[The final post in Truth on the Market‘s digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition” comes from Joshua Wright, the executive director of the Global Antitrust Institute at George Mason University and the architect, in his time as a member of the Federal Trade Commission, of the FTC’s prior 2015 UMC statement. You can find all of the posts in this series at thesymposium page here.]
The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) recently released Policy Statement on unfair methods of competition (UMC) has a number of profound problems, which I will detail below. But first, some praise: if the FTC does indeed plan to bring many lawsuits challenging conduct as a standalone UMC (I am dubious it will), then the public ought to have notice about the change. Providing such notice is good government, and the new Statement surely provides that notice. And providing notice in this way was costly to the FTC: the contents of the statement make surviving judicial review harder, not easier (I will explain my reasons for this view below). Incurring that cost to provide notice deserves some praise.
Now onto the problems. I see four major ones.
First, the Statement seems to exist in a fantasy world; the FTC majority appears to wish away the past problems associated with UMC enforcement. Those problems have not, in fact, gone away and pretending they don’t exist—as this Statement does—is unlikely to help the Commission’s prospects for success in court.
Second, the Statement provides no guidance whatsoever about how a potential respondent might avoid UMC liability, which stands in sharp contrast to other statements and guidance documents issued by the Commission.
Third, the entire foundation of the statement is that, in 1914, Congress intended the FTC Act to have broader coverage than the Sherman Act. Fair enough. But the coverage of the Sherman Act isn’t fixed to what the Supreme Court thought it was in 1914: It’s a moving target that, in fact, has moved dramatically over the last 108 years. Congress in 1914 could not have intended UMC to be broader than how the courts would interpret the Sherman Act in the future (whether that future is 1918, much less 1970 or 2023).
And fourth, Congress has passed other statutes since it passed the FTC Act in 1914, one of which is the Administrative Procedure Act. The APA unambiguously and explicitly directs administrative agencies to engage in reasoned decision making. In a nutshell, this means that the actions of such agencies must be supported by substantial record evidence and can be set aside by a court on judicial review if they are arbitrary and capricious. “Congress intended to give the FTC broad authority in 1914” is not an argument to address the fact that, 32 years later, Congress also intended to limit the FTC’s authority (as well as other agencies’) by requiring reasoned decision making.
Each of these problems on its own would be enough to doom almost any case the Commission might bring to apply the statement. Together, they are a death knell.
A Record of Failure
As I have explained elsewhere, there are a number of reasons the FTC has pursued few standalone UMC cases in recent decades. The late-1970s effort to reinvigorate UMC enforcement via bringing cases was a total failure: the Commission did not lose the game on a last-second buzzer beater; it got blown out by 40 points. According to William Kovacic and Mark Winerman, in each of those UMC cases, “the tribunal recognized that Section 5 allows the FTC to challenge behavior beyond the reach of the other antitrust laws. In each instance, the court found that the Commission had failed to make a compelling case for condemning the conduct in question.”
Since these losses, the Commission hasn’t successfully litigated a UMC case in federal court. This, in my view, is because of a (very plausible) concern that, when presented with such a case, Article III courts would either define the Commission’s UMC authority on their own terms—i.e., restricting the Commission’s authority—or ultimately decide that the space beyond the Sherman Act that Congress in 1914 intended Section 5 to occupy exists only in theory and not in the real world, and declare the two statutes functionally equivalent. Those reasons—and not Chair Lina Khan’s preferred view that the Commission has been feckless, weak, or captured by special interests since 1981—explain why Section 5 has been used so sparingly over the last 40 years (and mostly just to extract settlements from parties under investigation). The majority’s effort to put all its eggs in the “1914 legislative history” basket simply ignores this reality.
Each of these documents is designed (at least in part) to help market participants understand what conduct might or might not violate one or more laws enforced by the FTC, and for that reason, each document provides specific examples of conduct that would violate the law, and conduct that would not.
The new UMC Policy Statement provides no such examples. Instead, we are left with the conclusory statement that, if the Commission can characterize the conduct as “coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve[s] the use of economic power” or “otherwise restrictive or exclusionary,” then the conduct can be a UMC.
What does this salad of words mean? I have no idea, and the Commission doesn’t even bother to try and define them. If a lawyer is asked, “based upon the Commission’s new UMC Statement, what conduct might be a violation?” the only defensible advice to give is “anything three Commissioners think.”
The third problem is the majority’s fictitious belief that Sherman Act jurisprudence is frozen in 1914—the year Congress passed the FTC Act. The Statement states that “Congress passed the FTC Act to push back against the judiciary’s open-ended rule of reason for analyzing Sherman Act claims” and cites the Supreme Court’s opinion in Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States from 1911.
It’s easy to understand why Congress in 1914 was dissatisfied with the opinion in Standard Oil; reading Standard Oil in 2022 is also a dissatisfying experience. The opinion takes up 106 pages in the U.S. Reporter, and individualparagraphs are routinely three pages long; it meanders between analyzing Section 1 and Section 2 of the Sherman Act without telling the reader; and is generally inscrutable. I have taught antitrust for almost 20 years and, though we cover Standard Oil because of its historical importance, I don’t teach the opinion, because the opinion does not help modern students understand how to practice antitrust law.
This stands in sharp contrast to Justice Louis Brandeis’s opinion in Chicago Board of Trade (issued four years after Congress passed the FTC Act), which I do teach consistently, because it articulates the beginning of the modern rule of reason. Although the majority of the FTC is on solid ground when it points out that Congress in 1914 intended the FTC’s UMC authority to have broader coverage than the Sherman Act, the coverage of the Sherman Act has changed since 1914.
This point is well-known, of course: Kovacic and Winerman explain that “[p]robably the most important” reason “Section 5 has played so small a role in the development of U.S. competition policy principles” “is that the Sherman Act proved to be a far more flexible tool for setting antitrust rules than Congress expected in the early 20th century.” The 10 pages in the Statement devoted to century-old legislative history just pretend like Sherman Act jurisprudence hasn’t changed in that same amount of time. The federal courts are going to see right through that.
What About the APA?
The fourth problem with the majority’s trip back to 1914 is that, since then, Congress has passed other statutes limiting the Commission’s authority. The most prominent of these is the Administrative Procedure Act, which was passed in 1946 (for those counting, 1946 is more than 30 years after 1914).
There are hundreds of opinions interpreting the APA, and indeed, an entire body of law has developed pursuant to those cases. These cases produce many lessons, but one of them is that it is not enough for an agency to have the legal authority to act: “Congress gave me this power. I am exercising this power. Therefore, my exercise of this power is lawful,” is, by definition, insufficient justification under the APA. An agency has the obligation to engage in reasoned decision making and must base its actions on substantial evidence. Its enforcement efforts will be set aside on judicial review if they are arbitrary and capricious.
By failing to explain how a company can avoid UMC liability—other than by avoiding conduct that is “coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve[s] the use of economic power” or “otherwise restrictive or exclusionary,” without defining those terms—the majority is basically shouting to the federal courts that its UMC enforcement program is going to be arbitrary and capricious. That’s going to fail for many reasons. A simple one is that 1946 is later in time than 1914, which is why the Commission putting all its eggs in the 1914 legislative history basket is not going to work once its actions are challenged in federal court.
These problems with the majority’s statement are so significant, so obvious, and so unlikely to be overcome, that I don’t anticipate that the Commission will pursue many UMC enforcement actions. Instead, I suspect UMC rulemaking is on the agenda, which has its own set of problems (not to mention the fact that the 1914 legislative history points away from Congress intending that the Commission has legislative rulemaking authority). Rather, I think the value of this statement is symbolic for Chair Khan and her supporters.
When one considers the record of the Khan Commission—many policy statements, few enforcement actions, and even fewer successful enforcement actions—it all makes more sense. The audience for this Statement is Chair Khan’s friends working on Capitol Hill and at think tanks, as well as her followers on Twitter. They might be impressed by it. The audience she should be concerned about is Article III judges, who surely won’t be.
[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at thesymposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]
And what is the statement’s aim? As Commissioner Wilson aptly puts it, the statement “announces that the Commission has the authority summarily to condemn essentially any business conduct it finds distasteful.” This sweeping claim, which extends far beyond the scope of prior Commission pronouncements, might be viewed as mere puffery with no real substantive effect: “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Various scholarly commentators have already explored the legal and policy shortcomings of this misbegotten statement (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Suffice it to say there is general agreement that, as Gus Hurwitz explains, the statement “is non-precedential and lacks the force of law.”
The statement’s almost certain lack of legal effect, however, does not mean it is of no consequence. Businesses are harmed by legal risk, even if they are eventually likely to prevail in court. Markets react negatively to antitrust lawsuits, and thus firms may be expected to shy away from efficient profitable behavior that may draw the FTC’s ire. The resources firms redirect to less-efficient conduct impose costs on businesses and ultimately consumers. (And when meritless FTC lawsuits still come, wasteful litigation-related costs will be coupled with unwarranted reputational harm to businesses.)
Moreover, as Wilson points out, uncertainty about what the Commission may characterize as unfair “does not allow businesses to structure their conduct to avoid possible liability. . . . [T]he Policy Statement . . . significantly increases uncertainty for businesses[,] which . . . . are left with no navigational tools to map the boundaries of lawful and unlawful conduct.” This will further disincentivize new and innovative (and easily misunderstood) business initiatives. In the perhaps-vain hope that a Commission majority will take note of these harms and have second thoughts about retention of the statement, I will briefly summarize the legal case against the statement’s effectiveness. The FTC actually would be better able to “push the Section 5 envelope” a bit through some carefully tailored innovative enforcement actions if it could jettison the legal baggage that the statement represents. To understand why, a brief review of FTC competition rulemaking and competition enforcement authority is warranted
FTC Competition Rulemaking
As I and others have written at great length (see, for examples, this compilation of essays on FTC rulemaking published by Concurrences), the case for substantive FTC competition rulemaking under Section 6(g) of the FTC Act is exceedingly weak. In particular (see my July 2022Truth on the Market commentary):
First, the “nondelegation doctrine” suggests that, under section 6(g), Congress did not confer on the FTC the specific statutory authority required to issue rules that address particular competitive practices.
Second, principles of statutory construction strongly indicate that the FTC’s general statutory provision dealing with rulemaking refers to procedural rules of organization, not substantive rules bearing on competition.
Third, even assuming that proposed competition rules survived these initial hurdles, principles of administrative law would raise the risk that competition rules would be struck down as “arbitrary and capricious.”
Fourth, there is a substantial possibility that courts would not defer to the FTC’s construction through rulemaking of its “unfair methods of competition” as authorizing the condemnation of specific competitive practices.
The 2022 statement raises these four problems in spades.
First, the Supreme Court has stated that the non-delegation doctrine requires that a statutory delegation must be supported by an “intelligible principle” guiding its application. There is no such principle that may be drawn from the statement, which emphasizes that unfair business conduct “may be coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve the use of economic power of a similar nature.” The conduct also must tend “to negatively affect competitive conditions – whether by affecting consumers, workers, or other market participants.” Those descriptions are so broad and all-encompassing that they are the antithesis of an “intelligible principle.”
Second, the passing nod to rulemaking referenced in Section 6(g) is best understood as an aid to FTC processes and investigations, not a source of substantive policymaking. The Supreme Court’s unanimous April 2021 decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC (holding that the FTC could not obtain equitable monetary relief under its authority to seek injunctions) embodies a reluctance to read general non-specific language as conferring broad substantive powers on the FTC. This interpretive approach is in line with other Supreme Court case law that rejects finding “elephants in mouseholes.” While multiple federal courts had upheld the FTC’s authority to obtain injunctive monetary relief prior to its loss in the AMG case, only one nearly 50-year-old decision, National Petroleum Refiners, supports substantive competition-rulemaking authority, and its reasoning is badly dated. Nothing in the 2022 statement makes a convincing case for giving substantive import to Section 6(g).
Third, given the extremely vague terms used to describe unfair method of competition in the 2022 statement (see first point, above), any effort to invoke them to find a source of authority to define new categories of competition-related violations would be sure to raise claims of agency arbitrariness and capriciousness under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Admittedly, the “arbitrary and capricious review” standard “has gone through numerous cycles since the enactment of the APA” and currently is subject to some uncertainty. Nevertheless, the statement’s untrammeled breadth and lack of clear definitions for unfair competitive conduct suggests that courts would likely employ a “hard look review,” which would make it relatively easy for novel Section 6(g) rules to be deemed arbitrary (especially in light of the skepticism of broad FTC claims of authority that is implicit in the Supreme Court’s unanimous AMG holding).
Fourth, given the economywide breadth of the phrase “unfair methods of competition,” it is quite possible (in fact, probably quite likely) that the Supreme Court would invoke the “major questions doctrine” and hold that unfair methods of competition rulemaking is “too important” to be left to the FTC. Under this increasingly invoked doctrine, “the Supreme Court has rejected agency claims of regulatory authority when (1) the underlying claim of authority concerns an issue of vast ‘economic and political significance,’ and (2) Congress has not clearly empowered the agency with authority over the issue.”
The fact that the 2022 statement plainly asserts vast authority to condemn a wide range of economically significant practices strengthens the already-strong case for condemning Section 5 competition rulemaking under this doctrine. Application of the doctrine would render moot the question of whether Section 6(g) rules would receive any Chevron deference. In any event, based on the 2022 Statement’s flouting of modern antitrust principles, including such core principles as consumer harm, efficiencies, and economic analysis, it appears unlikely that courts would accord such deference subsequent Section 6(g) rules. As Gus Hurwitz recently explained:
Administrative antitrust is a preferred vehicle for administering antitrust law, not for changing it. Should the FTC use its power aggressively, in ways that disrupt longstanding antitrust principles or seem more grounded in policy better created by Congress, it is likely to find itself on the losing side of the judicial opinion.
FTC Competition-Enforcement Authority
In addition to Section 6(g) competition-rulemaking initiatives, the 2022 statement, of course, aims to inform FTC Act Section 5(a) “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) enforcement actions. The FTC could bring a UMC suit before its own administrative tribunal or, in the alternative, seek to enjoin an alleged unfair method of competition in federal district court, pursuant to its authority under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The tenor of the 2022 statement undermines, rather than enhances, the likelihood that the FTC will succeed in “standalone Section 5(a)” lawsuits that challenge conduct falling beyond the boundaries of the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts.
[C]ourts have confirmed that the unilateral exercise of lawfully acquired market power does not violate the antitrust laws. Therefore, the attempted use of standalone Section 5 to address high prices, untethered from accepted theories of antitrust liability under the Sherman Act, is unlikely to find success in the courts.
There have been no jurisprudential changes since 2019 to suggest that a UMC suit challenging the exploitation of lawfully obtained market power by raising prices is likely to find judicial favor. It follows, a fortiori (legalese that I seldom have the opportunity to trot out), that the more “far out” standalone suits implied by the statement’s analysis would likely generate embarrassing FTC judicial losses.
Applying three of the four principles assessed in the analysis of FTC competition rulemaking (the second principle, referring to statutory authority for rulemaking, is inapplicable), the negative influence of the statement on FTC litigation outcomes is laid bare.
First, as is the case with rules, the unconstrained laundry list of “unfair” business practices fails to produce an “intelligible principle” guiding the FTC’s exercise of enforcement discretion. As such, courts could well conclude that, if the statement is to be taken seriously, the non-delegation doctrine applies, and the FTC does not possess delegated UMC authority. Even if such authority were found to have been properly delegated, some courts might separately conclude, on due process grounds, that the UMC prohibition is “void for vagueness” and therefore cannot support an enforcement action. (While the “void for vagueness” doctrine is controversial, related attacks on statutes based on “impossibility of compliance” may have a more solid jurisprudential footing, particularly in the case of civil statutes (see here). The breadth and uncertainty of the statement’s references to disfavored conduct suggests “impossibility of compliance” as a possible alternative critique of novel Section 5 competition cases.) These concerns also apply equally to possible FTC Section 13(b) injunctive actions filed in federal district court.
