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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.

The International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) and TechFreedom filed two joint comments with the FCC today, explaining why the FCC has no sound legal basis for micromanaging the Internet and why “net neutrality” regulation would actually prove counter-productive for consumers.

The Policy Comments are available here, and the Legal Comments are here. See our previous post, Net Neutrality Regulation Is Bad for Consumers and Probably Illegal, for a distillation of many of the key points made in the comments.

New regulation is unnecessary. “An open Internet and the idea that companies can make special deals for faster access are not mutually exclusive,” said Geoffrey Manne, Executive Director of ICLE. “If the Internet really is ‘open,’ shouldn’t all companies be free to experiment with new technologies, business models and partnerships?”

“The media frenzy around this issue assumes that no one, apart from broadband companies, could possibly question the need for more regulation,” said Berin Szoka, President of TechFreedom. “In fact, increased regulation of the Internet will incite endless litigation, which will slow both investment and innovation, thus harming consumers and edge providers.”

Title II would be a disaster. The FCC has proposed re-interpreting the Communications Act to classify broadband ISPs under Title II as common carriers. But reinterpretation might unintentionally ensnare edge providers, weighing them down with onerous regulations. “So-called reclassification risks catching other Internet services in the crossfire,” explained Szoka. “The FCC can’t easily forbear from Title II’s most onerous rules because the agency has set a high bar for justifying forbearance. Rationalizing a changed approach would be legally and politically difficult. The FCC would have to simultaneously find the broadband market competitive enough to forbear, yet fragile enough to require net neutrality rules. It would take years to sort out this mess — essentially hitting the pause button on better broadband.”

Section 706 is not a viable option. In 2010, the FCC claimed Section 706 as an independent grant of authority to regulate any form of “communications” not directly barred by the Act, provided only that the Commission assert that regulation would somehow promote broadband. “This is an absurd interpretation,” said Szoka. “This could allow the FCC to essentially invent a new Communications Act as it goes, regulating not just broadband, but edge companies like Google and Facebook, too, and not just neutrality but copyright, cybersecurity and more. The courts will eventually strike down this theory.”

A better approach. “The best policy would be to maintain the ‘Hands off the Net’ approach that has otherwise prevailed for 20 years,” said Manne. “That means a general presumption that innovative business models and other forms of ‘prioritization’ are legal. Innovation could thrive, and regulators could still keep a watchful eye, intervening only where there is clear evidence of actual harm, not just abstract fears.” “If the FCC thinks it can justify regulating the Internet, it should ask Congress to grant such authority through legislation,” added Szoka. “A new communications act is long overdue anyway. The FCC could also convene a multistakeholder process to produce a code enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission,” he continued, noting that the White House has endorsed such processes for setting Internet policy in general.

Manne concluded: “The FCC should focus on doing what Section 706 actually commands: clearing barriers to broadband deployment. Unleashing more investment and competition, not writing more regulation, is the best way to keep the Internet open, innovative and free.”

For some of our other work on net neutrality, see:

“Understanding Net(flix) Neutrality,” an op-ed by Geoffrey Manne in the Detroit News on Netflix’s strategy to confuse interconnection costs with neutrality issues.

“The Feds Lost on Net Neutrality, But Won Control of the Internet,” an op-ed by Berin Szoka and Geoffrey Manne in Wired.com.

“That startup investors’ letter on net neutrality is a revealing look at what the debate is really about,” a post by Geoffrey Manne in Truth on the Market.

Bipartisan Consensus: Rewrite of ‘96 Telecom Act is Long Overdue,” a post on TF’s blog highlighting the key points from TechFreedom and ICLE’s joint comments on updating the Communications Act.

The Net Neutrality Comments are available here:

ICLE/TF Net Neutrality Policy Comments

TF/ICLE Net Neutrality Legal Comments

With Berin Szoka.

TechFreedom and the International Center for Law & Economics will shortly file two joint comments with the FCC, explaining why the FCC has no sound legal basis for micromanaging the Internet—now called “net neutrality regulation”—and why such regulation would be counter-productive as a policy matter. The following summarizes some of the key points from both sets of comments.

No one’s against an open Internet. The notion that anyone can put up a virtual shingle—and that the good ideas will rise to the top—is a bedrock principle with broad support; it has made the Internet essential to modern life. Key to Internet openness is the freedom to innovate. An open Internet and the idea that companies can make special deals for faster access are not mutually exclusive. If the Internet really is “open,” shouldn’t all companies be free to experiment with new technologies, business models and partnerships? Shouldn’t the FCC allow companies to experiment in building the unknown—and unknowable—Internet of the future?

The best approach would be to maintain the “Hands off the Net” approach that has otherwise prevailed for 20 years. That means a general presumption that innovative business models and other forms of “prioritization” are legal. Innovation could thrive, and regulators could still keep a watchful eye, intervening only where there is clear evidence of actual harm, not just abstract fears. And they should start with existing legal tools—like antitrust and consumer protection laws—before imposing prior restraints on innovation.

