or consultation among the commissioners (see, for example, here)—actions that could be deemed undemocratic.

Policy Priorities

The memo’s brief discussion of Khan’s policy priorities raises three significant concerns.

First, Khan stresses the “need to address rampant consolidation and the dominance that it has enabled across markets” in the areas of merger enforcement and dominant-firm scrutiny. The claim that competition has substantially diminished has been critiqued by leading economists, and is dubious at best (see, for example, here). This flat assertion is jarring, and in tension with the earlier call for more empirical analysis. Khan’s call for revision of the merger guidelines (presumably both horizontal and vertical), in tandem with the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), will be headed for trouble if it departs from the economic reasoning that has informed prior revisions of those guidelines. (The memo’s critical and cryptic reference to the “narrow and outdated framework” of recent guidelines provides no clue as to the new guidelines format that Chair Khan might deem acceptable.) 

Second, the chair supports prioritizing “dominant intermediaries” and “extractive business models,” while raising concerns about “private equity and other investment vehicles” that “strip productive capacity” and “target marginalized communities.” No explanation is given as to why such prioritization will best utilize the FTC’s scarce resources to root out harmful anticompetitive behavior and consumer-protection harms. By assuming from the outset that certain “unsavory actors” merit prioritization, this discussion also is in tension with an empirical approach that dispassionately examines the facts in determining how resources should best be allocated to maximize the benefits of enforcement.

Third, the chair wants to direct special attention to “one-sided contract provisions” that place “[c]onsumers, workers, franchisees, and other market participants … at a significant disadvantage.” Non-competes, repair restrictions, and exclusionary clauses are mentioned as examples. What is missing is a realistic acknowledgement of the legal complications that would be involved in challenging such provisions, and a recognition of possible welfare benefits that such restraints could generate under many circumstances. In that vein, mere perceived inequalities in bargaining power alluded to in the discussion do not, in and of themselves, constitute antitrust or consumer-protection violations.

Operational Objectives

The closing section, on “operational objectives,” is not particularly troublesome. It supports an “integrated approach” to enforcement and policy tools, and endorses “breaking down silos” between competition (BC) and consumer-protection (BCP) staff. (Of course, while greater coordination between BC and BCP occasionally may be desirable, competition and consumer-protection cases will continue to feature significant subject matter and legal differences.) It also calls for greater diversity in recruitment and a greater staffing emphasis on regional offices. Finally, it endorses bringing in more experts from “outside disciplines” and more rigorous analysis of conduct, remedies, and market studies. These points, although not controversial, do not directly come to grip with questions of optimal resource allocation within the agency, which the FTC will have to address.

Evaluating the VP Memo: 4 Key Takeaways

The VP Memo is a highly aggressive call-to-arms that embodies Chair Khan’s full-blown progressive vision for the FTC. There are four key takeaways:

  1. Promoting the consumer interest, which for decades has been the overarching principle in both FTC antitrust and consumer-protection cases (which address different sources of consumer harm), is passé. Protecting consumers is only referred to in passing. Rather, the concerns of workers, “honest businesses,” and “marginalized communities” are emphasized. Courts will, however, continue to focus on established consumer-welfare and consumer-harm principles in ruling on antitrust and consumer-protection cases. If the FTC hopes to have any success in winning future cases based on novel forms of harm, it will have to ensure that its new case-selection criteria also emphasize behavior that harms consumers.
  2. Despite multiple references to empiricism and analytical rigor, the VP Memo ignores the potential economic-welfare benefits of the categories of behavior it singles out for condemnation. The memo’s critiques of “middlemen,” “gatekeepers,” “extractive business models,” “private equity,” and various types of vertical contracts, reference conduct that frequently promotes efficiency, generating welfare benefits for producers and consumers. Even if FTC lawsuits or regulations directed at these practices fail, the business uncertainty generated by the critiques could well disincentivize efficient forms of conduct that spark innovation and economic growth.
  3. The VP Memo in effect calls for new enforcement initiatives that challenge conduct different in nature from FTC cases brought in recent decades. This implicit support for lawsuits that would go well beyond existing judicial interpretations of the FTC’s competition and consumer-protection authority reflects unwarranted hubris. This April, in the AMG case, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected the FTC’s argument that it had implicit authority to obtain monetary relief under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, which authorizes permanent injunctions – despite the fact that several appellate courts had found such authority existed. The Court stated that the FTC could go to Congress if it wanted broader authority. This decision bodes ill for any future FTC efforts to expand its authority into new realms of “unfair” activity through “creative” lawyering.
  4. Chair Khan’s unilateral statement of her policy priorities embodied in the VP Memo bespeaks a lack of humility. It ignores a long history of consensus FTC statements on agency priorities, reflected in numerous commission submissions to congressional committees in connection with oversight hearings. Although commissioners have disagreed on specific policy statements or enforcement complaints, general “big picture” policy statements to congressional overseers typically have been by unanimous vote. By ignoring this tradition, the VP Memo departs from a longstanding bipartisan tradition that will tend to undermine the FTC’s image as a serious deliberative body that seeks to reconcile varying viewpoints (while recognizing that, at times, different positions will be expressed on particular matters). If the FTC acts more and more like a one-person executive agency, why does it need to be “independent,” and, indeed, what special purpose does it serve as a second voice on federal antitrust matters? Under seeming unilateral rule, the prestige of the FTC before federal courts may suffer, undermining its effectiveness in defending enforcement actions and promulgating rules. This will particularly be the case if more and more FTC decisions are taken by a 3-2 vote and appear to reflect little or no consultation with minority commissioners.

Conclusion

The VP Memo reflects a lack of humility and strategic insight. It sets forth priorities that are disconnected from the traditional core of the FTC’s consumer-welfare-centric mission. It emphasizes new sorts of initiatives that are likely to “crash and burn” in the courts, unless they are better anchored to established case law and FTC enforcement principles. As a unilateral missive announcing an unprecedented change in policy direction, the memo also undermines the tradition of collegiality and reasoned debate that generally has characterized the commission’s activities in recent decades.

As such, the memo will undercut, not advance, the effectiveness of FTC advocacy before the courts. It will also undermine the FTC’s reputation as a truly independent deliberative body. Accordingly, one may hope that Chair Khan will rethink her approach, withdraw the VP Memo, and work with all of her fellow commissioners to recraft a new consensus policy document.   

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.

PHOTO: C-Span

Lina Khan’s appointment as chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is a remarkable accomplishment. At 32 years old, she is the youngest chair ever. Her longstanding criticisms of the Consumer Welfare Standard and alignment with the neo-Brandeisean school of thought make her appointment a significant achievement for proponents of those viewpoints. 

Her appointment also comes as House Democrats are preparing to mark up five bills designed to regulate Big Tech and, in the process, vastly expand the FTC’s powers. This expansion may combine with Khan’s appointment in ways that lawmakers considering the bills have not yet considered.

This is a critical time for the FTC. It has lost a number of high-profile lawsuits and is preparing to expand its rulemaking powers to regulate things like employment contracts and businesses’ use of data. Khan has also argued in favor of additional rulemaking powers around “unfair methods of competition.”

As things stand, the FTC under Khan’s leadership is likely to push for more extensive regulatory powers, akin to those held by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). But these expansions would be trivial compared to what is proposed by many of the bills currently being prepared for a June 23 mark-up in the House Judiciary Committee. 

The flagship bill—Rep. David Cicilline’s (D-R.I.) American Innovation and Choice Online Act—is described as a platform “non-discrimination” bill. I have already discussed what the real-world effects of this bill would likely be. Briefly, it would restrict platforms’ ability to offer richer, more integrated services at all, since those integrations could be challenged as “discrimination” at the cost of would-be competitors’ offerings. Things like free shipping on Amazon Prime, pre-installed apps on iPhones, or even including links to Gmail and Google Calendar at the top of a Google Search page could be precluded under the bill’s terms; in each case, there is a potential competitor being undermined. 

In fact, the bill’s scope is so broad that some have argued that the FTC simply would not challenge “innocuous self-preferencing” like, say, Apple pre-installing Apple Music on iPhones. Economist Hal Singer has defended the proposals on the grounds that, “Due to limited resources, not all platform integration will be challenged.” 