Second, there is a not insubstantial risk that an appeals court would hold that a final Section 5 competition-enforcement decision by the Commission would be “arbitrary and capricious” if it dealt with behavior far outside the scope of the Sherman or Clayton Acts, based on vague policy pronouncements found in the 2022 statement.
Third, and of greatest risk to FTC litigation prospects, it is likely that appeals courts (and federal district courts in Section 13(b) injunction cases) would give no deference to new far-reaching non-antitrust-based theories alluded to in the statement. As discussed above, this could be based on invocation of the major questions doctrine or, separately, on the (likely) failure to accord Chevron deference to theories that are far removed from recognized antitrust causes of action under modern jurisprudence.
What Should the FTC Do About the Statement?
In sum, the startling breadth and absence of well-defined boundaries that plagues the statement’s discussion of potential Section 5 UMC violations means that the statement’s issuance materially worsens the FTC’s future litigation prospects—both in defending UMC rulemakings and in seeking to affirm case-specific Commission findings of UMC violations.
What, then, should the FTC do?
It should, put simply, withdraw the 2022 statement and craft a new UMC policy statement (NPS) that avoids the major pitfalls inherent in the statement. The NPS should carefully delineate the boundaries of standalone UMC rulemakings and cases, so as (1) to minimize uncertainty in application; and (2) to harmonize UMC actions with the pro-consumer welfare goal (as enunciated by the Supreme Court) of the antitrust laws. In drafting the NPS, the FTC would do well to be mindful of the part of Commissioner Wilson’s dissenting statement that highlights the deficiencies in the 2022 statement that detract from its persuasiveness to courts:
First, . . . the Policy Statement does not provide clear guidance to businesses seeking to comply with the law.
Second, the Policy Statement does not establish an approach for the term “unfair” in the competition context that matches the economic and analytical rigor that Commission policy offers for the same term, “unfair,” in the consumer protection context.
Third, the Policy Statement does not provide a framework that will result in credible enforcement. Instead, Commission actions will be subject to the vicissitudes of prevailing political winds.
Fourth, the Policy Statement does not address the legislative history that both demands economic content for the term “unfair” and cautions against an expansive approach to enforcing Section 5.
Consistent with avoiding these deficiencies, a new PS could carefully identify activities that are beyond the reach of the antitrust laws yet advance the procompetitive consumer-welfare-oriented goal that is the lodestar of antitrust policy. The NPS should also be issued for public comment (as recommended by Commissioner Wilson), an action that could give it additional “due process luster” in the eyes of federal judges.
More specifically, the NPS could state that standalone UMC actions should be directed at private conduct that undermines the competitive process, but is not subject to the reach of the antitrust laws (say, because of the absence of contracts). Such actions might include, for example: (1) invitations to collude; (2) facilitating practices (“activities that tend to promote interdependence by reducing rivals’ uncertainty or diminishing incentives to deviate from a coordinated strategy”—see here); (3) exchanges of competitively sensitive information among competitors that do not qualify as Sherman Act “agreements” (see here); and (4) materially deceptive conduct (lacking efficiency justifications) that likely contributes to obtaining or increasing market power, as in the standard-setting context (see here); and (5) non-compete clauses in labor employment agreements that lack plausible efficiency justifications (say, clauses in contracts made with low-skill, low-salary workers) or otherwise plainly undermine labor-market competition (say, clauses presented to workers only after they have signed an initial contract, creating a “take-it-or-leave-it scenario” based on asymmetric information).
After promulgating a list of examples, the NPS could explain that additional possible standalone UMC actions would be subject to the same philosophical guardrails: They would involve conduct inconsistent with competition on the merits that is likely to harm consumers and that lacks strong efficiency justifications.
A revised NPS along the lines suggested would raise the probability of successful UMC judicial outcomes for the Commission. It would do this by strengthening the FTC’s arguments that there is an intelligible principle underlying congressional delegation; that specificity of notice is sufficient to satisfy due process (arbitrariness and capriciousness) concerns; that the Section 5 delegation is insufficiently broad to trigger the major questions doctrine; and that Chevron deference may be accorded determinations stemming from precise NPS guidance.
In the case of rules, of course, the FTC would still face the substantial risk that a court would deem that Section 6(g) does not apply to substantive rulemakings. And it is far from clear to what extent an NPS along the lines suggested would lead courts to render more FTC-favorable rulings on non-delegation, due process, the major questions doctrine, and Chevron deference. Moreover, even if they entertained UMC suits, the courts could, of course, determine in individual cases that, on the facts, the Commission had failed to show a legal violation. (The FTC has never litigated invitation-to-collude cases, and it lost a variety of facilitating practices cases during the 1980s and 1990s; see here).
Nonetheless, if I were advising the FTC as general counsel, I would tell the commissioners that the choice is between having close to a zero chance of litigation or rulemaking success under the 2022 statement, and some chance of success (greater in the case of litigation than in rulemaking) under the NPS.
The FTC faces a future of total UMC litigation futility if it plows ahead under the 2022 statement. Promulgating an NPS as described would give the FTC at least some chance of success in litigating cases beyond the legal limits of the antitrust laws, assuming suggested principles and guardrails were honored. The outlook for UMC rulemaking (which turns primarily on how the courts view the structure of the FTC Act) remains rather dim, even under a carefully crafted NPS.
If the FTC decides against withdrawing the 2022 statement, it could still show some wisdom by directing more resources to competition advocacy and challenging clearly anticompetitive conduct that falls within the accepted boundaries of the antitrust laws. (Indeed, to my mind, error-cost considerations suggest that the Commission should eschew UMC causes of action that do not also constitute clear antitrust offenses.) It need not undertake almost sure-to-fail UMC initiatives just because it has published the 2022 statement.
In short, treating the 2022 statement as a purely symbolic vehicle to showcase the FTC’s fondest desires—like a new, never-to-be-driven Lamborghini that merely sits in the driveway to win the admiring glances of neighbors—could well be the optimal Commission strategy, given the zeitgeist. That assumes, of course, that the FTC cares about protecting its institutional future and (we also hope) promoting economic well-being.
[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.”You can find other posts at thesymposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]
In a 3-2 July 2021 vote, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rescinded the nuanced statement it had issued in 2015 concerning the scope of unfair methods of competition under Section 5 of the FTC Act. At the same time, the FTC rejected the applicability of the balancing test set forth in the rule of reason (and with it, several decades of case law, agency guidance, and legal and economic scholarship).
The July 2021 statement not only rejected these long-established guiding principles for Section 5 enforcement but left in its place nothing but regulatory fiat. In the statement the FTC issued Nov. 10, 2022 (again, by a divided 3-1 vote), the agency has now adopted this “just trust us” approach as a permanent operating principle.
The November 2022 statement purports to provide a standard under which the agency will identify unfair methods of competition under Section 5. As Commissioner Christine Wilson explains in her dissent, however, it clearly fails to do so. Rather, it delivers a collection of vaguely described principles and pejorative rhetoric that encompass loosely defined harms to competition, competitors, workers and a catch-all group of “other market participants.”
The methodology for identifying these harms is comparably vague. The agency not only again rejects the rule of reason but asserts the authority to take action against a variety of “non-quantifiable harms,” all of which can be addressed at the most “incipient” stages. Moreover, and perhaps most remarkably, the statement specifically rejects any form of “net efficiencies” or “numerical cost-benefit analysis” to guide its enforcement decisions or provide even a modicum of predictability to the business community.
The November 2022 statement amounts to regulatory fiat on overdrive, presented with a thin veneer of legality derived from a medley of dormant judicial decisions, incomplete characterizations of precedent, and truncated descriptions of legislative history. Under the agency’s dubious understanding of Section 5, Congress in 1914 elected to provide the FTC with the authority to declare any business practice “unfair” subject to no principle other than the agency’s subjective understanding of that term (and, apparently, never to be informed by “numerical cost-benefit analysis”).
Moreover, any enforcement action that targeted a purportedly “unfair” practice would then be adjudicated within the agency and appealable in the first instance to the very same commissioners who authorized the action. This institutional hall of mirrors would establish the FTC as the national “fairness” arbiter subject to virtually no constraining principles under which the exercise of such powers could ever be deemed to have exceeded its scope. The license for abuse is obvious and the departure from due process inherent.
The views reflected in the November 2022 statement would almost certainly lead to a legal dead-end. If the agency takes action under its idiosyncratic understanding of the scope of unfair methods of competition under Section 5, it would elicit a legal challenge that would likely lead to two possible outcomes, both being adverse to the agency.
First, it is likely that a judge would reject the agency’s understanding of Section 5, since it is irreconcilable with a well-developed body of case law requiring that the FTC (just like any other administrative agency) act under principles that provide businesses with, as described by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, at least “an inkling as to what they can lawfully do rather than be left in a state of complete unpredictability.”
Any legally defensible interpretation of the scope of unfair methods of competition under Section 5 must take into account not only legislative intent at the time the FTC Act was enacted but more than a century’s worth of case law that courts have developed to govern the actions of administrative powers. Contrary to suggestions made in the November 2022 statement, neither the statute nor the relevant body of case law mandates unqualified deference by courts to the presumed wisdom of expert regulators.
Second, even if a court accepted the agency’s interpretation of the statute (or did so provisionally), there is a strong likelihood that it would then be compelled to strike down Section 5 as an unconstitutional delegation of lawmaking powers from the legislative to the executive branch. Given the concern that a majority of the Supreme Court has increasingly expressed over actions by regulatory agencies—including the FTC, specifically, inAMG Capital Management LLC v. FTC(2021)and now again in the pending case, Axon Enterprise Inc. v. FTC—that do not clearly fall within the legislatively specified scope of an agency’s authority (as in the AMG decision and other recent Court decisions concerning the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the United States Patent and Trademark Office), this would seem to be a high-probability outcome.
In short: any enforcement action taken under the agency’s newly expanded understanding of Section 5 is unlikely to withstand judicial scrutiny, either as a matter of statutory construction or as a matter of constitutional principle. Given this legal forecast, the November 2022 statement could be viewed as mere theatrics that is unlikely to have a long legal life or much practical impact (although, until judicial intervention, it could impose significant costs on firms that must defend against agency-enforcement actions brought under the unilaterally expanded scope of Section 5).
Even if that were the case, however, the November 2022 statement and, in particular, its expanded understanding of the harms that the agency is purportedly empowered to target, is nonetheless significant because it should leave little doubt concerning the lack of any meaningful commitment by agency leadership to the FTC’s historical mission to preserve market competition. Rather, it has become increasingly clear that agency leadership seeks to deploy the powerful remedies of the FTC Act (and the rest of the antitrust-enforcement apparatus) to displace a market-driven economy governed by the free play of competitive forces with an administered economy in which regulators continuously intervene to reengineer economic outcomes on grounds of fairness to favored constituencies, rather than to preserve the competitive process.
Reengineering Section 5 of the FTC Act as a “shadow” antitrust statute that operates outside the rule of reason (or any other constraining objective principle) provides a strategic detour around the inconvenient evidentiary and other legal obstacles that the agency would struggle to overcome when seeking to achieve these policy objectives under the Sherman and Clayton Acts. This intentionally unstructured and inherently politicized approach to antitrust enforcement threatens not only the institutional preconditions for a market economy but ultimately the rule of law itself.
Recently departed Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioner Noah Phillips has been rightly praised as “a powerful voice during his four-year tenure at the FTC, advocating for rational antitrust enforcement and against populist antitrust that derails the fair yet disruptive process of competition.” The FTC will miss his trenchant analysis and collegiality, now that he has departed for the greener pastures of private practice.
A particularly noteworthy example of Phillips’ mastery of his craft is presented by his November 2018 dissent from the FTC’s majority opinion in the 1-800 Contacts case, which presented tricky questions about the proper scope of antitrust intervention in contracts designed to protect intellectual property rights. (For more on the opinion, see Geoffrey A. Manne, Hal Singer, and Joshua D. Wright’s December 2018 piece.)
The 1-800 Business Model and the FTC’s Proceedings
Before describing the 1-800 proceedings, Phillips’ dissent, and the judicial vindication of his position, we begin with a brief assessment of the welfare-enhancing innovative business model employed by 1-800 Contacts. The firm pioneered the online contact-lens sales business. It is an American entrepreneurial success story, which has bestowed great benefits on consumers through trademark-backed competition focusing on price and quality considerations. Phillips’ dissenting opinion explained:
Jonathan Coon started the business that would become 1-800 Contacts in 1992 from his college dormitory room with just $50 to his name, seeking to reduce prices, improve service, and provide a better customer experience for contact lens consumers. … Over the next 26 years he would succeed, building a company (and a brand) from essentially nothing to one of the largest contact lens retailers in the country, while introducing American consumers to mail-order contact lenses (and later ordering contacts online), driving down prices, and attracting competition from small and large companies alike. That growth required a combination of a massive investment in advertising and a constant quest to improve the customer experience. That is the type of conduct that antitrust and trademark law should, and do, encourage. …
As [the FTC administrative law judge] … found in the Initial Decision, “1-800 Contacts’ business objective from the company’s inception was to make the process of buying contact lenses simple and it tries to distinguish itself from other contact lens retailers by making it faster, easier, and more convenient to get contact lenses.” … This contrasts with other online contact lens retailers, which generally do not seek to distinguish themselves on the basis of customer experience, customer service, or simplicity. … 1-800 Contacts did not limit itself to competing on price because it found that many customers valued speed and convenience just as much as price. …
1-800 Contacts’ relentless investment in its brand and in improving its customer service are recognized. Many third parties—including J.D. Power and Associates, StellaService Elite, and Foresee—have recognized or given awards to 1-800 Contacts for its customer service. … But that has not stopped 1-800 Contacts from continuing to invest in improving its service to enhance the customer experience. …
The service and brand investments made by 1-800 Contacts have resulted in millions of consumers purchasing contact lenses from 1-800 Contacts over the phone and online. They are precisely the types of investments that trademark law exists to protect and encourage.
The 2nd Circuit summarized the actions by 1-800 Contacts (“Petitioner”) that prompted an FTC administrative complaint, then presented a brief history of the internal FTC proceedings:
In 2002, Petitioner began filing complaints and sending cease-and-desist letters to its competitors alleging trademark infringement related to its competitors’ online advertisements. Between 2004 and 2013, Petitioner entered into thirteen settlement agreements to resolve most of these disputes. Each of these agreements includes language that prohibits the parties from using each other’s trademarks, URLs, and variations of trademarks as search advertising keywords. The agreements also require the parties to employ negative keywords so that a search including one party’s trademarks will not trigger a display of the other party’s ads. The agreements do not prohibit parties from bidding on generic keywords such as “contacts” or “contact lenses.” Petitioner enforced the agreements when it perceived them to be breached.
Apart from the settlement agreements, in 2013 Petitioner entered into a “sourcing and services agreement” with Luxottica, a company that sells and distributes contacts through its affiliates. That agreement also contains reciprocal online search advertising restrictions prohibiting the use of trademark keywords and requiring both parties to employ negative keywords.
The FTC issued an administrative complaint against Petitioner in August 2016 alleging that the thirteen settlement agreements and the Luxottica agreement, … along with subsequent actions to enforce them, unreasonably restrain truthful, non-misleading advertising as well as price competition in search advertising auctions, all of which constitute a violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. § 45. The complaint alleges that the Challenged Agreements prevented Petitioner’s competitors from disseminating ads that would have informed consumers that the same contact lenses were available at a cheaper price from other online retailers, thereby reducing competition and making it more difficult for consumers to compare online retail prices. The case was tried before an ALJ, who concluded that a violation had occurred.