But net neutrality regulation hurts more than it helps. Counterintuitively, a blanket rule that ISPs treat data equally could actually harm consumers. Consider the innovative business models ISPs are introducing. T-Mobile’s unRadio lets users listen to all the on-demand music and radio they want without taking a hit against their monthly data plan. Yet so-called consumer advocates insist that’s a bad thing because it favors some content providers over others. In fact, “prioritizing” one service when there is congestion frees up data for subscribers to consume even more content—from whatever source. You know regulation may be out of control when a company is demonized for offering its users a freebie.

Treating each bit of data neutrally ignores the reality of how the Internet is designed, and how consumers use it.  Net neutrality proponents insist that all Internet content must be available to consumers neutrally, whether those consumers (or content providers) want it or not. They also argue against usage-based pricing. Together, these restrictions force all users to bear the costs of access for other users’ requests, regardless of who actually consumes the content, as the FCC itself has recognized:

[P]rohibiting tiered or usage-based pricing and requiring all subscribers to pay the same amount for broadband service, regardless of the performance or usage of the service, would force lighter end users of the network to subsidize heavier end users. It would also foreclose practices that may appropriately align incentives to encourage efficient use of networks.

The rules that net neutrality advocates want would hurt startups as well as consumers. Imagine a new entrant, clamoring for market share. Without the budget for a major advertising blitz, the archetypical “next Netflix” might never get the exposure it needs to thrive. But for a relatively small fee, the startup could sign up to participate in a sponsored data program, with its content featured and its customers’ data usage exempted from their data plans. This common business strategy could mean the difference between success and failure for a startup. Yet it would be prohibited by net neutrality rules banning paid prioritization.

The FCC lacks sound legal authority. The FCC is essentially proposing to do what can only properly be done by Congress: invent a new legal regime for broadband. Each of the options the FCC proposes to justify this—Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act and common carrier classification—is deeply problematic.

First, Section 706 isn’t sustainable. Until 2010, the FCC understood Section 706 as a directive to use its other grants of authority to promote broadband deployment. But in its zeal to regulate net neutrality, the FCC reversed itself in 2010, claiming Section 706 as an independent grant of authority. This would allow the FCC to regulate any form of “communications” in any way not directly barred by the Act — not just broadband but “edge” companies like Google and Facebook. This might mean going beyond neutrality to regulate copyright, cybersecurity and more. The FCC need only assert that regulation would somehow promote broadband.

If Section 706 is a grant of authority, it’s almost certainly a power to deregulate. But even if its power is as broad as the FCC claims, the FCC still hasn’t made the case that, on balance, its proposed regulations would actually do what it asserts: promote broadband. The FCC has stubbornly refused to conduct serious economic analysis on the net effects of its neutrality rules.

And Title II would be a disaster. The FCC has asked whether Title II of the Act, which governs “common carriers” like the old monopoly telephone system, is a workable option. It isn’t.

In the first place, regulations that impose design limitations meant for single-function networks simply aren’t appropriate for the constantly evolving Internet. Moreover, if the FCC re-interprets the Communications Act to classify broadband ISPs as common carriers, it risks catching other Internet services in the cross-fire, inadvertently making them common carriers, too. Surely net neutrality proponents can appreciate the harmful effects of treating Skype as a common carrier.

Forbearance can’t clean up the Title II mess. In theory the FCC could “forbear” from Title II’s most onerous rules, promising not to apply them when it determines there’s enough competition in a market to make the rules unnecessary. But the agency has set a high bar for justifying forbearance.

Most recently, in 2012, the Commission refused to grant Qwest forbearance even in the highly competitive telephony market, disregarding competition from wireless providers, and concluding that a cable-telco “duopoly” is inadequate to protect consumers. It’s unclear how the FCC could justify reaching the opposite conclusion about the broadband market—simultaneously finding it competitive enough to forbear, yet fragile enough to require net neutrality rules. Such contradictions would be difficult to explain, even if the FCC generally gets discretion on changing its approach.

But there is another path forward. If the FCC can really make the case for regulation, it should go to Congress, armed with the kind of independent economic and technical expert studies Commissioner Pai has urged, and ask for new authority. A new Communications Act is long overdue anyway. In the meantime, the FCC could convene the kind of multistakeholder process generally endorsed by the White House to produce a code enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission. A consensus is possible — just not inside the FCC, where the policy questions can’t be separated from the intractable legal questions.

Meanwhile, the FCC should focus on doing what Section 706 actually demands: clearing barriers to broadband deployment and competition. The 2010 National Broadband Plan laid out an ambitious pro-deployment agenda. It’s just too bad the FCC was so obsessed with net neutrality that it didn’t focus on the plan. Unleashing more investment and competition, not writing more regulation, is the best way to keep the Internet open, innovative and free.

[Cross-posted at TechFreedom.]

By Geoffrey Manne and Berin Szoka

A debate is brewing in Congress over whether to allow the Federal Trade Commission to sidestep decades of antitrust case law and economic theory to define, on its own, when competition becomes “unfair.” Unless Congress cancels the FTC’s blank check, uncertainty about the breadth of the agency’s power will chill innovation, especially in the tech sector. And sadly, there’s no reason to believe that such expansive power will serve consumers.

Last month, Senators and Congressmen of both parties sent a flurry of letters to the FTC warning against overstepping the authority Congress granted the agency in 1914 when it enacted Section 5 of the FTC Act. FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz has long expressed a desire to stake out new antitrust authority under Section 5 over unfair methods of competition that would otherwise be legal under the Sherman and Clayton antitrust acts. He seems to have had Google in mind as a test case.