But this shifts the focus to the FTC itself, and implies that it would have potentially enormous discretionary power under these proposals to enforce the law selectively. 

Companies found guilty of breaching the bill’s terms would be liable for civil penalties of up to 15 percent of annual U.S. revenue, a potentially significant sum. And though the Supreme Court recently ruled unanimously against the FTC’s powers to levy civil fines unilaterally—which the FTC opposed vociferously, and may get restored by other means—there are two scenarios through which it could end up getting extraordinarily extensive control over the platforms covered by the bill.

The first course is through selective enforcement. What Singer above describes as a positive—the fact that enforcers would just let “benign” violations of the law be—would mean that the FTC itself would have tremendous scope to choose which cases it brings, and might do so for idiosyncratic, politicized reasons.

This approach is common in countries with weak rule of law. Anti-corruption laws are frequently used to punish opponents of the regime in China, who probably are also corrupt, but are prosecuted because they have challenged the regime in some way. Hong Kong’s National Security law has also been used to target peaceful protestors and critical media thanks to its vague and overly broad drafting. 

Obviously, that’s far more sinister than what we’re talking about here. But these examples highlight how excessively broad laws applied at the enforcer’s discretion give broad powers to the enforcer to penalize defendants for other, unrelated things. Or, to quote Jay-Z: “Am I under arrest or should I guess some more? / ‘Well, you was doing 55 in a 54.’

The second path would be to use these powers as leverage to get broad consent decrees to govern the conduct of covered platforms. These occur when a lawsuit is settled, with the defendant company agreeing to change its business practices under supervision of the plaintiff agency (in this case, the FTC). The Cambridge Analytica lawsuit ended this way, with Facebook agreeing to change its data-sharing practices under the supervision of the FTC. 

This path would mean the FTC creating bespoke, open-ended regulation for each covered platform. Like the first path, this could create significant scope for discretionary decision-making by the FTC and potentially allow FTC officials to impose their own, non-economic goals on these firms. And it would require costly monitoring of each firm subject to bespoke regulation to ensure that no breaches of that regulation occurred.

Khan, as a critic of the Consumer Welfare Standard, believes that antitrust ought to be used to pursue non-economic objectives, including “the dispersion of political and economic control.” She, and the FTC under her, may wish to use this discretionary power to prosecute firms that she feels are hurting society for unrelated reasons, such as because of political stances they have (or have not) taken.

Khan’s fellow commissioner, Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, has argued that antitrust should be “antiracist”; that “as long as Black-owned businesses and Black consumers are systematically underrepresented and disadvantaged, we know our markets are not fair”; and that the FTC should consider using its existing rulemaking powers to address racist practices. These may be desirable goals, but their application would require contentious value judgements that lawmakers may not want the FTC to make.

Khan herself has been less explicit about the goals she has in mind, but has given some hints. In her essay “The Ideological Roots of America’s Market Power Problem”, Khan highlights approvingly former Associate Justice William O. Douglas’s account of:

“economic power as inextricably political. Power in industry is the power to steer outcomes. It grants outsized control to a few, subjecting the public to unaccountable private power—and thereby threatening democratic order. The account also offers a positive vision of how economic power should be organized (decentralized and dispersed), a recognition that forms of economic power are not inevitable and instead can be restructured.” [italics added]

Though I have focused on Cicilline’s flagship bill, others grant significant new powers to the FTC, as well. The data portability and interoperability bill doesn’t actually define what “data” is; it leaves it to the FTC to “define the term ‘data’ for the purpose of implementing and enforcing this Act.” And, as I’ve written elsewhere, data interoperability needs significant ongoing regulatory oversight to work at all, a responsibility that this bill also hands to the FTC. Even a move as apparently narrow as data portability will involve a significant expansion of the FTC’s powers and give it a greater role as an ongoing economic regulator.

It is concerning enough that this legislative package would prohibit conduct that is good for consumers, and that actually increases the competition faced by Big Tech firms. Congress should understand that it also gives extensive discretionary powers to an agency intent on using them to pursue broad, political goals. If Khan’s appointment as chair was a surprise, what her FTC does with the new powers given to her by Congress should not be.