As an initial matter, the ALJ rejected Petitioner’s assertion that trademark settlement agreements are not subject to antitrust scrutiny in light of FTC v. Actavis, 570 U.S. 136 (2013). Applying the “rule of reason” and principles of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1, the ALJ determined that “[o]nline sales of contact lenses constitute a relevant product market.” … He found that the agreements constituted a “contract, combination, or conspiracy” as required by the Sherman Act and held that the advertising restrictions in the agreements harmed consumers by reducing the availability of information, in turn making it costlier for consumers to find and compare contact lens prices. …
Having found actual anticompetitive effects, as required under the rule of reason analysis, the ALJ rejected the procompetitive justifications for the agreements offered by Petitioner. He found that while trademark protection is procompetitive, it did not justify the advertising restrictions in the agreements and also that Petitioner failed to show that reduced litigation costs would benefit consumers. The ALJ issued an order that barred Petitioner from entering into an agreement with any marketer or seller of contact lenses to limit participation in search advertising auctions or to prohibit or limit search advertising.
1-800 appealed the ALJ’s order to the Commission. In a split decision, a majority of the Commission agreed with the ALJ that the agreements violated Section 5 of the FTC Act. The majority, however, analyzed the settlement agreements differently from the ALJ. The majority classified the agreements as “inherently suspect” and alternatively found “direct evidence” of anticompetitive effects on consumers and search engines. The majority then analyzed the procompetitive justifications Petitioner offered for the agreements and rejected arguments that the benefits of protecting trademarks and reducing litigation costs outweighed any potential harm to consumers. Finally, the majority identified what it believed to be less anticompetitive alternatives to the advertising restrictions in the agreements. One Commissioner dissented, reasoning both that the majority should not have applied the “inherently suspect” framework and that it failed to give appropriate consideration to Petitioner’s proffered procompetitive justifications. This timely appeal followed.
Commissioner Phillips’ Dissent
Phillips meticulously made the case that 1-800 Contacts’ behavior raised no antitrust concerns.
First, he began by stressing that the settlements in question resolved legitimate trademark-infringement claims. The settlements also were limited in scope. They did not prevent any of the parties from engaging in any form of non-infringing advertising (online or offline), they specifically permitted non-infringing uses like comparative advertising and parodies, and they placed no restrictions on the content that any of the settling parties could include in their ads. In short, the settlements “sought to balance 1-800 Contacts’ legitimate interests in protecting its trademarks with competitors’ (and consumers’) interests in truthful advertising.
Second, he explained in detail why the FTC majority opinion failed to show that the trademark settlements were “inherently suspect.” He noted that the “[s]ettlements do not approximate conduct that the Commission or courts have previously found to be inherently suspect, much less illegal.” FTC complaint counsel had not demonstrated any output effects—the settlements permitted price and quality advertising, and did not affect third-party sellers. The Actavis Supreme Court refused to apply the inherently suspect framework “even though the alleged conduct at issue [reverse payments] was far more harmful to competition than anything at issue here, as well-established economic evidence demonstrated.”
Moreover, the majority opinion’s reliance on the FTC’s Polygram decision was misplaced, because the defendants in that case fixed prices and banned advertising (“[t]here is no price fixing here [n]or is there an advertising ban”). Other cases cited by the majority involving advertising restrictions similarly were inapposite, because they involved far greater restrictions on advertising and did not implicate intellectual property. Furthermore, “[t]he economic studies cited by the majority d[id] not examine paid search advertising, … much less how restraints upon it interact with the trademark policies at issue here.”
Third, he discussed at length why the majority should not have pursued a truncated rule-of-reason analysis. In short:
Applicable precedent makes clear that the Trademark Settlements should be analyzed under the traditional rule of reason. And the cases on which the majority rely fail to provide support for truncating that analysis by applying the “inherently suspect” framework. As noted, those cases do not involve trademarks, or intellectual property of any kind. That is relevant—indeed, decisive—because trademarks often limit advertising in one way or another, and the logic of the majority’s analysis would support a rule that stigmatizes conduct protecting those rights, which is clearly procompetitive, as presumptively unlawful.
Fourth, in addition to the legal infirmities, Phillips skillfully exposed the serious policy shortcomings of the majority’s “inherently suspect” approach:
Treating the Trademark Settlements as “inherently suspect” yields an unclear rule that regardless of interpretation, will, I fear, create uncertainty, dilute trademark rights, and dampen inter-brand competition. The majority couch their holding as a limited one dealing with restraints on the opportunity to make price comparisons, but, by adopting an analytical framework without accounting for the intellectual property at issue, they produce one of the following rules: either all advertising restrictions are inherently suspect, regardless whether they protect intellectual property rights, or the level of scrutiny applied to a particular restraint will depend on the strength of the trademark holder’s underlying infringement claim.
In his policy assessment, Phillips added that the policy favoring litigation settlements (due to the fact that, as a general matter, they promote efficiency) supports application of the traditional rule of reason.
Fifth, turning to the traditional rule of reason, Phillips explicated FTC complaint counsel’s failure to meet its burden of proof (case citations omitted):
If the Trademark Settlements are not “inherently suspect”, which they are not, Complaint Counsel can meet their initial burden of proof under the rule of reason in one of two ways: “an indirect showing based on a demonstration of defendant’s market power” or “direct evidence of ‘actual, sustained adverse effects on competition’” … The majority take only the direct approach; they do not attempt an indirect showing of market power. … To meet the initial burden of direct evidence, a plaintiff must show adverse effects on competition that are actual, sustained, and significant or substantial. … Complaint Counsel have not met that burden with its showing on direct effects.
In dealing with burden-of-proof issues, Phillips demonstrated that, in the context of a trademark-settlement agreement, a restriction on advertising is, by itself, insufficient to show direct effects. Phillips conceded that, “[w]hile restrictions on advertising are not themselves enough, the majority are correct that a showing of actual, sustained, and substantial or significant price effects would suffice.” But Phillips emphasized that the majority failed to show that the trademark settlements were responsible for “the fact that 1-800 Contacts’ prices were higher than some of its competitors’ prices.” Indeed, the record was “clear that that price differential predated the Trademark Settlements.” Furthermore, FTC complaint counsel “put forward no evidence that the price gap increased as a result of the Trademark Settlements.” What’s more, the FTC majority “did not adduce legally sufficient proof” that “1-800 Contacts maintained supracompetitive prices. … [T]he majority d[id] not even attempt to show that 1-800 Contacts’ price cost-margin was abnormally high—either before or after the Trademark Settlements.”
Phillips next focused on the substantial procompetitive justifications for 1-800’s conduct. (This was legally unnecessary, because the initial burden under the inherently suspect framework had not been met, direct effects had not been shown, and there had been no effort to show indirect effects.) These included settlement-related litigation-cost savings and enhanced trademark protections. Phillips stressed “the tremendous amount of investment 1-800 Contacts ha[d] made in building its brand, lowering the price of contact lenses, and offering customers superior service.”
After skillfully refuting the FTC majority’s novel separate theory that the settlements had anticompetitive effects on firms owning search engines (such as Google or Bing), Phillips skewered the FTC majority’s claim that the trademark settlements could have been narrower:
The searches that the Trademark Settlements prohibit[ed] [we[re] precisely those searches that implicate[d] 1-800 Contacts’ trademarks. They [we]re also the searches through which users [we]re most likely attempting to reach the 1-800 Contacts website (i.e., searches for 1-800 Contacts’ trademark). …
The settling parties included a negative keyword provision in response to Google’s explicit encouragement for 1-800 Contacts to resolve its trademark disputes with competitors by having them implement 1-800 Contacts’ trademarked terms as negative keywords. … They did so because, without negative keywords, a settling party’s advertisements could appear in response to searches for the counterparty’s trademarked terms.
Almost all of the Trademark Settlements balanced these restrictions with a provision explicitly permitting a settling party to use the counterparty’s trademarks in the non-internet context, including comparative advertising. …
As a result, … the Trademark Settlements were appropriately tailored to achieve their goal of preventing trademark infringement while balancing the need to permit non-infringing advertising.
Turning to the Luxottica servicing agreement, Phillips explained that the majority opinion mistakenly characterized it as just another inherently suspect settlement. Instead, it was an efficient sourcing and servicing agreement. Under the agreement, 1-800 Contacts shipped contacts for sale to Luxottica brick-and-mortar chain stores, and Luxottica also provided other services. Luxottica benefited by outsourcing its entire contact-lens business—including negotiating with contact-lens suppliers—to 1-800 Contacts. The majority failed to analyze the various procompetitive benefits stemming from this arrangement, which fit squarely within the FTC-U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) Competitor Collaboration Guidelines. In particular, for example, “[a]s a direct result of its decision to outsource much of its contact business to 1-800 Contacts, Luxottica customers could receive lower prices and better services (e.g., faster delivery).”
Phillips closed his dissent by highlighting the ineffectiveness of the FTC majority’s order, which “state[d] that the only agreements that 1-800 Contacts c[ould] enter [we]re those that, in effect, that t[old] the counterparty that they c[ould] [not] violate the trademark laws.” This unhelpful language “w[ould] only lead to more litigation to determine what conduct actually violated the trademark laws in the context of paid search advertising based on trademarked keywords. Because the Order only allow[ed] agreements that d[id] not actually resolve the dispute in trademark infringement litigation, it w[ould] reduce the incentive to settle, which, in turn, w[ould] lead to either less trademark enforcement or more costly litigation”.
Phillips concluding paragraph offered sound general advice about the limits of antitrust and the need to avoid a harmful lack of clarity in enforcement:
The Commission’s mandate is to enforce the antitrust laws, but we cannot do so in a vacuum. We need to consider competing policies, including federal trademark policy, when analyzing allegedly anticompetitive conduct. And we should recognize that unclear rules may do more harm both to that policy and to competition than the alleged conduct here. In the case of the Trademark Settlements, precedent offers a better way: the Commission should analyze such agreements under the full rule of reason, giving appropriate weight to the trademarks at issue and the value they protect. Such a rule will decrease uncertainty in the market, encourage brand investment, and increase competition.
The 2nd Circuit Rejects the FTC Majority’s Position
The 2nd Circuit rejected the FTC majority opinion and vacated commission’s order. First, it rejected the FTC’s reliance on a “quick look” analysis, stating:
Courts do not have sufficient experience with this type of conduct to permit the abbreviated analysis of the Challenged [trademark settlement] Agreements undertaken by the Commission. … When, as here, not only are there cognizable procompetitive justifications but also the type of restraint has not been widely condemned in our “judicial experience,” … more is required. … The Challenged Agreements, therefore, are not so obviously anticompetitive to consumers that someone with only a basic understanding of economics would immediately recognize them to be so. … We are bound, then, to apply the rule of reason.
Turning to full rule-of-reason analysis, the court began by assessing anticompetitive effects. It rejected the FTC’s argument that it had established direct evidence of such effects in the form of increased prices. It emphasized that the government could not show an actual anticompetitive change in prices after the restraint was implemented, “because it did not conduct an empirical analysis of the Challenged Agreements effect on the price of contact lenses in the online market for contacts.” Specifically, because the FTC’s evidence was merely “theoretical and anecdotal,” the evidence was not “direct.” The court also concluded that it need not decide whether an FTC theory of anticompetitive harm due to “disrupted information flow” (due to a reduction in the quantity of advertisements) was viable, because 1-800 Contacts had shown a procompetitive justification.
The court rejected the FTC’s finding that 1-800 Contact’s citation of two procompetitive effects—reduced litigation costs and the protection of trademark rights—had no basis in fact. Citing the 2nd Circuit’s Clorox decision, the court emphasized that “[t]rademarks are by their nature non-exclusionary, and agreements to protect trademark interests are ‘common and favored, under the law.’” The FTC’s doubts about the merits of the trademark-infringement claims were irrelevant, because, consistent with Clorox, “trademark agreements that ‘only marginally advance trademark policies’ can be procompetitive.” And while trademark agreements that were “auxiliary to an underlying illegal agreement between competitors” would not pass legal muster, there was “a lack of evidence here that the Challenged Agreements [we]re the ‘product of anything other than hard-nosed trademark negotiations.’”
Because 1-800 Contacts had “carried its burden of identifying a procompetitive justification, the government [had to] … show that a less-restrictive alternative exist[ed] that achieve[d] the same legitimate competitive benefits.” In that regard, the FTC claimed “that the parties to the Challenged Agreements could have agreed to require clear disclosure in each search advertisement of the identity of the rival seller rather than prohibit all advertising on trademarked issues.”
But, citing Clorox, the court opined that “it is usually unwise for courts to second-guess” trademark agreements between competitors, because “the parties’ determination of the proper scope of needed trademark protection is entitled to substantial weight.” In this matter, the FTC “failed to consider the practical reasons for the parties entering into the Challenged Agreements. … The Commission did not consider, for example, how the parties might enforce such a requirement moving forward or give any weight to how onerous such enforcement efforts would be for private parties.” In short, “[w]hile trademark agreements limit competitors from competing as effectively as they otherwise might, … forcing companies to be less aggressive in enforcing their trademarks is antithetical to the procompetitive goals of trademark policy.”
In sum, the court concluded:
In this case, where the restrictions that arise are born of typical trademark settlement agreements, we cannot overlook the Procompetitive Agreements’ procompetitive goal of promoting trademark policy. In light of the strong procompetitive justification of protecting Petitioner’s trademarks, we conclude the Challenged Agreements “merely regulate and perhaps thereby promote competition.”
While strong intellectual-property protection is key to robust competition, the different types of IP advance competitive interests in different manners. Patents, for example, provide a right to exclude access to well-defined inventions, thereby creating incentives to invent and facilitating contracts that spread patent-based innovations throughout the economy. Trademarks protect brand names and logos, thereby serving as specific indicators of origin and creating incentives to invest in improving the quality of the product or service covered by a trademark. As such, strong trademarks spur competition over quality and reduce uncertainty about the particular attributes of competing goods and services. In short, trademarks tend to promote dynamic competition and benefit consumers.
Properly applied, antitrust law seeks to advance consumer welfare and strengthen the competitive process. In that regard, the policy goals of antitrust and intellectual property are in harmony, and antitrust should be enforced in a manner that complements, and does not undermine, IP policy. Thus, when faced with a competitive restraint covering IP rights, antitrust enforcers should evaluate it carefully. They should be mindful of the procompetitive goals it may serve and avoid focusing solely on theories of competitive harm that ignore IP interests.
The FTC majority in 1-800 Contacts missed this fundamental point. They gave relatively short shrift to the procompetitive aspects of trademark protection and, at the same time, mischaracterized minor restrictions on advertising as akin to significant restraints that chill the provision of price information and product comparisons.
There was no showing that the 1-800 restrictions had stifled price competition or undermined in any manner consumers’ ability to compare contact-lens brands and prices online. In reality, the settlement agreements under scrutiny were rather carefully crafted to protect 1-800 Contacts’ goodwill, reflected in its substantial investments in quality enhancement and the promotion of relatively low-cost online sales. In the absence of the settlements, its online rivals would have been able to free ride on 1-800’s brand investments, diminishing that innovative firm’s incentive to continue to invest in trademark-related product enhancements. The long-term effect would have been to diminish, not enhance, dynamic competition.
More generally, had it prevailed, the FTC majority’s blinkered analytical approach in 1-800 Contacts could have chilled vigorous, welfare-enhancing competition in many other markets where trademarks play an important role. Fortunately, the majority’s holding did not stand for long.
Phillips’ brilliant dissent, which carefully integrated trademark-policy concerns into the application of antitrust principles—in tandem with the subsequent 2nd Circuit decision that properly acknowledged the need to weigh such concerns in antitrust analysis—provide a template for trademark-antitrust assessments that may be looked to by future courts and enforcers. Let us hope that current Biden administration FTC and DOJ Antitrust Division enforcers also take heed.