On Monday, Congressmen John Conyers and Mel Watt, the top two Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, issued their own letter telling us not to worry about the larger principle at stake. The two insist that “concerns about the use of Section 5 are unfounded” because “[w]ell established legal principles set forth by the Supreme Court provide ample authority for the FTC to address potential competitive concerns in the relevant market, including search.” The second half of that sentence is certainly true: the FTC doesn’t need a “standalone” Section 5 case to protect consumers from real harms to competition. But that doesn’t mean the FTC won’t claim such authority—and, unfortunately, there’s little by way of “established legal principles” stop the agency from overreaching. Continue Reading…

We are delighted to report that the ABA Business Law Section has posthumously awarded Larry Ribstein its Martin I. Lubaroff Award, presented annually to a lawyer who has consistently demonstrated leadership, scholarship, and outstanding service in LLCs, Partnerships and Unincorporated Entities law.  That describes no one so well as Larry.

The award was established in 2001 to honor the memory of Marty Lubaroff who untimely passed away on January 1, 2001. Marty was the quintessential lawyer–careful, thorough, exacting, engaging, insightful, precise, provocative and persistent, while gentle, kind and courteous. He was a good friend and mentor to scores of lawyers in Delaware and throughout the United States. Marty was a long-time member of, and key participant in, the LLCs, Partnerships and Unincorporated Entities Committee. He chaired the Limited Partnerships Subcommittee at the time of his death.

Larry’s influence continues to be felt and acknowledged.  In addition to the GMU Law & Economics Center conference Josh mentioned, the Illinois College of Law is honoring Larry with a conference and memorial fund of its own:

In recognition and celebration of Professor Ribstein’s innumerous contributions to legal scholarship and the academy, the College of Law will host a conference in October 2013, the proceedings of which will be published in a special edition of theUniversity of Illinois Law Review. And in honor of Professor Ribstein’s incredible influence on students, colleagues, and the legal profession, the College has established The Larry E. Ribstein Memorial Fund. The Fund will be used to support a series of initiatives to advance the intellectual life of the University of Illinois College of Law, including a signature lecture series, workshops for junior faculty members, and innovations designed to more effectively bridge the worlds of legal theory and legal practice.

The WSJ Law Blog reports that New York Supreme Court Justice Marcy Friedman held that a former Holland & Knight partner wasn’t an employee under city and state anti-discrimination laws and therefore wasn’t entitled to age discrimination protection for his expulsion at age 55. 

Per the Law Blog’s summary, the ex-“partner” argued that he was “utterly unable to influence the firm to do much of anything” (which will ring true to many law partners). But the Justice reasoned that plaintiff “offered no evidence to show that he didn’t have a stake in Holland & Knight, or that he didn’t have a right to elect managing partners or directors.”

A few years ago I blogged an overview of the vague and confused law on the subject, including the views of Judges Easterbrook and Posner in an important case, and the leading Supreme Court opinion.  For the full and up-to-date examination, see Bromberg & Ribstein, §2.02(b)(2).  

Until the Court clarifies the law (as Judge Easterbrook sought to do), these cases will multiply as Big Law disintegrates, dumping partners along the way.

Should domestic relationships be modeled on corporations, partnerships or other business associations?  This idea may seem attractive.  As I have argued, both business and family relationships can be viewed as standard forms, which are useful for filling gaps in long-term contractual relationships.  Borrowing contract-type thinking from business associations also could help break through the norm-driven rigidity of family law.  Thus, I have argued (here, and in Chapter 8 of The Law Market) for using business associations as a model for a choice-of-law approach to same sex marriage.

My writing got me an invitation to the very interesting “Love or Money” conference at Washington University, which explored “the false dichotomy in life and law between activities initiated for affective reasons, such as love or altruistic impulses, and those undertaken for profit.” 

But I probably disappointed the organizers by insisting on some “dichotomy” — that is, a separation between the statutory standard forms used for “love” (intimate relationships) and for “money” (business associations).  My point is that merging the two, while it may have political advantages, could muddy both legal areas.  This is based on my theory of the functions of these standard forms articulated in several papers, and most completely in my book, Rise of the Uncorporation

My paper from that long-ago conference, Incorporating the Hendricksons, has finally been published.  (Of course the title refers to much missed Big Love). Here’s the abstract:

The family is evolving rapidly, but not fast enough for some people. Several commentators suggest freeing family law of its traditional constraints by applying the contractual business association model. Business models, though superficially similar to domestic relationships, ultimately are unhelpful or counter-productive to defining the family. This Article discusses the essential differences between business and domestic partnerships and the potential havoc from trying to merge the two.

One nice result of the conference and paper is that I finally got to use this title for a blog post.

A recently published on-line symposium calls needed attention to Delaware Chief Justice Myron Steele’s remarkable article, Freedom of Contract and Default Contractual Duties in the Delaware Limited Partnerships and Limited Liability Companies, 46 Am. Bus. L.J. 221 (2009) (no free link available).

The Chief Justice makes an argument that is guaranteed to shock traditional business association scholars:  that there should be no default fiduciary duty in Delaware LLCs or limited partnerships.  According to the CJ, this would effectuate “Delaware’s strong policy favoring freedom of contract.”

CJ Steele notes that there are no fiduciary duties currently in the LLC statute, providing no basis for implying duties from the standard form.  This argument is less clear for limited partnerships, which link to the general partnership act’s duty of loyalty in §15-404. The Chief Justice argues that the freedom of contract provision in §17-1101 effectively negates this duty.  Although default duties arguably are preserved by reference in this provision, freedom of contract may trumps a nebulous default.

The ambiguity about default duties calls for application of policy considerations. The Chief Justice relies significantly on my writing, particularly Are Partners Fiduciaries? (for a more recent version of my theory see Fencing Fiduciary Duties).  I argue for narrowly construing default fiduciary duties because of the extra transaction and other costs associated with broad duties. In other articles [see, e.g., Larry E. Ribstein, Fiduciary Duty Contracts in Unincorporated Firms, 54 WASH. & LEE L. REV. 537 (1997) also cited by the Chief Justice] I have argued that the parties ought to be able to narrow default duties by contract.

The Chief Justice builds on these policies to take the extra step of leaving it to the parties to contractually define fiduciary duties from scratch. Here’s his reasoning in a nutshell (46 Am. Bus. L. J. 239-40) (footnotes omitted):

Professor Larry Ribstein has written extensively on the economic costs and benefits of fiduciary duties. Professor Ribstein explains that “the existence of default fiduciary duties depends solely on the structure of the parties’ relationship that is, on the terms of their express or implied contract — and not on any vulnerability arising other than from this structure.” Specifically, for LLCs, Ribstein sets forth three economic rationales to narrowly define fiduciary duties.

First, according to Ribstein, even where fiduciary duties have some benefits, those benefits are outweighed by costs such as “effect on the purported fiduciary’s incentives and the reduction of trust or reciprocity from substituting legal duties for extralegal constraints.” In particular, Ribstein notes, “courts often ignore the costs of fiduciary duties perhaps because these costs matter most in the cases that do not get to court, and therefore seem insignificant compared to the unfairness in the case being litigated.” Second, Ribstein argues that “there are benefits to clearly delineating the situations in which fiduciary duties apply, including minimizing litigation and contracting costs and effecting extralegal conduct norms.” Third, and finally, Ribstein concludes that “a narrow approach to fiduciary duties inheres in the contractual nature of such duties.” Ribstein warns that “[a]pplying fiduciary duties broadly threatens to undermine parties’ contracts by imposing obligations the parties do not want or expect.”

Professor Ribstein’s thoughtful analysis also applies to default fiduciary duties. In particular, the cost of applying any default fiduciary duty is outweighed by its benefit. First, default fiduciary duties add unnecessary costs to contracting. Second, default fiduciary duties also add unexpected litigation costs. Finally, any benefit to default fiduciary duties is limited because the LLC, by its nature, is designed to be a highly customized vehicle, determined primarily by contract. A critic to my cost-benefit analysis will invariably argue: (1) there is no cost to default fiduciary duties because the LLC statute provides that parties may eliminate any default duties and (2) parties benefit from fiduciary duties because they expect them and need not contract for them. However, I will demonstrate why those criticisms are misplaced.

First, default fiduciary duties add unnecessary contracting costs. The nebulous nature of default fiduciary duties makes it difficult for parties to eliminate some, but not all, potential fiduciary duties. * * * If we assume no default fiduciary duties, the parties need only explicitly provide for a self-dealing proscription. The contract is much easier to draft, and the parties have more confidence that they adequately provided for that ban without also introducing other unwanted fiduciary duties.

A question remains: how often will parties want to remove the default fiduciary duties? If, for the most part, parties simply intend to keep the default fiduciary duties, then it would be less costly for parties to contract. However, if we proceed from the baseline of no default fiduciary duty, adding in a wholesale provision adopting Delaware’s fiduciary duty principles could also be easily achieved — without much cost. As I described in the last paragraph, this will benefit the parties who intend to adopt a discrete number of those duties because it will be less costly to contract for those limited duties. Moreover, by adopting an LLC, the parties have consciously chosen to use a highly customizable vehicle–in so choosing, we naturally infer that the parties intend customization.

Second, default fiduciary duties introduce unexpected litigation expenses. Without default fiduciary duties, the parties’ litigation will focus solely on the agreement between them–and not on fiduciary duty principles outside of the contract. * * *

In light of those potential costs, the courts must also weigh them against any benefits to applying default fiduciary duties. Professor Ribstein explains that “[i]n general, this is a matter of articulating standard form terms to minimize contracting costs. It is difficult and expensive for parties to enter into customized contracts covering all of the details of a long-term agency-type relationship.” However, it is important to remember that in the context of an LLC that the parties have specifically chosen to use an LLC agreement, which provides contractual flexibility, and have bargained for the relevant provisions in this agreement. Thus, it does not necessarily follow that default fiduciary duty principles will more accurately reflect the parties’ intent rather than principles of contract interpretation. Instead, because the parties chose a Delaware LLC and because the Delaware judiciary is skilled in resolving difficult issues of contract interpretation, the opposite conclusion is likely true, that is, parties would prefer Delaware courts to determine their rights and duties in accordance with the terms of the contract and not an unbargained-for default fiduciary principle. Moreover, if the parties intended to apply traditional fiduciary duties to their relationship, they could easily add a provision stating precisely that in the agreement.