The UMC Watch Continues: In 2015, the FTC issued a Statement of Enforcement Principles Regarding “Unfair Methods of Competition.” On July 1, 2021, the Commission withdrew the statement on a 3-2 vote, sternly rebuking its predecessors: “the 2015 Statement …abrogates the Commission’s congressionally mandated duty to use its expertise to identify and combat unfair methods of competition even if they do not violate a separate antitrust statute.”
That was surprising. First, it actually presaged a downturn in enforcement. Second, while the 2015 statement was not empty, many agreed with Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen’s 2015 dissent that it offered relatively little new guidance on UMC enforcement. In other words, stating that conduct “will be evaluated under a framework similar to the rule of reason” seemed not much of a limiting principle to some, if far too much of one to others. Eye of the beholder.
Third, as Commissioners Noah Phillips and Christine S. Wilson noted in their dissent, given that there was no replacement, it was “[h]inting at the prospect of dramatic new liability without any guide regarding what the law permits or proscribes.” The business and antitrust communities were put on watch: winter is coming. Winter is still coming. In September, Chair Lina Khan stated that one of her top priorities “has been the preparation of a policy statement on Section 5 that reflects the statutory text, our institutional structure, the history of the statute, and the case law.” Indeed. More recently, she saidshe was hopeful that the statement would be released in “the coming weeks.” Stay tuned.
There was September success, and a little mission creep at the DOJ Antitrust Division: Congrats to the U.S. Justice Department for some uncharacteristic success, and not a little creativity. In U.S. v. Nathan Nephi Zito, the defendant pleaded guilty to illegal monopolization for proposing that he and a competitor allocate markets for highway-crack-sealing services.
The odd part, and an FTC connection that was noted by Pallavi Guniganti and Gus Hurwitz: at issue was a single charge of monopolization in violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act. There’s long been widespread agreement that the bounds of Section 5 UMC authority exceed those of the Sherman Act, along with widespread disagreement on the extent to which that’s true, but there was consensus on invitations to collude. Agreements to fix prices or allocate markets are per se violations of Section 1. Refused invitations to collude are not, or were not. But as the FTC stated in its now-withdrawn Statement of Enforcement Principles, UMC authority extends to conduct “that, if allowed to mature or complete, could violate the Sherman or Clayton Act.” But the FTC didn’t bring the case against Zito, the competitor rejected the invitation, and nobody alleged a violation of either Sherman Section 1 or FTC Section 5.
The admitted conduct seems indefensible, under Section 5, so perhaps there’s no harm ex post, but I wonder where this is going.
DOJ also had a Halloween win when Judge Florence Y. Pan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, sitting by designation in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, issued an order blocking the proposed merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. The opinion is still sealed. But based on the complaint, it was a relatively straightforward monopsony case, albeit one with a very narrow market definition: two market definitions, but with most of the complaint and the more convincing story about “the market for acquisition of publishing rights to anticipated top-selling books.” Steven King, Oprah Winfrey, etc.
Maybe they got it right, although Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter’s description seems a bit of puffery, if not a mountain of it: “The proposed merger would have reduced competition, decreased author compensation, diminished the breadth, depth, and diversity of our stories and ideas, and ultimately impoverished our democracy.”
At the margin? The Division did not need to prove harm to consumers downstream, although it alleged such harm. Here’s a policy question: suppose the deal would have lowered advances paid to top-selling authors—those cited in the complaint are mostly in the millions of dollars—but suppose DOJ was wrong about the larger market and downstream effects. If publisher savings were accompanied by a slight reduction in book prices, not output, would that have been a bad result?
And you thought entry was procompetitive? For some, Halloween fright does not abate with daylight. On Nov. 1, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sent a letter to Lina Khan and Jonathan Kanter, writing “with serious concern about emerging competition and consumer protection issues that Big Tech’s expansion into the automotive industry poses.” I gather that “emerging” is a term of art in legal French meaning “possible, maybe.” The senator writes with great imagination and not a little drama, cataloging numerous allegations about such worrisome conduct as bundling.
Of course, some tying arrangements are anticompetitive, but bundling is not necessarily or even typically anticompetitive. As an article still posted on the DOJ website explains, the “pervasiveness of tying in the economy shows that it is generally beneficial,” For instance, in the automotive industry, most consumers seem to prefer buying their cars whole rather than in parts.
It’s impossible to know that none of Warren’s myriad purported harms will come to pass in any market, but nobody has argued that the agencies ought to stop screening Hart-Scott-Rodino submissions. The need to act “quickly and decisively” on so many issues seems dubious. Perhaps there might be advantages to having technically sophisticated, data-rich, well-financed firms enter into product R&D and competition in new areas, including nascent product markets that might want more of such things for the technology that goes into vehicles that hurtle us down the highway.
The Oct. 21 Roundup highlighted the FTC’s recent flood of regulatory proposals, including the “commercial surveillance” ANPR. Three new ANPRs were mentioned that week: one regarding “Junk Fees,” one regarding “Fake Reviews and Endorsements,” and one regarding potential updates to the FTC’s “Funeral Rule.” Periodic rule review is a requirement, so a potential update is not unusual. On the others, I recommend Commissioner Wilson’s dissents for an overview of legitimate concerns. In sum, the junk-ees ANPR is “sweeping in its breadth; may duplicate, or contradict, existing laws and rules; is untethered from a solid foundation of FTC enforcement; relies on flawed assumptions and vague definitions; ignores impacts on competition; and diverts scarce agency resources from important law enforcement efforts.” And if some “junk fees” are the result of deceptive or unfair practices under established standards, the ANPR also seems to refer to potentially useful and efficient unbundling. Wilson finds the “fake reviews and endorsements” ANPR clearer and better focused, but another bridge too far, contemplating a burdensome regulatory scheme while active enforcement and guidance initiatives are underway, and may adequately address material and deceptive advertising practices.
As Wilson notes, the costs of regulating are substantial, too. New proposals spring forth while overdue projects founder. For instance, the long, long overdue “10-year” review of the FTC’s Eyeglass Rule last saw an ANPR in 2015, following a 2004 decision to leave an earlier version of the rule in place. The Contact Lens Rule, implementing the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act, was initially adopted in 2004 and amended 16 years later, partly because the central provision of the rule had proved unenforceable, resulting in chronic noncompliance. The chair is also considering rulemaking on noncompete clauses. Again, there are worries that some anticompetitive conduct might prompt considerably overbroad regulation, given legitimate applications, a developing and mixed body of empirical literature, and recent activity in the states. It’s another area to wonder whether the FTC has either congressional authorization or the resources, experience, and expertise to regulate the conduct at issue–potentially, every employment agreement in the United States.
Faithful and even occasional readers of this roundup might have noticed a certain temporal discontinuity between the last post and this one. The inimitable Gus Hurwitz has passed the scrivener’s pen to me, a recent refugee from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the roundup is back in business. Any errors going forward are mine. Going back, blame Gus.
Commissioner Noah Phillips departed the FTC last Friday, leaving the Commission down a much-needed advocate for consumer welfare and the antitrust laws as they are, if not as some wish they were. I recommend the reflections posted by Commissioner Christine S. Wilson and my fellow former FTC Attorney Advisor Alex Okuliar. Phillips collaborated with his fellow commissioners on matters grounded in the law and evidence, but he wasn’t shy about crying frolic and detour when appropriate.
The FTC without Noah is a lesser place. Still, while it’s not always obvious, many able people remain at the Commission and some good solid work continues. For example, FTC staff filed comments urging New York State to reject a Certificate of Public Advantage (“COPA”) application submitted by SUNY Upstate Health System and Crouse Medical. The staff’s thorough comments reflect investigation of the proposed merger, recent research, and the FTC’s long experience with COPAs. In brief, the staff identified anticompetitive rent-seeking for what it is. Antitrust exemptions for health-care providers tend to make health care worse, but more expensive. Which is a corollary to the evergreen truth that antitrust exemptions help the special interests receiving them but not a living soul besides those special interests. That’s it, full stop.
Now comes October and an amended complaint. The amended complaint is even weaker than the opening salvo. Now, the FTC alleges that the acquisition would eliminate potential competition from Meta in a narrower market, VR-dedicated fitness apps, by “eliminating any probability that Meta would enter the market through alternative means absent the Proposed Acquisition, as well as eliminating the likely and actual beneficial influence on existing competition that results from Meta’s current position, poised on the edge of the market.”
So what if Meta were to abandon the deal—as the FTC wants—but not enter on its own? Same effect, but the FTC cannot seriously suggest that Meta has a positive duty to enter the market. Is there a jurisdiction (or a planet) where a decision to delay or abandon entry would be unlawful unilateral conduct? Suppose instead that Meta enters, with virtual-exercise guns blazing, much to the consternation of firms actually in the market, which might complain about it. Then what? Would the Commission cheer or would it allege harm to nascent competition, or perhaps a novel vertical theory? And by the way, how poised is Meta, given no competing product in late-stage development? Would the FTC prefer that Meta buy a different competitor? Should the overworked staff commence Meta’s due diligence?
Potential competition cases are viable given the right facts, and in areas where good grounds to predict significant entry are well-established. But this is a nascent market in a large, highly dynamic, and innovative industry. The competitive landscape a few years down the road is anyone’s guess. More speculation: the staff was right all along. For more, see Dirk Auer’s or Geoffrey Manne’s threads on the amended complaint.
When It Rains It Pours Regulations
On Aug. 22, the FTC published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) to consider the potential regulation of “commercial surveillance and data security” under its Section 18 authority. Shortly thereafter, they announced an Oct. 20 open meeting with three more ANPRs on the agenda.
First, on the advance notice: I’m not sure what they mean by “commercial surveillance.” The term doesn’t appear in statutory law, or in prior FTC enforcement actions. It sounds sinister and, surely, it’s an intentional nod to Shoshana Zuboff’s anti-tech polemic “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” One thing is plain enough: the proffered definition is as dramatically sweeping as it is hopelessly vague. The Commission seems to be contemplating a general data regulation of some sort, but we don’t know what sort. They don’t say or even sketch a possible rule. That’s a problem for the FTC, because the law demands that the Commission state its regulatory objectives, along with regulatory alternatives under consideration, in the ANPR itself. If they get to an NPRM, they are required to describe a proposed rule with specificity.
What’s clear is that the ANPR takes a dim view of much of the digital economy. And while the Commission has considerable experience in certain sorts of privacy and data security matters, the ANPR hints at a project extending well past that experience. Commissioners Phillips and Wilson dissented for good and overlapping reasons. Here’s a bit from the Phillips dissent:
When adopting regulations, clarity is a virtue. But the only thing clear in the ANPR is a rather dystopic view of modern commerce….I cannot support an ANPR that is the first step in a plan to go beyond the Commission’s remit and outside its experience to issue rules that fundamentally alter the internet economy without a clear congressional mandate….It’s a naked power grab.
Be sure to read the bonus material in the Federal Register—supporting statements from Chair Lina Khan and Commissioners Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Alvaro Bedoya, and dissenting statements from Commissioners Phillips and Wilson. Chair Khan breezily states that “the questions we ask in the ANPR and the rules we are empowered to issue may be consequential, but they do not implicate the ‘major questions doctrine.’” She’s probably half right: the questions do not violate the Constitution. But she’s probably half wrong too.
But wait, there’s more! There were three additional ANPRs on the Commission’s Oct. 20 agenda. So that’s four and counting. Will there be a proposed rule on non-competes? Gig workers? Stay tuned. For now, note that rules are not self-enforcing, and that the chair has testified to Congress that the Commission is strapped for resources and struggling to keep up with its statutory mission. Are more regulations an odd way to ask Congress for money? Thus far, there’s no proposed rule on gig workers, but there was a Policy Statement on Enforcement Related to Gig Workers.. For more on that story, see Alden Abbott’s TOTM post.
Laws, Like People, Have Their Limits
Read Phillips’s parting dissent in Passport Auto Group, where the Commission combined legitimate allegations with an unhealthy dose of overreach:
The language of the unfairness standard has given the FTC the flexibility to combat new threats to consumers that accompany the development of new industries and technologies. Still, there are limits to the Commission’s unfairness authority. Because this complaint includes an unfairness count that aims to transform Section 5 into an undefined discrimination statute, I respectfully dissent.”
Right. Three cheers for effective enforcement of the focused antidiscrimination laws enacted by Congress by the agencies actually charged to enforce those laws. And to equal protection. And three more, at least, for a little regulatory humility, if we find it.
The business press generally describes the gig economy that has sprung up around digital platforms like Uber and TaskRabbit as a beneficial phenomenon, “a glass that is almost full.” The gig economy “is an economy that operates flexibly, involving the exchange of labor and resources through digital platforms that actively facilitate buyer and seller matching.”
From the perspective of businesses, major positive attributes of the gig economy include cost-effectiveness (minimizing costs and expenses); labor-force efficiencies (“directly matching the company to the freelancer”); and flexible output production (individualized work schedules and enhanced employee motivation). Workers also benefit through greater independence, enhanced work flexibility (including hours worked), and the ability to earn extra income.
While there are some disadvantages, as well, (worker-commitment questions, business-ethics issues, lack of worker benefits, limited coverage of personal expenses, and worker isolation), there is no question that the gig economy has contributed substantially to the growth and flexibility of the American economy—a major social good. Indeed, “[i]t is undeniable that the gig economy has become an integral part of the American workforce, a trend that has only been accelerated during the” COVID-19 pandemic.
In marked contrast, however, the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Sept. 15 Policy Statement on Enforcement Related to Gig Work (“gig statement” or “statement”) is the story of a glass that is almost empty. The accompanying press release declaring “FTC to Crack Down on Companies Taking Advantage of Gig Workers” (since when is “taking advantage of workers” an antitrust or consumer-protection offense?) puts an entirely negative spin on the gig economy. And while the gig statement begins by describing the nature and large size of the gig economy, it does so in a dispassionate and bland tone. No mention is made of the substantial benefits for consumers, workers, and the overall economy stemming from gig work. Rather, the gig statement quickly adopts a critical perspective in describing the market for gig workers and then addressing gig-related FTC-enforcement priorities. What’s more, the statement deals in very broad generalities and eschews specifics, rendering it of no real use to gig businesses seeking practical guidance.
Most significantly, the gig statement suggests that the FTC should play a significant enforcement role in gig-industry labor questions that fall outside its statutory authority. As such, the statement is fatally flawed as a policy document. It provides no true guidance and should be substantially rewritten or withdrawn.
Gig Statement Analysis
The gig statement’s substantive analysis begins with a negative assessment of gig-firm conduct. It expresses concern that gig workers are being misclassified as independent contractors and are thus deprived “of critical rights [right to organize, overtime pay, health and safety protections] to which they are entitled under law.” Relatedly, gig workers are said to be “saddled with inordinate risks.” Gig firms also “may use transparent algorithms to capture more revenue from customer payments for workers’ services than customers or workers understand.”
The solution offered by the gig statement is “scrutiny of promises gig platforms make, or information they fail to disclose, about the financial proposition of gig work.” No mention is made of how these promises supposedly made to workers about the financial ramifications of gig employment are related to the FTC’s statutory mission (which centers on unfair or deceptive acts or practices affecting consumers or unfair methods of competition).
The gig statement next complains that a “power imbalance” between gig companies and gig workers “may leave gig workers exposed to harms from unfair, deceptive, and anticompetitive practices and is likely to amplify such harms when they occur. “Power imbalance” along a vertical chain has not been a source of serious antitrust concern for decades (and even in the case of the Robinson-Patman Act, the U.S. Supreme Court most recently stressed, in 2005’s Volvo v. Reeder, that harm to interbrand competition is the key concern). “Power imbalances” between workers and employers bear no necessary relation to consumer welfare promotion, which the Supreme Court teaches is the raison d’etre of antitrust. Moreover, the FTC does not explain why unfair or deceptive conduct likely follows from the mere existence of substantial bargaining power. Such an unsupported assertion is not worthy of being included in a serious agency-policy document.