The Chief Justice has a point.  I grappled with the problem of contracting around default duties in my Uncorporation and Corporate Indeterminacy (at 165, footnotes omitted):

Vice Chancellor Strine’s admonition to lawyers not to address fiduciary duties “coyly” could require such careful and costly drafting that it makes fiduciary duties in effect mandatory. Even a moderate  insistence on careful drafting could put fiduciary duty waivers out of the reach of smaller firms. In other words, by making very skilled drafting the price of avoiding indeterminacy, Delaware’s uncorporate law may be trading lower litigation costs for higher fees to transactional lawyers. This may reserve the benefits of the uncorporate approach only for the largest and most sophisticated uncorporations.

In other words, the current Delaware approach achieves free contracting at significant cost.  Chief Justice Steele’s approach may be the best way to deal with that problem. 

The important question is whether there will be many parties who (1) fail to contract fully regarding fiduciary duties; and (2) expect a certain level of fiduciary duties to apply.  If both apply, then eliminating default fiduciary duties could defeat expectations and increase litigation by frustrated LLC members. The Chief Justice’s response  is that parties to Delaware LLCs know they’re getting a contractual regime and therefore are getting what they expect.  In other words, the market for LLC law offers a potential opportunity to contract not only out of default duties, but also away from the existence of default rules.

The brief articles in the symposium by Ann Conaway, Bill Callison & Allan Vestal, Carter Bishop, Dan Kleinberger, and Louis Hering take both sides of the issue, but do not, in my opinion, fully grapple with CJ Steele’s (and my) policy arguments.  Unfortunately I didn’t have an opportunity to participate in this symposium (not sure why, since after all the Chief Justice does rely on me!) so I haven’t had a chance to insert a full-fledged version of my thinking into the debate. I plan to write at more length on this, but wanted to take this opportunity to opine on the important issues raised by the Chief Justice while the iron was hot.

Geoff Manne’s blog on the FCC’s Staff Analysis and Findings (“Staff Report”) has inspired me to come up with a top ten list. The Staff Report relies heavily on concentration indices to make inferences about a carrier’s pricing power, even though direct evidence of pricing power is available (and points in the opposite direction). In this post, I have chosen ten lines from the Staff Report that reveal the weakness of the economic analysis and suggest a potential regulatory agenda. It is clear that the staff want T-Mobile’s spectrum to land in the hands of a suitor other than AT&T—the government apparently can allocate scare resources better than the market—and that the report’s authors define the public interest as locking AT&T’s spectrum holdings in place.

Top Ten Lines in the Staff Report

  1. “While there is more to establishing likely competitive harms than measuring market and spectrum concentration, these [concentration] metrics shed light on the scope and scale of the competition that would be eliminated by the proposed transaction.” Staff Report, para. 17. An important admission. The staff is signaling that the merger analysis cannot begin and end with a concentration analysis. The Staff Report fails to explain, however, what more is needed to establish anticompetitive effects. The answer is direct evidence that the merging firms significantly constrain each other’s ability to raise prices. And the Staff Report fails on this score.
  2. “Second, the proposed transaction would result in the elimination of a nationwide rival that has played the role of a disruptive competitive force in the marketplace.” Staff Report, para. 17. Setting aside the weakness of the claim that T-Mobile—the only major carrier to lose subscribers in 2010—is a disruptive force, the Staff Report fails to explain how T-Mobile’s supposed disruption has anything to do with the instant merger. Is the staff saying that T-Mobile is so disruptive and so irreplaceable that any merger eliminating T-Mobile would be anticompetitive? The Staff Report’s “disruptive” evidence, chronicled from paragraphs 21 through 28, could be regurgitated in a Sprint/T-Mobile merger review or in a Leap/T-Mobile review. Would those mergers be presumptively anticompetitive as well? Critically, the evidence of T-Mobile being a disruptive force does not speak to the issue of whether T-Mobile constrains the price of AT&T.
  3. “Market concentration statistics of the type generated by this transaction commonly indicate that buyers would have fewer viable choices, making both unilateral and coordinated competitive effects more likely.” Whether concentration statistics indicate anticompetitive effects in general or in a hypothetical U.S. market is beside the point. What matters here is whether concentration statistics are a good predictor of higher wireless prices. And the answer is a resounding no. As the former chief economist of the FCC has noted in a forthcoming paper, wireless concentration is negatively correlated with wireless prices. At a minimum, the FCC should note this finding—the abstract has been viewed nearly 1500 times and the full paper has been downloaded 250 times from SSRN—and provide the proper caveats to any concentration analysis they conduct regarding the wireless industry.
  4. “Although T-Mobile faces challenges as the industry develops and responds to the increasing data demands of consumers, the record does not support the bleak short-term outlook for T-Mobile that AT&T has portrayed in its submissions.” Staff Report, para. 22. To say that T-Mobile faces challenges is an understatement: T-Mobile is uniquely losing subscribers and its German owners want out of the U.S. market. How can the agency better predict the short-term outlook for T-Mobile? Is there a crystal ball in the FCC’s basement? If the short-term were as rosy as the agency suggests, then why would T-Mobile’s owners—who presumably have the best vantage on the firm’s future performance—seek a buyer right before a turnaround in performance?
  5. “These initiatives [announced by T-Mobile’s CEO before the transaction] might have strengthened T-Mobile’s disruptive role in the industry, for example by highlighting its unlimited data plans, and using them to define its brand and differentiate it from rival brands that have adopted tiered pricing.” Staff Report, para. 23. How can T-Mobile go from a disruptive force to an even stronger disruptive force? You can’t be half-pregnant, and you can’t be half-disruptive. It seems that the Staff Report is now saying that T-Mobile would have been disruptive but for the transaction, which caused T-Mobile to abandon these really stupendous plans. According to footnote 61, these initiatives were announced in a T-Mobile press release on January 20, 2011. But the agency doesn’t bother to see how the market reacted to these initiatives. It is curious that the agency would stake its disruptive claims on something so speculative.
  6. “T-Mobile has also repeatedly acted as a pricing innovator over the past few years, introducing offers such as . . .  T-Mobile introduced a simple online tool that allows a subscriber to manage all services on a multi-line family plan, for example, setting and changing the limits for minutes, messages and downloads (e.g., games, ring tones) on a child’s line.” Staff Report, para. 24. According to the Staff Report, this “innovation” is among the seven most disruptive offerings from T-Mobile since 2007. Seriously? Is this impressive to anyone out there? Even assuming T-Mobile was the first to allow wireless users to adjust their settings online, how in the world did that constrain AT&T’s ability to set prices? The other innovations cited in the Staff Report are equally unimpressive. How well did that Unlimited Hotspot Calling or T-Mobile Hotspot @Home work out? If none of the major carriers embrace an offering like those, can we safely infer that they weren’t so innovative? If you want to make free Wi-Fi calls on your phone, download Viber. Yawn.
  7. “[O]ur analysis of the record reflects that T-Mobile charges lower prices than the other nationwide firms.” Staff Report, para. 25. Apparently, the staff doesn’t want you to know that T-Mobile had its legs cut out by regional carriers such as Leap and MetroPCS. Indeed, T-Mobile’s executives have admitted as much publicly, explaining how it was caught between the high-end service of AT&T and Verizon and the low-end, no-frills service of Leap and MetroPCS. And no firm wants to be caught in the middle of the road. Speaking of being caught, the staff should not offer such misleading statistics. To make things concrete, in Washington D.C., T-Mobile offers a $39.99 per month plan that includes 500 minutes of voice and no text messages. In comparison, Leap offers a $35 per month plan that has unlimited voice minutes and includes text messages. But the Staff Report wouldn’t count Leap’s offering because Leap is not a “national” carrier, despite Leap’s offering wireless service in 35 states covering 100 million people.
  8. “T-Mobile expressed interest [in selling wholesale access to Cablevision], had previously exhibited a willingness to sell wholesale mobile wireless capacity, and, in Cablevision’s view, was likely to continue to have excess capacity it could use to serve Cablevision’s customers in the future. Although the outcome of any negotiation is uncertain, a deal between Cablevision and T-Mobile appeared to be beneficial to both parties.” Staff Report, para. 28. The staff here wants us to believe that in addition to the proposed merger undercutting T-Mobile’s initiatives to revamp the firm, the proposed transaction would undercut a prospective deal with Cablevision that would ostensibly bring benefits to Cablevision’s customers in parts of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Well now this all makes sense: Stop a merger that could generate benefits to AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s nationwide customers to preserve Cablevision’s option to offer a quad-play to its customers in three states. Kudos to the cable lobbyists for getting their client’s concerns front and center in the FCC’s merger analysis. Setting aside the uncertainty surrounding the actual wholesale discussion that Cablevision and T-Mobile may or may not have entertained, the Staff Report suggests incorrectly that Cablevision depends uniquely on T-Mobile for spectrum, and that Cablevision’s customers would benefit significantly from having a sixth or seventh wireless option. As further evidence of how out of touch the Staff Report is from market realities, Verizon just announced that it was purchasing all of the AWS spectrum held by several cable companies, a market reality inconsistent with the staff’s views that T-Mobile’s innovative future lay in partnerships with cable companies.
  9. “Combined, these five regional providers accounted for approximately six percent of the industry’s total subscribers and revenues at the end of 2010. None of these providers’ networks cover more than 34 percent of the U.S. population, and for most their more advanced broadband networks are smaller.” Staff Report, para. 38. Because these regional providers do not have the potential to serve 100 percent of the U.S. population, it makes no sense to denominate their size in terms of nationwide subscribers. Doing so necessarily understates their importance in the local markets they serve. By way of analogy, Comcast’s in-region share of video subscribers or “video penetration” is roughly 44 percent, whereas its share of nationwide video subscribers is roughly 25 percent. Of course, the latter statistic bears no relation to Comcast’s pricing power. Moreover, while Leap or MetroPCS alone do not cover a majority of the nation, their roaming agreement (and complementary footprints) allows each firm to provide nationwide coverage. Again, the Staff Report appears to be playing fast and loose with the data.
  10. “AT&T’s unilateral incentive to raise price in this case arises because providers sell differentiated products, and many of AT&T’s customers view T-Mobile as their second choice at current prices. . . . Local number porting data (data on where customers go when they switch wireless providers while keeping their phone number) indicate that each of them [the major carriers] has customers who view T-Mobile products as their second choice.” Staff Report, para. 50. What does “many” mean in this context? And what does it mean to have at least some customers who switched to T-Mobile? Could “many” AT&T customers mean five percent? Any share less than T-Mobile’s probability-adjusted market share of roughly 16 percent (equal to T-Mobile’s share divided by 100 less AT&T’s share) would not be evidence of significant cross-price elasticity between AT&T and Sprint. The Staff Report later defines “many” as “a non-trivial fraction of AT&T’s customers.” But why is the standard so low? Later the Staff Report claims that “a substantial fraction” of AT&T customers switched to T-Mobile, and did so “in response to changes in the relative price of T-Mobile products and the introduction of new T-Mobile products.” Setting aside its loose standard (from “many” to “non-trivial” to “substantial”) of economic significance, porting data cannot tell you why a customer switched from one carrier to another. To assess cross-price elasticity, one must estimate an econometric model using customer-level wireless bills, which the Staff Report does not do. Finally, to bolster its evidence of cross-price elasticity, the Staff Report cites a T-Mobile “Losing Your Shirt” advertising campaign targeting AT&T’s customers. That T-Mobile aspired to attract AT&T customers does not constitute evidence that T-Mobile actually disciplines AT&T’s prices. Many computer companies aspire to topple Apple, but that doesn’t make it so.