The gig statement then engages in more idle speculation about a supposed relationship between market concentration and the proliferation of unfair and deceptive practices across the gig economy. The statement claims, without any substantiation, that gig companies in concentrated platform markets will be incentivized to exert anticompetitive market power over gig workers, and thereby “suppress wages below competitive rates, reduce job quality, or impose onerous terms on gig workers.” Relatedly, “unfair and deceptive practices by one platform can proliferate across the labor market, creating a race to the bottom that participants in the gig economy, and especially gig workers, have little ability to avoid.” No empirical or theoretical support is advanced for any of these bald assertions, which give the strong impression that the commission plans to target gig-economy companies for enforcement actions without regard to the actual facts on the ground. (By contrast, the commission has in the past developed detailed factual records of competitive and/or consumer-protection problems in health care and other important industry sectors as a prelude to possible future investigations.)
The statement then launches into a description of the FTC’s gig-economy policy priorities. It notes first that “workers may be deprived of the protections of an employment relationship” when gig firms classify them as independent contractors, leading to firms’ “disclosing [of] pay and costs in an unfair and deceptive manner.” What’s more, the FTC “also recognizes that misleading claims [made to workers] about the costs and benefits of gig work can impair fair competition among companies in the gig economy and elsewhere.”
These extraordinary statements seem to be saying that the FTC plans to closely scrutinize gig-economy-labor contract negotiations, based on its distaste for independent contracting (which it believes should be supplanted by employer-employee relationships, a question of labor law, not FTC law). Nowhere is it explained where such a novel FTC exercise of authority comes from, nor how such FTC actions have any bearing on harms to consumer welfare. The FTC’s apparent desire to force employment relationships upon gig firms is far removed from harm to competition or unfair or deceptive practices directed at consumers. Without more of an explanation, one is left to conclude that the FTC is proposing to take actions that are far beyond its statutory remit.
The gig statement next tries to tie the FTC’s new gig program to violations of the FTC Act (“unsubstantiated claims”); the FTC’s Franchise Rule; and the FTC’s Business Opportunity Rule, violations of which “can trigger civil penalties.” The statement, however, lacks any sort of logical, coherent explanation of how the new enforcement program necessarily follows from these other sources of authority. While a few examples of rules-based enforcement actions that have some connection to certain terms of employment may be pointed to, such special cases are a far cry from any sort of general justification for turning the FTC into a labor-contracts regulator.
The statement then moves on to the alleged misuse of algorithmic tools dealing with gig-worker contracts and supervision that may lead to unlawful gig-worker oversight and termination. Once again, the connection of any of this to consumer-welfare harm (from a competition or consumer-protection perspective) is not made.
The statement further asserts that FTC Act consumer-protection violations may arise from “nonnegotiable” and other unfair contracts. In support of such a novel exercise of authority, however, the FTC cites supposedly analogous “unfair” clauses found in consumer contracts with individuals or small-business consumers. It is highly doubtful that these precedents support any FTC enforcement actions involving labor contracts.
Noncompete clauses with individuals are next on the gig statement’s agenda. It is claimed that “[n]on-compete provisions may undermine free and fair labor markets by restricting workers’ ability to obtain competitive offers for their services from existing companies, resulting in lower wages and degraded working conditions. These provisions may also raise barriers to entry for new companies.” The assertion, however, that such clauses may violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act or Section 5 of the FTC Act’s bar on unfair methods of competition, seems dubious, to say the least. Unless there is coordination among companies, these are essentially unilateral contracting practices that may have robust efficiency explanations. Making out these practices to be federal antitrust violations is bad law and bad policy; they are, in any event, subject to a wide variety of state laws.
Even more problematic is the FTC’s claim that a variety of standard (typically efficiency-seeking) contract limitations, such as nondisclosure agreements and liquidated damages clauses, “may be excessive or overbroad” and subject to FTC scrutiny. This preposterous assertion would make the FTC into a second-guesser of common labor contracts (a federal labor-contract regulator, if you will), a role for which it lacks authority and is entirely unsuited. Turning the FTC into a federal labor-contract regulator would impose unjustifiable uncertainty costs on business and chill a host of efficient arrangements. It is hard to take such a claim of power seriously, given its lack of any credible statutory basis.
The final section of the gig statement dealing with FTC enforcement (“Policing Unfair Methods of Competition That Harm Gig Workers”) is unobjectionable, but not particularly informative. It essentially states that the FTC’s black letter legal authority over anticompetitive conduct also extends to gig companies: the FTC has the authority to investigate and prosecute anticompetitive mergers; agreements among competitors to fix terms of employment; no-poach agreements; and acts of monopolization and attempted monopolization. (Tell us something we did not know!)
The fact that gig-company workers may be harmed by such arrangements is noted. The mere page and a half devoted to this legal summary, however, provides little practical guidance for gig companies as to how to avoid running afoul of the law. Antitrust policy statements may be excused if they provided less detailed guidance than antitrust guidelines, but it would be helpful if they did something more than provide a capsule summary of general American antitrust principles. The gig statement does not pass this simple test.
The gig statement closes with a few glittering generalities. Cooperation with other agencies is highlighted (for example, an information-sharing agreement with the National Labor Relations Board is described). The FTC describes an “Equity Action Plan” calling for a focus on how gig-economy antitrust and consumer-protection abuses harm underserved communities and low-wage workers.
The FTC finishes with a request for input from the public and from gig workers about abusive and potentially illegal gig-sector conduct. No mention is made of the fact that the FTC must, of course, conform itself to the statutory limitations on its jurisdiction in the gig sector, as in all other areas of the economy.
Summing Up the Gig Statement
In sum, the critical flaw of the FTC’s gig statement is its focus on questions of labor law and policy (including the question of independent contractor as opposed to employee status) that are the proper purview of federal and state statutory schemes not administered by the Federal Trade Commission. (A secondary flaw is the statement’s unbalanced portrayal of the gig sector, which ignores its beneficial aspects.) If the FTC decides that gig-economy issues deserve particular enforcement emphasis, it should (and, indeed, must) direct its attention to anticompetitive actions and unfair or deceptive acts or practices that harm consumers.
On the antitrust side, that might include collusion among gig companies on the terms offered to workers or perhaps “mergers to monopoly” between gig companies offering a particular service. On the consumer-protection side, that might include making false or materially misleading statements to consumers about the terms under which they purchase gig-provided services. (It would be conceivable, of course, that some of those statements might be made, unwittingly or not, by gig independent contractors, at the behest of the gig companies.)
The FTC also might carry out gig-industry studies to identify particular prevalent competitive or consumer-protection harms. The FTC should not, however, seek to transform itself into a gig-labor-market enforcer and regulator, in defiance of its lack of statutory authority to play this role.
The FTC does, of course, have a legitimate role to play in challenging unfair methods of competition and unfair acts or practices that undermine consumer welfare wherever they arise, including in the gig economy. But it does a disservice by focusing merely on supposed negative aspects of the gig economy and conjuring up a gig-specific “parade of horribles” worthy of close commission scrutiny and enforcement action.
Many of the “horribles” cited may not even be “bads,” and many of them are, in any event, beyond the proper legal scope of FTC inquiry. There are other federal agencies (for example, the National Labor Relations Board) whose statutes may prove applicable to certain problems noted in the gig statement. In other cases, statutory changes may be required to address certain problems noted in the statement (assuming they actually are problems). The FTC, and its fellow enforcement agencies, should keep in mind, of course, that they are not Congress, and wishing for legal authority to deal with problems does not create it (something the federal judiciary fully understands).
In short, the negative atmospherics that permeate the gig statement are unnecessary and counterproductive; if anything, they are likely to convince at least some judges that the FTC is not the dispassionate finder of fact and enforcer of law that it claims to be. In particular, the judiciary is unlikely to be impressed by the FTC’s apparent effort to insert itself into questions that lie far beyond its statutory mandate.
The FTC should withdraw the gig statement. If, however, it does not, it should revise the statement in a manner that is respectful of the limits on the commission’s legal authority, and that presents a more dispassionate analysis of gig-economy business conduct.
If you wander into an undergraduate economics class on the right day at the right time, you might catch the lecturer talking about Giffen goods: the rare case where demand curves can slope upward. The Irish potato famine is often used as an example. As the story goes, potatoes were a huge part of the Irish diet and consumed a large part of Irish family budgets. A failure of the potato crop reduced the supply of potatoes and potato prices soared. Because families had to spend so much on potatoes, they couldn’t afford much else, so spending on potatoes increased despite rising prices.
It’s a great story of injustice with a nugget of economics: Demand curves can slope upward!
Follow the students around for a few days, and they’ll be looking for Giffen goods everywhere. Surely, packaged ramen and boxed macaroni and cheese are Giffen goods. So are white bread and rice. Maybe even low-end apartments.
While it’s a fun concept to consider, the potato famine story is likely apocryphal. In truth, it’s nearly impossible to find a Giffen good in the real world. My version of Greg Mankiw’s massive “Principles of Economics” textbook devotes five paragraphs to Giffen goods, but it’s not especially relevant, which is perhaps why it’s only five paragraphs.
Wander into another economics class, and you might catch the lecturer talking about monopsony—that is, a market in which a small number of buyers control the price of inputs such as labor. I say “might” because—like Giffen goods—monopsony is an interesting concept to consider, but very hard to find a clear example of in the real world. Mankiw’s textbook devotes only four paragraphs to monopsony, explaining that the book “does not present a formal model of monopsony because, in the world, monopsonies are rare.”
Even so, monopsony is a hot topic these days. It seems that monopsonies are everywhere. Walmart and Amazon are monopsonist employers. So are poultry, pork, and beef companies. Local hospitals monopsonize the market for nurses and physicians. The National Collegiate Athletic Association is a monopsony employer of college athletes. Ultimate Fighting Championship has a monopsony over mixed-martial-arts fighters.
In 1994, David Card and Alan Krueger’s earthshaking study found a minimum wage increase had no measurable effect on fast-food employment and retail prices. They investigated monopsony power as one explanation but concluded that a monopsony model was not supported by their findings. They note:
[W]e find that prices of fast-food meals increased in New Jersey relative to Pennsylvania, suggesting that much of the burden of the minimum-wage rise was passed on to consumers. Within New Jersey, however, we find no evidence that prices increased more in stores that were most affected by the minimum-wage rise. Taken as a whole, these findings are difficult to explain with the standard competitive model or with models in which employers face supply constraints (e.g., monopsony or equilibrium search models). [Emphasis added]
Even so, the monopsony hunt was on and it intensified during President Barack Obama’s administration. During his term, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) brought suit against several major Silicon Valley employers for anticompetitively entering into agreements not to “poach” programmers and engineers from each other. The administration also brought suit against a hospital association for an agreement to set uniform billing rates for certain nurses. Both cases settled but the Silicon Valley allegations led to a private class-action lawsuit.
In 2016, Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers published an issue brief on labor-market monopsony. The brief concluded that “evidence suggest[s] that firms may have wage-setting power in a broad range of settings.”
Around the same time, the Obama administration announced that it intended to “criminally investigate naked no-poaching or wage-fixing agreements that are unrelated or unnecessary to a larger legitimate collaboration between the employers.” The DOJ argued that no-poach agreements that allocate employees between companies are per se unlawful restraints of trade that violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act.
If one believes that monopsony power is stifling workers’ wages and benefits, then this would be a good first step to build up a body of evidence and precedence. Go after the low-hanging fruit of a conspiracy that is a per se violation of the Sherman Act, secure some wins, and then start probing the more challenging cases.
After several matters that resulted in settlements, the DOJ brought its first criminal wage-fixing case in late 2020. In United States v. Jindal, the government charged two employees of a Texas health-care staffing company of colluding with another staffing company to decrease pay rates for physical therapists and physical-therapist assistants.
The defense in Jindal conceded that that price-fixing was per se illegal under the Sherman Act but argued that prices and wages are two different concepts. Therefore, the defense claimed that, even if it was engaged in wage-fixing, the conduct would not be per se illegal. That was a stretch, and the district court judge was having none of that in ruling that: “The antitrust laws fully apply to the labor markets, and price-fixing agreements among buyers … are prohibited by the Sherman Act.”
Nevertheless, the jury in Jindal found the defendants not guilty of wage-fixing in violation of the Sherman Act, and also not guilty of a related conspiracy charge.
Before trial, the defense in DaVita filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that no-poach agreements did not amount to illegal market-allocation agreements. Instead, the defense claimed that no-poach agreements were something less restrictive. Rather than a flat-out refusal to hire competitors’ employees, they were more akin to agreeing not to seek out competitors’ employees. As with Jindal, this was too much of a stretch for the judge who ruled that no-poach agreements could be an illegal market-allocation agreement.
A day after the Jindal verdict, the jury in DaVita acquitted the kidney-dialysis provider and its former CEO of charges that they conspired with competitors to suppress competition for employees through no-poach agreements.
The DaVita jurors appeared to be hung up on the definition of “meaningful competition” in the relevant market. The defense presented information showing that, despite any agreements, employees frequently changed jobs among the companies. Thus, it was argued that any agreement did not amount to an allocation of the market for employees.
The prosecution called several corporate executives who testified that the non-solicitation agreements merely required DaVita employees to tell their bosses they were looking for another job before they could be considered for positions at the three alleged co-conspirator companies. Some witnesses indicated that, by informing their bosses, they were able to obtain promotions and/or increased compensation. This was supported by expert testimony concluding that DaVita salaries changed during the alleged conspiracy period at a rate higher than the health-care industry as a whole. This finding is at-odds with a theory that the non-solicitation agreement was designed to stabilize or suppress compensation.
The Jindal and DaVita cases highlight some of the enormous challenges in mounting a labor-monopsonization case. Even if agencies can “win” or get concessions on defining the relevant markets, they still face challenges in establishing that no-poach agreements amount to a “meaningful” restraint of trade. DaVita suggests that a showing of job turnover and/or increased compensation during an alleged conspiracy period may be sufficient to convince a jury that a no-poach agreement may not be anticompetitive and—under certain circumstances—may even be pro-competitive.
For now, the hunt for a monopsony labor market continues its quest, along with the hunt for the ever-elusive Giffen good.
[The 15th entry in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium is a guest post from DePaul University College of Law‘s Josh Sarnoff, a former Thomas A. Edison Distinguished Scholar at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.You can find other posts at thesymposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]
We used to have a robust aftermarket for non-original equipment manufacturer (OEM) automobile repair parts and “independent” repair services, but car companies have increasingly resorted to design-patent protection to prevent competition in the supply of cosmetic repair parts such as bumpers, hoods, panels, and mirrors. The predictable and intended consequence has been to raise prices and reduce options for consumers, effectively monopolizing the separate repair parts and services markets through federal intellectual-property control over needed repair products or inputs to service markets.
Because this is a federal legal right, moreover, it preempts state “right to repair” laws that would authorize such products and services, either as a matter of consumer rights or as a remedy for anti-competitive conduct or “unfair or deceptive” acts and practices resulting from tying a monopoly over the original sales market for specific automobiles (protected by those intellectual-property rights) into a monopoly in the repair markets for those automobiles. Existing law under Section 102(c) of the 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act does not explicitly prohibit such supply-restriction anti-competitive conduct when protecting against warranty requirements that would void warranties based on “tie-in sales” requirements that would void warranties if third-party repair parts or independent repair services are used by consumers.
Unlike for functional parts of “machines,” which have always been subject to utility-patent rights, non-functional parts of machines were not (and still are not) statutorily authorized as the subject of design-patent rights. However, in 1980, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit—in an opinion by Judge Giles Rich—held that design patents can protect parts or fragments of “articles of manufacture,” the class of statutory subject matter for which ornamental design-patent rights can be provided.