As you digest these criticisms, think of how an economic expert could defend these statements upon cross examination. Although the authors of the report will never be subjected to such an exam, it is a bit surprising that such bald and unsupported statements could survive the cutting-room floor.

Today’s WSJ covers the Howrey bankruptcy and specifically the ex-partners’ and their new firms’ potential liabilities for unfinished business taken from Howrey.

As the article says, Howrey’s bankruptcy trustee, the custodian of its claims under state law, “has the right to sue for profits generated by work that partners started at their old law firms and took to their new positions, such as continuing cases.” The defendants can include the new firms the partners joined, including Dewey & LeBoeuf, Baker Botts and Arent Fox, which “may have the deepest pockets.”

This may be Howrey’s most important asset because, according to the old saw the article quotes, a law firm’s “most valuable assets of a law firm go home every night.”

A similar fight is happening over the remains of Heller Erhman.  The article says that the defendant law firms in the Heller case are “arguing that clients have a right to take their business where they choose.”

Of course that’s true, but it doesn’t end the legal complications.  As discussed in The Source, §7.08(e) (footnotes omitted):

All of the partners of the dissolved firm, however, are generally entitled to share in fees for pre-dissolution work-in-process paid after dissolution to the dissolved partnership or to withdrawing partners, even if the client has exercised a right to discharge the attorney or attorneys who are sharing in the fees.* * *

Moreover, depending on the applicable law, the partner or firm completing the case may not be entitled to extra compensation for completing the case.  Rather, the case is treated as an asset of the prior firm and shared among the partners of that firm on the same basis that they shared fees while the firm was still alive.  As discussed in Bromberg & Ribstein, this reflects the difficulty of figuring out an alternative basis for dividing the free, the assumption that the partnership continues on the pre-dissolution basis until winding up is completed, and the need to encourage partners to stay with the firm.  Of course there are strong policy arguments on the other side:  giving partners freedom to move and the risks to the client if the lawyer isn’t paid for extra work.

But note that these are only default rules.  Thus, my book notes (footnotes omitted):

The partners can and should anticipate the above problems in their agreement. The partners should be careful to define the situations in which the work-in-process provision applies.

Often, however, there is no clear agreement, and the lawyers and their lawyers are left to hash out the issues at substantial cost.

I have two questions:

  1. Would it really be so bad if the practice of law were put on sounder financial footing by permitting non-lawyer capital? These bankruptcies illustrate the instability and insubstantiality of these weak cooperatives we call “firms.”  See Death of Big Law.  The dissolutions are likely to increase as Big Law devolves, and clients are caught in the middle.
  2. Why aren’t these matters dealt with more definitively in agreements among lawyers who write agreements for others for a living?

Steve Bainbridge invites my opinion of Delaware lawyer Edward McNally’s view that alternative entities “may not protect investors.” By “alternative entities” he is referring to limited liability companies and limited partnerships, despite his own recognition that they “have become the preferred form of entity for new businesses” (so why aren’t corporations “alternative entities”)? He uses as the text for his sermon VC Noble’s recent opinion in Brinckerhoff v. Enbridge Energy Co. involving the interpretation of a broad fiduciary duty waiver.

McNally says that “the lack of a uniform governance structure in these alternative entities may cause problems” when there are outside investors. He argues that broad fiduciary waivers may result in investors not being adequately paid for the risks they’re taking because “it seems doubtful that those risks can ever be adequately anticipated.” By contrast

corporate entities with much more standardized governance norms with greater investor protection have long flourished and raised capital. The corporate governance form benefits from its predictability and presumably raised capital effectively without the added risk of unpredictable governance provisions. Thus, the theoretical justification for letting alternative entities be governed loosely [that investors are paid for the risks they take] may not be valid.