By reducing the “size” of the thing to which the design-patent right applies—here, a part rather than an entire automobile (leaving aside the question of how machines get protection in the first place, when Congress hasn’t authorized it for design patents)—the historic right to repair a purchased machine without reconstructing it can be effectively overridden. This is because the third-party parts supplier is now constructing an entire part (e.g., a headlight) subject to design-patent rights, whereas they would have been authorized to make a part for use in repairing the entire car (and note that designs are supposed to be understood as a whole, not by assessing only parts of the objects to be protected—the article of manufacture).
In 2019, the Federal Circuit held that consumer desires to purchase and use replacement cosmetic auto parts to repair cars to their original appearance is not a “functional” requirement for which ornamental design-patent rights cannot be provided, and thus design patents protect against competition to supply such ornamental repair parts. As the court stated:
Our precedent gives weight to this language, holding that a de-sign patent must claim an “ornamental” design, not one ‘dictated by function.’… We hold that, even in this context of a consumer preference for a particular design to match other parts of a whole, the aesthetic appeal of a design to consumers is inadequate to render that design functional.
This decision assures that design patents override both consumers’ “right” to restore the appearance of their products to the original condition and state or insurance-policy requirements that require the use of “must-match” aftermarket parts to do so. If the manufacture or import of aftermarket parts is prohibited by design-patent law, then obviously consumers and independent repair shops cannot use them to repair their vehicles, and insurers cannot control costs by paying for the use such aftermarket parts. This is true even when those aftermarket parts are superior in quality to the OEM parts, at lower prices.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in theory could address the over-extension by the judiciary of design-patent protection for cosmetic auto parts, by finding such repair-restricting practices relying on design-patent protection to be either anticompetitive or unfair to consumers. The FTC has already recognized the need to protect the right to repair products. In 2013, the Supreme Court held in FTC v. Actavis that conduct within the scope of granted patent rights may still constitute an antitrust violation. Using patent rights to tie repair parts and services to the original purchase market may violate either Section 1 or Section 2 of the Sherman Act.
The FTC might also, in theory, extend antitrust principles beyond what is prohibited under the Sherman Act, using its adjudicatory “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) authority under Section 5(a)(2) & (b) or its rulemaking authority under Section 6(g). Some have argued that the FTC cannot or should not adopt prohibitions on anticompetitive conduct that does not violate other statutory antitrust laws, and that Section 6(g) rulemaking authority is limited to procedural rules and does not authorize substantive antitrust rulemaking, even though the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld such substantive rulemaking in 1973 (which would now be overruled if the issue reached the Supreme Court). I’ll leave that issue aside for now, even though it is often difficult to distinguish UMC from unfair commercial practices.
Instead, I’ll focus on the clearer and undisputed authority of the FTC to issue (admittedly procedurally burdensome) rules to prohibit “unfair or deceptive commercial practices” (UDCP) using rulemaking authority under Section 18 of the FTC Act. Under that section, subsection (a)(1)(B), the FTC can “prescribe … rules which define with specificity acts or practices which are unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.” But the rulemaking authority does not define what “practices are unfair, except to refer to Section 5(a)(1)’s legislative declaration that “unfair … commercial practices” are “unlawful.”
In turn, Section 5(n) of the FTC Act defines an “unfair” act or practice as one that must “cause 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.”
For the reasons described above, use of design-patent rights (even if they may result in lower upfront sales prices of cars, because manufacturers may obtain additional profits through leveraging those rights to prevent an aftermarket in repair parts) should clearly qualify as “unfair” under this definition, even if Congress (at least according to the Federal Circuit, even if the statutory text doesn’t support that and only activist judicial interpretation is the proximate cause of the authority) is the source of the patent right that is being used “unfairly.”
“Common wisdom,” however, suggests that the FTC will not choose to exercise its “unfairness” authority beyond recognized categories of specifically and legislatively prohibited acts, just like with its antitrust UMC authority, without further legislative enactment. This common wisdom may be belied by the fact that the FTC updated its Section 18 rulemaking procedures in July 2021, and recently requested that the public bring complaints over illegal repair restriction practices to its attention and indicated that it would “prioritize investigations into unlawful repair restrictions under … Section 5….”
More importantly, “common wisdom” suggests that Congress restricted the FTC’s authority to impose broad new rules defining unfair commercial practices when it adopted the Section 18 rules in response to purported overreach by the FTC in the late 1970s under the Carter administration, as well as temporarily defunded the agency. But Section 18 does not substantively modify the FTC’s Section 5(a) authority (to which Section 18 rulemaking applies), and the common wisdom is likely incorrect that the FTC lacks the power to issue such rules (even if it lacks the willpower).
Since the 1980 legislative change to FTC’s UDCP rulemaking requirements, the FTC has been reluctant to engage in broad rulemaking to define unfairness in commercial contexts, although it has continued to enforce more vigorously prohibitions against deception against consumers, including through deceptive advertisements. The FTC has not issued any similar, generally applicable principles as to what constitutes “unfairness” in commercial practices.
Nevertheless, it should be clear that the FTC has the power to do so. But in the current judicial-review context, the FTC may be even more reluctant than during the past four decades to exercise such authority, as it may lead to judicial invalidation of its Section 5(a)&(b) authority to declare what practices are “unfair.”
As many administrative law scholars have noted, the Supreme Court has recently adopted a much more aggressive “major questions” doctrine for refusing deference to agency interpretations of the scope of their regulatory authority. Instead of lack of deference, the Court has imposed a new and restrictive “clear statement” rule, requiring greater legislative specificity before finding that an agency possesses regulatory authority to take challenged actions. Accordingly, should the FTC issue a new, broad unfair commercial practices rule under Section 18 prohibiting the use of design patents to prevent aftermarket parts from being manufactured—on grounds that it is “unfair” to consumers and adversely affects their “right” of repair—then absent significant change to the Court’s composition, that rule will likely be invalidated because Congress did not define “unfairness” with sufficient specificity.
Even more importantly, such a rule would provide a very “good” test case for a Supreme Court itching to revive the non-delegation doctrine and to hamstring the administrative regulatory apparatus. Thus, the FTC might rightly fear outright repeal of its Section 5(a) as well as its Section 18 (and Section 6g substantive rulemaking) authority should it adopt an aggressive consumer-protection approach.
In conclusion, given the likely lack of political will on the FTC—in light of the likely response of the Supreme Court should the FTC exercise its legislatively conferred power in a consumer-friendly fashion—the use of design patents to restrict the right to repair is a problem that Congress should and must fix. Congress should do so both by adopting a right-to-repair law (such as the Fair Repair Act) and by amending the design-patent act to ensure that the consumer right to repair can be effectuated.
Since broad legislation to accomplish this in a general right-to-repair law or in a modification of the design-patent law that overturns partial and fragment protection for machines directly is likely to face significant opposition, Congress should at least act swiftly to pass the pending SMART Act, which provides that manufacture, import, and offer for sale of design-patented cosmetic automobile repair parts is not an act of infringement, and permits sale and use of those parts after a limited period of exclusivity (30 months) that assures more than sufficient returns on investment in such parts-design development. That way, consumers will be protected in regard to the second most valuable purchase they can make (the first being their home) and the one that is most likely to need repair given the continuing, widespread problem of traffic accidents (the subject of different consumer protection measures that are needed).
[The ideas in this post from Truth on the Market regular Jonathan M. Barnett of USC Gould School of Law—the eighth entry in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium—are developed in greater detail in “Regulatory Rents: An Agency-Cost Analysis of the FTC Rulemaking Initiative,” a chapter in the forthcoming book FTC’s Rulemaking Authority, which will be published by Concurrences later this year. This is the first of two posts we are publishing today; see also this related post from Aaron Nielsen of BYU Law.You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]
In December 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released its statement of regulatory priorities for 2022, which describes its intention to expand the agency’s rulemaking activities to target “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act), in addition to (and in some cases, presumably in place of) the conventional mechanism of case-by-case adjudication. Agency leadership (meaning, the FTC chair and the majority commissioners) largely characterizes the rulemaking initiative as a logistical improvement to enable the agency to more efficiently execute its statutory commitment to preserve competitive markets. Unburdened by the costs and delays inherent to the adjudicative process (which, in the antitrust context, typically requires evidence of actual or likely competitive harm), the agency will be able to take expedited action against UMCs based on rules preemptively set forth by the agency.
This shift from enforcement by adjudication to enforcement by rulemaking is far from a mechanical adjustment. Rather, it is best understood as part of an initiative to make fundamental changes to the substance and methodology of antitrust enforcement. Substantively, the initiative appears to be part of a broader effort to alter the goals of antitrust enforcement so that it promotes what are deemed to be “equitable” market outcomes, rather than preserving the competitive process through which outcomes are determined by market forces. Methodologically, the initiative appears to be part of a broader effort to displace rule-of-reason treatment with the practical equivalent of per se prohibitions in a wide range of putatively “unfair” practices. Both steps would be inconsistent with the agency’s statutory mission to safeguard the competitive process or a meaningful commitment to a market-driven economy and the rule of law.
Abandoning Competitive Markets
Little steps sometimes portend bigger changes.
In July 2021, FTC leadership removed the following words from the mission description of the agency’s Bureau of Competition: “The Bureau’s work aims to preserve the free market system and assure the unfettered operation of the forces of supply and demand.” This omitted statement had tracked what remains the standard characterization by federal courts and agency guidelines of the core objective of the antitrust laws. Following this characterization, the antitrust laws seek to preserve the “rules of the game” for market competition, while remaining indifferent to the outcomes of such competition in any particular market. It is the competitive process, not the fortunes of particular competitors, that matters.
Other statements by FTC leadership suggest that they seek to abandon this outcome-agnostic perspective. A memo from the FTC chair to staff, distributed in September 2021, states that the agency’s actions “shape the distribution of power and opportunity” and encourages staff “to take a holistic approach to identifying harms, recognizing that antitrust and consumer protection violations harm workers and independent businesses as well as consumers.” In a draft strategic plan distributed by FTC leadership in October 2021, the agency described its mission as promoting “fair competition” for the “benefit of the public.” In contrast, the agency’s previously released strategic plan had described the agency’s mission as promoting “competition” for the benefit of consumers, consistent with the case law’s commitment to protecting consumer welfare, dating at least to the Supreme Court’s 1979 decision in Reiter v. Sonotone Corp. et al.The change in language suggests that the agency’s objectives encompass a broad range of stakeholders and policies (including distributive objectives) that extends beyond, and could conflict with, its commitment to preserve the integrity of the competitive process.
These little steps are part of a broader package of “big steps” undertaken during 2021 by FTC leadership.
In July 2021, the agency abandoned decades of federal case law and agency guidelines by rejecting the consumer-welfare standard for purposes of enforcement of Section 5 of the FTC Act against UMCs. Relatedly, FTC leadership asserted in the same statement that Congress had delegated to the agency authority under Section 5 “to determine which practices fell into the category of ‘unfair methods of competition’”. Remarkably, the agency’s claimed ambit of prosecutorial discretion to identify “unfair” practices is apparently only limited by a commitment to exercise such power “responsibly.”
This largely unbounded redefinition of the scope of Section 5 divorces the FTC’s enforcement authority from the concepts and methods as embodied in decades of federal case law and agency guidelines interpreting the Sherman and Clayton Acts. Those concepts and methods are in turn anchored in the consumer-welfare principle, which ensures that regulatory and judicial actions promote the public interest in the competitive process, rather than the private interests of any particular competitor or other policy goals not contemplated by the antitrust laws. Effectively, agency leadership has unilaterally converted Section 5 into an empty vessel into which enforcers may insert a fluid range of business practices that are deemed by fiat to pose a risk to “fair” competition.
Abandoning the Rule of Reason
In the same statement in which FTC leadership rejected the consumer-welfare principle for purposes of Section 5 enforcement, it rejected the relevance of the rule of reason for these same purposes. In that statement, agency leadership castigated the rule of reason as a standard that “leads to soaring enforcement costs” and asserted that it is incompatible with Section 5 of the FTC Act. In March 2021 remarks delivered to the House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee, Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter similarly lamented “[t]he effect of cramped case law,” specifically viewing as problematic the fact that “[u]nder current Section 5 jurisprudence, courts have to consider conduct under the ‘rule of reason,’ a fact-intensive investigation into whether the anticompetitive effects of the conduct outweigh the procompetitive justifications.” Hence, it appears that the FTC, in exercising its purported rulemaking powers against UMCs under Section 5, does not intend to undertake the balancing of competitive harms and gains that is the signature element of rule-of-reason analysis. Tellingly, the agency’s draft strategic plan, released in October 2021, omits language that it would execute its enforcement mission “without unduly burdening legitimate business activity” (language that had appeared in the previously released strategic plan)—again, suggesting that it plans to take littleaccount of the offsetting competitive gains attributable to a particular business practice.
This change in methodology has two profound and concerning implications.
First, it means that any “unfair” practice targeted by the agency under Section 5 is effectively subject to a per se prohibition—that is, the agency can prevail merely by identifying that the defendant engaged in a particular practice, rather than having to show competitive harm. Note that this would represent a significant step beyond the per se rule that Sherman Act case law applies to certain cases of horizontal collusion. In those cases, a per se rule has been adopted because economic analysis indicates that these types of practices in general pose such a high risk of net anticompetitive harm that a rule-of-reason inquiry is likely to fail a cost-benefit test almost all of the time. By contrast, there is no indication that FTC leadership plans to confine its rulemaking activities to practices that systematically pose an especially high risk of anticompetitive harm, in part because it is not clear that agency leadership still views harm to the competitive process as being the determinative criterion in antitrust analysis.
Second, without further clarification from agency leadership, this means that the agency appears to place substantially reduced weight on the possibility of “false positive” error costs. This would be a dramatic departure from the conventional approach to error costs as reflected in federal antitrust case law. Antitrust scholars have long argued, and many courts have adopted the view, that “false positive” costs should be weighted more heavily relative to “false negative” error costs, principally on the ground that, as Judge Richard Posner once put it, “a cartel . . . carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.” To be clear, this weighted approach should still meaningfully assess the false-negative error costs that arise from mistaken failures to intervene. By contrast, the agency’s blanket rejection of the rule of reason in all circumstances for Section 5 purposes raises doubt as to whether it would assign any material weight to false-positive error costs in exercising its purported rulemaking power under Section 5 against UMCs. Consistent with this possibility, the agency’s July 2021 statement—which rejected the rule of reason specifically—adopted the view that Section 5 enforcement should target business practices in their “incipiency,” even absent evidence of a “likely” anticompetitive effect.
While there may be reasonable arguments in favor of an equal weighting of false-positive and false-negative error costs (on the grounds that markets are sometimes slow to correct anticompetitive conduct, as compared to the speed with which courts correct false-positive interventions), it is hard to fathom a reasonable policy argument in favor of placing no material weight on the former cost category. Under conditions of uncertainty, the net economic effect of any particular enforcement action, or failure to take such action, gives rise to a mix of probability-adjusted false-positive and false-negative error costs. Hence, any sound policy framework seeks to minimize the sum of those costs. Moreover, the wholesale rejection of a balancing analysis overlooks extensive scholarship identifying cases in which federal courts, especially during the period prior to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1977 decision in Continental TV Inc. v. GTE Sylvania Inc., applied per se rules that erroneously targeted business practices that were almost certainly generating net-positive competitive gains. Any such mistaken intervention counterproductively penalizes the efforts and ingenuity of the most efficient firms, which then harms consumers, who are compelled to suffer higher prices, lower quality, or fewer innovations than would otherwise have been the case.
The dismissal of efficiency considerations and false-positive error costs is difficult to reconcile with an economically informed approach that seeks to take enforcement actions only where there is a high likelihood of improving economic welfare based on available evidence. On this point, it is worth quoting Oliver Williamson’s well-known critique of 1960s-era antitrust: “[I]f neither the courts nor the enforcement agencies are sensitive to these [efficiency] considerations, the system fails to meet a basic test of economic rationality. And without this the whole enforcement system lacks defensible standards and becomes suspect.”
Abandoning the Rule of Law
In a liberal democratic system of government, the market relies on the state’s commitment to set forth governing laws with adequate notice and specificity, and then to enforce those laws in a manner that is reasonably amenable to judicial challenge in case of prosecutorial error or malfeasance. Without that commitment, investors are exposed to arbitrary enforcement and would be reluctant to place capital at stake. In light of the agency’s concurrent rejection of the consumer-welfare and rule-of-reason principles, any future attempt by the FTC to exercise its purported Section 5 rulemaking powers against UMCs under what currently appears to be a regime of largely unbounded regulatory discretion is likely to violate these elementary conditions for a rule-of-law jurisdiction.
Having dismissed decades of learning and precedent embodied in federal case law and agency guidelines, FTC leadership has declined to adopt any substitute guidelines to govern its actions under Section 5 and, instead, has stated (in its July 2021 statement rejecting the consumer-welfare principle) that there are few bounds on its authority to specify and target practices that it deems to be “unfair.” This blunt approach contrasts sharply with the measured approach reflected in existing agency guidelines and federal case law, which seek to delineate reasonably objective standards to govern enforcers’ and courts’ decision making when evaluating the competitive merits of a particular business practice.
This approach can be observed, even if imperfectly, in the application of the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) metric in the merger-review process and the use of “safety zones” (defined principally by reference to market-share thresholds) in the agencies’ Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property, Horizontal Merger Guidelines, and Antitrust Guidelines for Collaborations Among Competitors. This nuanced and evidence-based approach can also be observed in a decision such as California Dental Association v. FTC(1999), which provides a framework for calibrating the intensity of a rule-of-reason inquiry based on a preliminary assessment of the likely net competitive effect of a particular practice. In making these efforts to develop reasonably objective thresholds for triggering closer scrutiny, regulators and courts have sought to reconcile the open-ended language of the offenses described in the antitrust statutes—“restraint of trade” (Sherman Act Section 1) or “monopolization” (Sherman Act Section 2)—with a meaningful commitment to providing the market with adequate notice of the inherently fuzzy boundary between competitive and anti-competitive practices in most cases (and especially, in cases involving single-firm conduct that is most likely to be targeted by the agency under its Section 5 authority).
It does not appear that agency leadership intends to adopt this calibrated approach in implementing its rulemaking initiative, in light of its largely unbounded understanding of its Section 5 enforcement authority and wholesale rejection of the rule-of-reason methodology. If Section 5 is understood to encompass a broad and fluid set of social goals, including distributive objectives that can conflict with a commitment to the competitive process, then there is no analytical reference point by which markets can reliably assess the likelihood of antitrust liability and plan transactions accordingly. If enforcement under Section 5, including exercise of any purported rulemaking powers, does not require the agency to consider offsetting efficiencies attributable to any particular practice, then a chilling effect on everyday business activity and, more broadly, economic growth can easily ensue. In particular, firms may abstain from practices that may have mostly or even entirely procompetitive effects simply because there is some material likelihood that any such practice will be subject to investigation and enforcement under the agency’s understanding of its Section 5 authority and its adoption of a per se approach for which even strong evidence of predominantly procompetitive effects would be moot.
From Free Markets to Administered Markets
The FTC’s proposed rulemaking initiative, when placed within the context of other fundamental changes in substance and methodology adopted by agency leadership, is not easily reconciled with a market-driven economy in which resources are principally directed by the competitive forces of supply and demand. FTC leadership has reserved for the agency discretion to deem a business practice as “unfair,” while defining fairness by reference to an agglomeration of loosely described policy goals that include—but go beyond, and in some cases may conflict with—the agency’s commitment to preserve market competition. Concurrently, FTC leadership has rejected the rule-of-reason balancing approach and, by implication, may place no material weight on (or even fail to consider entirely) the efficiencies attributable to a particular business practice.
In the aggregate, any rulemaking activity undertaken within this unstructured framework would make it challenging for firms and investors to assess whether any particular action is likely to trigger agency scrutiny. Faced with this predicament, firms could only substantially reduce exposure to antitrust liability by seeking various forms of preclearance with FTC staff, who would in turn be led to issue supplemental guidance, rules, and regulations to handle the high volume of firm inquiries. Contrary to the advertised advantages of enforcement by rulemaking, this unavoidable cycle of rule interpretation and adjustment would likely increase substantially aggregate transaction and compliance costs as compared to enforcement by adjudication. While enforcement by adjudication occurs only periodically and impacts a limited number of firms, enforcement by rulemaking is a continuous activity that impacts all firms. The ultimate result: the free play of the forces of supply and demand would be replaced by a continuously regulated environment where market outcomes are constantly being reviewed through the administrative process, rather than being worked out through the competitive process.
This is a state of affairs substantially removed from the “free market system” to which the FTC’s Bureau of Competition had once been committed. Of course, that may be exactly what current agency leadership has in mind.
[Wrapping up the first week of our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposiumis a post from Truth on the Market’s own Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, director of law & economics programs at the International Center for Law & Economics and an assistant professor of law and co-director of the Space, Cyber, and Telecom Law program at the University of Nebraska College of Law. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]
In 2014, I published a pair of articles—”Administrative Antitrust” and “Chevron and the Limits of Administrative Antitrust”—that argued that the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent antitrust and administrative-law jurisprudence was pushing antitrust law out of the judicial domain and into the domain of regulatory agencies. The first article focused on the Court’s then-recent antitrust cases, arguing that the Court, which had long since moved away from federal common law, had shown a clear preference that common-law-like antitrust law be handled on a statutory or regulatory basis where possible. The second article evaluated and rejected the FTC’s long-held belief that the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) interpretations of the FTC Act do not receive Chevron deference.
Together, these articles made the case (as a descriptive, not normative, matter) that we were moving towards a period of what I called “administrative antitrust.” From today’s perspective, it surely seems that I was right, with the FTC set to embrace Section 5’s broad ambiguities to redefine modern understandings of antitrust law. Indeed, those articles have been cited by both former FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra and current FTC Chair Lina Khan in speeches and other materials that have led up to our current moment.
This essay revisits those articles, in light of the past decade of Supreme Court precedent. It comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with recent cases that the Court is increasingly viewing the broad deference characteristic of administrative law with what, charitably, can be called skepticism. While I stand by the analysis offered in my previous articles—and, indeed, believe that the Court maintains a preference for administratively defined antitrust law over judicially defined antitrust law—I find it less likely today that the Court would defer to any agency interpretation of antitrust law that represents more than an incremental move away from extant law.
I will approach this discussion in four parts. First, I will offer some reflections on the setting of my prior articles. The piece on Chevron and the FTC, in particular, argued that the FTC had misunderstood how Chevron would apply to its interpretations of the FTC Act because it was beholden to out-of-date understandings of administrative law. I will make the point below that the same thing can be said today. I will then briefly recap the essential elements of the arguments made in both of those prior articles, to the extent needed to evaluate how administrative approaches to antitrust will be viewed by the Court today. The third part of the discussion will then summarize some key elements of administrative law that have changed over roughly the past decade. And, finally, I will bring these elements together to look at the viability of administrative antitrust today, arguing that the FTC’s broad embrace of power anticipated by many is likely to meet an ill fate at the hands of the courts on both antitrust and administrative law grounds.
In reviewing these past articles in light of the past decade’s case law, this essay reaches an important conclusion: for the same reasons that the Court seemed likely in 2013 to embrace an administrative approach to antitrust, today it is likely to view such approaches with great skepticism unless they are undertaken on an incrementalist basis. Others are currently developing arguments that sound primarily in current administrative law: the major questions doctrine and the potential turn away from National Petroleum Refiners. My conclusion is based primarily in the Court’s view that administrative antitrust would prove less indeterminate than judicially defined antitrust law. If the FTC shows that not to be the case, the Court seems likely to close the door on administrative antitrust for reasons sounding in both administrative and antitrust law.
Setting the Stage, Circa 2013
It is useful to start by visiting the stage as it was set when I wrote “Administrative Antitrust” and “Limits of Administrative Antitrust” in 2013. I wrote these articles while doing a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, prior to which I had spent several years working at the U.S. Justice Department Antitrust Division’s Telecommunications Section. This was a great time to be involved on the telecom side of antitrust, especially for someone with an interest in administrative law, as well. Recent important antitrust cases included Pacific Bell v. linkLine and Verizon v. Trinko and recent important administrative-law cases included Brand-X, Fox v. FCC, and City of Arlington v. FCC. Telecommunications law was defining the center of both fields.
I started working on “Administrative Antitrust” first, prompted by what I admit today was an overreading of the Court’s 2011 American Electric Power Co. Inc. v. Connecticut opinion, in which the Court held broadly that a decision by Congress to regulate broadly displaces judicial common law. In Trinko and Credit Suisse, the Court had held something similar: roughly, that regulation displaces antitrust law. Indeed, in linkLine,the Court had stated that regulation is preferable to antitrust, known for its vicissitudes and adherence to the extra-judicial development of economic theory. “Administrative Antitrust” tied these strands together, arguing that antitrust law, long-discussed as one of the few remaining bastions of federal common law, would—and in the Court’s eyes, should—be displaced by regulation.
Antitrust and administrative law also came together, and remain together, in the debates over net neutrality. It was this nexus that gave rise to “Limits of Administrative Antitrust,” which I started in 2013 while working on “Administrative Antitrust”and waiting for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s opinion in Verizon v. FCC.
Some background on the net-neutrality debate is useful. In 2007, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) attempted to put in place net-neutrality rules by adopting a policy statement on the subject. This approach was rejected by the D.C. Circuit in 2010, on grounds that a mere policy statement lacked the force of law. The FCC then adopted similar rules through a rulemaking process, finding authority to issue those rules in its interpretation of the ambiguous language of Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. In January 2014, the D.C. Circuit again rejected the specific rules adopted by the FCC, on grounds that those rules violated the Communications Act’s prohibition on treating internet service providers (ISPs) as common carriers. But critically, the court affirmed the FCC’s interpretation of Section 706 as allowing it, in principle, to adopt rules regulating ISPs.
Unsurprisingly, whether the language of Section 706 was either ambiguous or subject to the FCC’s interpretation was a central debate within the regulatory community during 2012 and 2013. The broadest consensus, at least among my peers, was strongly of the view that it was neither: the FCC and industry had long read Section 706 as not giving the FCC authority to regulate ISP conduct and, to the extent that it did confer legislative authority, that authority was expressly deregulatory. I was the lone voice arguing that the D.C. Circuit was likely to find that Chevron applied to Section 706 and that the FCC’s reading was permissible on its own (that is, not taking into account such restrictions as the prohibition on treating non-common carriers as common carriers).
I actually had thought this conclusion quite obvious. The past decade of the Court’s Chevron case law followed a trend of increasing deference. Starting with Mead, then Brand-X, Fox v. FCC, and City of Arlington, the safe money was consistently placed on deference to the agency.
This was the setting in which I started thinking about what became “Chevron and the Limits of Administrative Antitrust.” If my argument in “Administrative Antitrust”was right—that the courts would push development of antitrust law from the courts to regulatory agencies—this would most clearly happen through the FTC’s Section 5 authority over unfair methods of competition (UMC). But there was longstanding debate about the limits of the FTC’s UMC authority. These debates included whether it was necessarily coterminous with the Sherman Act (so limited by the judicially defined federal common law of antitrust).
And there was discussion about whether the FTC would receive Chevron deference to its interpretations of its UMC authority. As with the question of the FCC receiving deference to its interpretation of Section 706, there was widespread understanding that the FTC would not receive Chevron deference to its interpretations of its Section 5 UMC authority. “Chevron and the Limits of Administrative Antitrust” explored that issue, ultimately concluding that the FTC likely would indeed be given the benefit of Chevron deference, tracing the commission’s belief to the contrary back to longstanding institutional memory of pre-Chevron judicial losses.
The Administrative Antitrust Argument
The discussion above is more than mere historical navel-gazing. The context and setting in which those prior articles were written is important to understanding both their arguments and the continual currents that propel us across antitrust’s sea of doubt. But we should also look at the specific arguments from each paper in some detail, as well.
The opening lines of this paper capture the curious judicial statute of antitrust law:
Antitrust is a peculiar area of law, one that has long been treated as exceptional by the courts. Antitrust cases are uniquely long, complicated, and expensive; individual cases turn on case-specific facts, giving them limited precedential value; and what precedent there is changes on a sea of economic—rather than legal—theory. The principal antitrust statutes are minimalist and have left the courts to develop their meaning. As Professor Thomas Arthur has noted, “in ‘the anti-trust field the courts have been accorded, by common consent, an authority they have in no other branch of enacted law.’” …
This Article argues that the Supreme Court is moving away from this exceptionalist treatment of antitrust law and is working to bring antitrust within a normalized administrative law jurisprudence.
Much of this argument is based in the arguments framed above: Trinko and Credit Suisse prioritize regulation over the federal common law of antitrust, and American Electric Power emphasizes the general displacement of common law by regulation. The article adds, as well, the Court’s focus, at the time, against domain-specific “exceptionalism.” Its opinion in Mayo had rejected the longstanding view that tax law was “exceptional” in some way that excluded it from the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and other standard administrative law doctrine. And thus, so too must the Court’s longstanding treatment of antitrust as exceptional also fall.
Those arguments can all be characterized as pulling antitrust law toward an administrative approach. But there was a push as well. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts expressed substantial concern about the difficulties that antitrust law poses for courts and litigants alike. His opinion for the majority notes that “it is difficult enough for courts to identify and remedy an alleged anticompetitive practice” and laments “[h]ow is a judge or jury to determine a ‘fair price?’” And Justice Stephen Breyer writes in concurrence, that “[w]hen a regulatory structure exists [as it does in this case] to deter and remedy anticompetitive harm, the costs of antitrust enforcement are likely to be greater than the benefits.”
In other words, the argument in “Administrative Antitrust” goes, the Court is motivated both to bring antitrust law into a normalized administrative-law framework and also to remove responsibility for the messiness inherent in antitrust law from the courts’ dockets. This latter point will be of particular importance as we turn to how the Court is likely to think about the FTC’s potential use of its UMC authority to develop new antitrust rules.
Chevron and the Limits of Administrative Antitrust
The core argument in “Limits of Administrative Antitrust” is more doctrinal and institutionally focused. In its simplest statement, I merely applied Chevron as it was understood circa 2013 to the FTC’s UMC authority. There is little argument that “unfair methods of competition” is inherently ambiguous—indeed, the term was used, and the power granted to the FTC, expressly to give the agency flexibility and to avoid the limits the Court was placing on antitrust law in the early 20th century.
There are various arguments against application of Chevron to Section 5; the article goes through and rejects them all. Section 5 has long been recognized as including, but being broader than, the Sherman Act. National Petroleum Refiners has long held that the FTC has substantive-rulemaking authority—a conclusion made even more forceful by the Supreme Court’s more recent opinion in Iowa Utilities Board. Other arguments are (or were) unavailing.
The real puzzle the paper unpacks is why the FTC ever believed it wouldn’t receive the benefit of Chevron deference. The article traces it back to a series of cases the FTC lost in the 1980s, contemporaneous with the development of the Chevron doctrine. The commission had big losses in cases like E.I. Du Pont and Ethyl Corp. Perhaps most important, in its 1986 Indiana Federation of Dentists opinion (two years after Chevron was decided), the Court seemed to adopt a de novo standard for review of Section 5 cases. But, “Limits of Administrative Antitrust” argues, this is a misreading and overreading of Indiana Federation of Dentists (a close reading of which actually suggests that it is entirely in line with Chevron), and it misunderstands the case’s relationship with Chevron (the importance of which did not start to come into focus for another several years).