Moreover, he says, the parties may not know for sure whether the waiver is effective.  He cites the following example:

Years ago, we had a case where a master limited partnership’s 60-page operating agreement attempted in great detail to spell out how to handle conflict of interest transactions involving its general partner. After consulting a national legal expert on limited partnerships, the general partner bought limited partnership interests following what it thought was the correct process. It was promptly sued, lost and paid millions of dollars in damages. The court held it followed the wrong process, and in doing so had breached its duty to the partnership. Complexity has its own risks.

He concludes that this is why “few alternative entities have been used as a vehicle to issue publicly traded securities, such as limited partnerships or membership interests.”

McNally repeatedly refers to the entity involved in Brinckerhoff as an “LLP.”  These are the initials for a “limited liability partnership,” which is a form of general partnership.  However, the entity in the case is a limited partnership, or “LP.”   He also confuses the “good faith” duty, a fiduciary duty which the agreement in Brinckerhoff added, with the “implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing,” a non-waivable rule of contractual interpretation under Delaware law.

Apart from these technical glitches, I question McNally’s reasoning.  As to his claim of unpredictability, as I have discussed at some length, Delaware alternative entities are actually a way to avoid the more serious indeterminacy problem in corporate law. McNally’s illustration of uncorporate unpredictability is unpersuasive.  Maybe the general partner’s legal advisor was wrong, or the court erred.  Both can also happen in corporate practice. Anyway, he says this happened “years ago.”  Delaware uncorporate jurisprudence has developed rapidly in recent years, as the Brinckerhoff case itself illustrates.

Now let’s examine the case.  A pipeline partnership found itself mid-project at the nadir of the finaical crisis.  Its controller offered to invest.  A special committee negotiated a deal and hired legal and financial advisors to evaluate it.  They determined that it met the agreement’s “arms length” value standard for deals with affiliates. The court held this was not bad faith. The court noted (n. 39):

Although on some level the [agreement] may appear problematic for the simple reason that the controller of a limited partnership’s general partner is engaging in a transaction with the limited partnership, the LPA anticipates such transactions. Moreover, if the Court were to determine that [plaintiff] could state a claim that Enbridge [the defendant controlling party] acted in bad faith even though Enbridge negotiated the JVA with an independent special committee, then what would Enbridge have to do to be able to dispose of bad faith claims on a motion to dismiss? Would Enbridge be required, in analogy to In re John Q. Hammons Hotels Inc. S’holder Litig., 2009 WL 3165613 (Del. Ch. Oct. 2, 2009), to negotiate a transaction with an independent committee and have the transaction approved by a majority of the public unit holders? Requiring Enbridge to put in place those “robust procedural protections,” in order to be able to dispose of a bad faith claim on a motion to dismiss, would seem to rewrite the LPA when the Delaware General Assembly has explicitly stated that “[i]t is the policy of [Delaware’s Limited Partnership Act] … to give maximum effect to the principle of freedom of contract and to the enforceability of partnership agreements.” 6 Del. C. § 17–1101(c).

The court interestingly compares the determinacy of the partnership agreement with the indeterminacy the parties avoided by not being a corporation.

As I have discussed elsewhere (e.g., here and here) the parties to uncorporations may quite reasonably trade off exit and managerial incentives for control and fiduciary duties.  The courts should enforce these contracts and the Delaware courts do.  It follows that McNally’s broader point that uncorporate entities are generally unsuitable for outside investors is flat wrong.

McNally raises the separate question of why there are only a relative few publicly held alternative entities.  One reason may be that the exit tradeoff I referred to may not work in publicly held firms.  Most such firms need the corporate feature of “capital lock in” which precludes buyout and dissolution provisions.

Bottom line:  Lawyers need to understand that “alternative” entities are an important transactional tool for clients.  Protestations that uncorporate law is too new or unpredictable, which were common 20 years ago, simply don’t wash today.

My paper, Energy Infrastructure Investment and the Rise of the Uncorporation has been published in the current issue of the Journal of Applied Corporate Finance.  It includes a useful summary of my views of uncorporations applied to larger firms.  As of now it’s behind a pay wall.  Here’s the abstract:

While most large U.S. businesses have long been organized as corporations, a significant portion of our economy, including major parts of our energy infrastructure, are organized as other types of legal entities. These “uncorporations” include such business forms as Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) and Limited Liability Companies (LLCs). Many practitioners have dismissed these alternative entities as merely tax devices and only peripherally important to mainstream business. But this view misses important features of the uncorporation that make it an important alternative in dealing with the “agency” costs that arise in public companies from separating managerial control from equity ownership. Corporate governance relies heavily on agents such as auditors, class action lawyers, judges, and independent directors to protect shareholders from managerial self‐interest. The obvious costs and defects of relying on these governance mechanisms have generally been seen as a reasonable price to pay for the benefits of the corporate form. But this conclusion depends on the availability and effectiveness of the alternative mechanisms for addressing agency costs. Uncorporations provide such an alternative by tying managers’ economic well‐being so closely to that of their firms that corporate monitoring devices become less necessary. Uncorporate governance mechanisms include managerial compensation that is based largely (if not entirely) on the firm’s profits or cash distributions, and restrictions on managers’ control of corporate cash through liquidation rights and requirements for cash distributions. Business people and policy makers should evaluate the potential benefits of uncorporations before concluding that the costs of corporate governance are an inevitable price of separating ownership and control in modern firms