The curious conclusion of the argument is, in effect, that a generation of FTC lawyers, “shell-shocked by its treatment in the courts,” internalized the lesson that they would not receive the benefits of Chevron deference and that Section 5 was subject to de novo review, but also that this would start to change as a new generation of lawyers, trained in the modern Chevron era, came to practice within the halls of the FTC. Today, that prediction appears to have borne out.
The conclusion from “Limits of Administrative Antitrust” that FTC lawyers failed to recognize that the agency would receive Chevron deference because they were half a generation behind the development of administrative-law doctrine is an important one. As much as antitrust law may be adrift in a sea of change, administrative law is even more so. From today’s perspective, it feels as though I wrote those articles at Chevron’s zenith—and watching the FTC consider aggressive use of its UMC authority feels like watching a commission that, once again, is half a generation behind the development of administrative law.
The tide against Chevron’sexpansive deference was already beginning to grow at the time I was writing. City of Arlington, though affirming application of Chevron to agencies’ interpretations of their own jurisdictional statutes in a 6-3 opinion, generated substantial controversy at the time. And a short while later, the Court decided a case that many in the telecom space view as a sea change: Utility Air Regulatory Group (UARG). In UARG, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for a 9-0 majority, struck down an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation related to greenhouse gasses. In doing so, he invoked language evocative of what today is being debated as the major questions doctrine—that the Court “expect[s] Congress to speak clearly if it wishes to assign to an agency decisions of vast economic and political significance.” Two years after that, the Court decided Encino Motorcars, in which the Court acted upon a limit expressed in Fox v. FCC that agencies face heightened procedural requirements when changing regulations that “may have engendered serious reliance interests.”
And just like that, the dams holding back concern over the scope of Chevron have burst. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have openly expressed their views that Chevron needs to be curtailed or eliminated. Justice Brett Kavanaugh has written extensively in favor of the major questions doctrine. Chief Justice Roberts invoked the major questions doctrine in King v. Burwell. Each term, litigants are more aggressively bringing more aggressive cases to probe and tighten the limits of the Chevron doctrine. As I write this, we await the Court’s opinion in American Hospital Association v. Becerra—which, it is widely believed could dramatically curtail the scope of the Chevron doctrine.
Administrative Antitrust, Redux
The prospects for administrative antitrust look very different today than they did a decade ago. While the basic argument continues to hold—the Court will likely encourage and welcome a transition of antitrust law to a normalized administrative jurisprudence—the Court seems likely to afford administrative agencies (viz., the FTC) much less flexibility in how they administer antitrust law than they would have a decade ago. This includes through both the administrative-law vector, with the Court reconsidering how it views delegation of congressional authority to agencies such as through the major questions doctrine and agency rulemaking authority, as well as through the Court’s thinking about how agencies develop and enforce antitrust law.
Major Questions and Major Rules
Two hotly debated areas where we see this trend: the major questions doctrine and the ongoing vitality of National Petroleum Refiners. These are only briefly recapitulated here. The major questions doctrine is an evolving doctrine, seemingly of great interest to many current justices on the Court, that requires Congress to speak clearly when delegating authority to agencies to address major questions—that is, questions of vast economic and political significance. So, while the Court may allow an agency to develop rules governing mergers when tasked by Congress to prohibit acquisitions likely to substantially lessen competition, it is unlikely to allow that agency to categorically prohibit mergers based upon a general congressional command to prevent unfair methods of competition. The first of those is a narrow rule based upon a specific grant of authority; the other is a very broad rule based upon a very general grant of authority.
The major questions doctrine has been a major topic of discussion in administrative-law circles for the past several years. Interest in the National Petroleum Refiners question has been more muted, mostly confined to those focused on the FTC and FCC. National Petroleum Refiners is a 1973 D.C. Circuit case that found that the FTC Act’s grant of power to make rules to implement the act confers broad rulemaking power relating to the act’s substantive provisions. In 1999, the Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion in Iowa Utilities Board, finding that a provision in Section 202 of the Communications Act allowing the FCC to create rules seemingly for the implementation of that section conferred substantive rulemaking power running throughout the Communications Act.
Both National Petroleum Refiners and Iowa Utilities Board reflect previous generations’ understanding of administrative law—and, in particular, the relationship between the courts and Congress in empowering and policing agency conduct. That understanding is best captured in the evolution of the non-delegation doctrine, and the courts’ broad acceptance of broad delegations of congressional power to agencies in the latter half of the 20th century. National Petroleum Refiners and Iowa Utilities Board are not non-delegation cases-—but, similar to the major questions doctrine, they go to similar issues of how specific Congress must be when delegating broad authority to an agency.
In theory, there is little difference between an agency that can develop legal norms through case-by-case adjudications that are backstopped by substantive and procedural judicial review, on the one hand, and authority to develop substantive rules backstopped by procedural judicial review and by Congress as a check on substantive errors. In practice, there is a world of difference between these approaches. As with the Court’s concerns about the major questions doctrine, were the Court to review National Petroleum Refiners Association or Iowa Utilities Board today, it seems at least possible, if not simply unlikely, that most of the Justices would not so readily find agencies to have such broad rulemaking authority without clear congressional intent supporting such a finding.
Both of these ideas—the major question doctrine and limits on broad rules made using thin grants of rulemaking authority—present potential limits on the potential scope of rules the FTC might make using its UMC authority.
Limits on the Antitrust Side of Administrative Antitrust
The potential limits on FTC UMC rulemaking discussed above sound in administrative-law concerns. But administrative antitrust may also find a tepid judicial reception on antitrust concerns, as well.
Many of the arguments advanced in “Administrative Antitrust” and the Court’s opinions on the antitrust-regulation interface echo traditional administrative-law ideas. For instance, much of the Court’s preference that agencies granted authority to engage in antitrust or antitrust-adjacent regulation take precedence over the application of judicially defined antitrust law track the same separation of powers and expertise concerns that are central to the Chevron doctrine itself.
But the antitrust-focused cases—linkLine, Trinko, Credit Suisse—also express concerns specific to antitrust law. Chief Justice Roberts notes that the justices “have repeatedly emphasized the importance of clear rules in antitrust law,” and the need for antitrust rules to “be clear enough for lawyers to explain them to clients.” And the Court and antitrust scholars have long noted the curiosity that antitrust law has evolved over time following developments in economic theory. This extra-judicial development of the law runs contrary to basic principles of due process and the stability of the law.
The Court’s cases in this area express hope that an administrative approach to antitrust could give a clarity and stability to the law that is currently lacking. These are rules of vast economic significance: they are “the Magna Carta of free enterprise”; our economy organizes itself around them; substantial changes to these rules could have a destabilizing effect that runs far deeper than Congress is likely to have anticipated when tasking an agency with enforcing antitrust law. Empowering agencies to develop these rules could, the Court’s opinions suggest, allow for a more thoughtful, expert, and deliberative approach to incorporating incremental developments in economic knowledge into the law.
If an agency’s administrative implementation of antitrust law does not follow this path—and especially if the agency takes a disruptive approach to antitrust law that deviates substantially from established antitrust norms—this defining rationale for an administrative approach to antitrust would not hold.
The courts could respond to such overreach in several ways. They could invoke the major questions or similar doctrines, as above. They could raise due-process concerns, tracking Fox v. FCC and Encino Motorcars, to argue that any change to antitrust law must not be unduly disruptive to engendered reliance interests. They could argue that the FTC’s UMC authority, while broader than the Sherman Act, must be compatible with the Sherman Act. That is, while the FTC has authority for the larger circle in the antitrust Venn diagram, the courts continue to define the inner core of conduct regulated by the Sherman Act.
A final aspect to the Court’s likely approach to administrative antitrust falls from the Roberts Court’s decision-theoretic approach to antitrust law. First articulated in Judge Frank Easterbrook’s “The Limits of Antitrust,” the decision-theoretic approach to antitrust law focuses on the error costs of incorrect judicial decisions and the likelihood that those decisions will be corrected. The Roberts Court has strongly adhered to this framework in its antitrust decisions. This can be seen, for instance, in Justice Breyer’s statement that: “When a regulatory structure exists to deter and remedy anticompetitive harm, the costs of antitrust enforcement are likely to be greater than the benefits.”
The error-costs framework described by Judge Easterbrook focuses on the relative costs of errors, and correcting those errors, between judicial and market mechanisms. In the administrative-antitrust setting, the relevant comparison is between judicial and administrative error costs. The question on this front is whether an administrative agency, should it get things wrong, is likely to correct. Here there are two models, both of concern. The first is that in which law is policy or political preference. Here, the FCC’s approach to net neutrality and the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) approach to labor law loom large; there have been dramatic swing between binary policy preferences held by different political parties as control of agencies shifts between administrations. The second model is one in which Congress responds to agency rules by refining, rejecting, or replacing them through statute. Here, again, net neutrality and the FCC loom large, with nearly two decades of calls for Congress to clarify the FCC’s authority and statutory mandate, while the agency swings between policies with changing administrations.
Both of these models reflect poorly on the prospects for administrative antitrust and suggest a strong likelihood that the Court would reject any ambitious use of administrative authority to remake antitrust law. The stability of these rules is simply too important to leave to change with changing political wills. And, indeed, concern that Congress no longer does its job of providing agencies with clear direction—that Congress has abdicated its job of making important policy decisions and let them fall instead to agency heads—is one of the animating concerns behind the major questions doctrine.
Writing in 2013, it seemed clear that the Court was pushing antitrust law in an administrative direction, as well as that the FTC would likely receive broad Chevron deference in its interpretations of its UMC authority to shape and implement antitrust law. Roughly a decade later, the sands have shifted and continue to shift. Administrative law is in the midst of a retrenchment, with skepticism of broad deference and agency claims of authority.
Many of the underlying rationales behind the ideas of administrative antitrust remain sound. Indeed, I expect the FTC will play an increasingly large role in defining the contours of antitrust law and that the Court and courts will welcome this role. But that role will be limited. Administrative antitrust is a preferred vehicle for administering antitrust law, not for changing it. Should the FTC use its power aggressively, in ways that disrupt longstanding antitrust principles or seem more grounded in policy better created by Congress, it is likely to find itself on the losing side of the judicial opinion.
The bill marks the culmination of misguided efforts to bring Big Tech to heel, regardless of the negative costs imposed upon consumers in the process. ICLE scholars have written about these developments in detail since the bill was introduced in October.
Below are 10 significant misconceptions that underpin the legislation.
1. There Is No Evidence that Self-Preferencing Is Generally Harmful
Self-preferencing is a normal part of how platforms operate, both to improve the value of their core products and to earn returns so that they have reason to continue investing in their development.
Platforms’ incentives are to maximize the value of their entire product ecosystem, which includes both the core platform and the services attached to it. Platforms that preference their own products frequently end up increasing the total market’s value by growing the share of users of a particular product. Those that preference inferior products end up hurting their attractiveness to users of their “core” product, exposing themselves to competition from rivals.
As Geoff Manne concludes, the notion that it is harmful (notably to innovation) when platforms enter into competition with edge providers is entirely speculative. Indeed, a range of studies show that the opposite is likely true. 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.
Consider a few examples from the empirical literature:
Li and Agarwal (2017) find that Facebook’s integration of Instagram led to a significant increase in user demand both for Instagram itself and for the entire category of photography apps. Instagram’s integration with Facebook increased consumer awareness of photography apps, which benefited independent developers, as well as Facebook.
Foerderer, et al. (2018) find that Google’s 2015 entry into the market for photography apps on Android created additional user attention and demand for such apps generally.
Cennamo, et al. (2018) find that video games offered by console firms often become blockbusters and expand the consoles’ installed base. As a result, these games increase the potential for all independent game developers to profit from their games, even in the face of competition from first-party games.
Finally, while Zhu and Liu (2018) is often held up as demonstrating harm from Amazon’s competition with third-party sellers on its platform, its findings are actually far from clear-cut. As co-author Feng Zhu noted in the Journal of Economics & Management Strategy: “[I]f Amazon’s entries attract more consumers, the expanded customer base could incentivize more third‐ party sellers to join the platform. As a result, the long-term effects for consumers of Amazon’s entry are not clear.”
2. Interoperability Is Not Costless
There are many things that could be interoperable, but aren’t. The reason not everything is interoperable is because interoperability comes with costs, as well as benefits. It may be worth letting different earbuds have different designs because, while it means we sacrifice easy interoperability, we gain the ability for better designs to be brought to market and for consumers to have choice among different kinds.
As Sam Bowman has observed, there are often costs that prevent interoperability from being worth the tradeoff, such as that:
It might be too costly to implement and/or maintain.
It might prescribe a certain product design and prevent experimentation and innovation.
It might add too much complexity and/or confusion for users, who may prefer not to have certain choices.
It might increase the risk of something not working, or of security breaches.
It might prevent certain pricing models that increase output.
It might compromise some element of the product or service that benefits specifically from not being interoperable.
In a market that is functioning reasonably well, we should be able to assume that competition and consumer choice will discover the desirable degree of interoperability among different products. If there are benefits to making your product interoperable that outweigh the costs of doing so, that should give you an advantage over competitors and allow you to compete them away. If the costs outweigh the benefits, the opposite will happen: consumers will choose products that are not interoperable.
In short, we cannot infer from the mere absence of interoperability that something is wrong, since we frequently observe that the costs of interoperability outweigh the benefits.
3. Consumers Often Prefer Closed Ecosystems
Digital markets could have taken a vast number of shapes. So why have they gravitated toward the very characteristics that authorities condemn? For instance, if market tipping and consumer lock-in are so problematic, why is it that new corners of the digital economy continue to emerge via closed platforms, as opposed to collaborative ones?
Indeed, if recent commentary is to be believed, it is the latter that should succeed, because they purportedly produce greater gains from trade. And if consumers and platforms cannot realize these gains by themselves, then we should see intermediaries step into that breach. But this does not seem to be happening in the digital economy.
The naïve answer is to say that the absence of “open” systems is precisely the problem. What’s harder is to try to actually understand why. As I have written, there are many reasons that consumers might prefer “closed” systems, even when they have to pay a premium for them.
Take the example of app stores. Maintaining some control over the apps that can access the store notably enables platforms to easily weed out bad players. Similarly, controlling the hardware resources that each app can use may greatly improve device performance. In other words, centralized platforms can eliminate negative externalities that “bad” apps impose on rival apps and on consumers. This is especially true when consumers struggle to attribute dips in performance to an individual app, rather than the overall platform.
It is also conceivable that consumers prefer to make many of their decisions at the inter-platform level, rather than within each platform. In simple terms, users arguably make their most important decision when they choose between an Apple or Android smartphone (or a Mac and a PC, etc.). In doing so, they can select their preferred app suite with one simple decision.
They might thus purchase an iPhone because they like the secure App Store, or an Android smartphone because they like the Chrome Browser and Google Search. Forcing too many “within-platform” choices upon users may undermine a product’s attractiveness. Indeed, it is difficult to create a high-quality reputation if each user’s experience is fundamentally different. In short, contrary to what antitrust authorities seem to believe, closed platforms might be giving most users exactly what they desire.
Too often, it is simply assumed that consumers benefit from more openness, and that shared/open platforms are the natural order of things. What some refer to as “market failures” may in fact be features that explain the rapid emergence of the digital economy. Ronald Coase said it best when he quipped that economists always find a monopoly explanation for things that they simply fail to understand.
4. Data Portability Can Undermine Security and Privacy
As explained above, platforms that are more tightly controlled can be regulated by the platform owner to avoid some of the risks present in more open platforms. Apple’s App Store, for example, is a relatively closed and curated platform, which gives users assurance that apps will meet a certain standard of security and trustworthiness.
Along similar lines, there are privacy issues that arise from data portability. Even a relatively simple requirement to make photos available for download can implicate third-party interests. Making a user’s photos more broadly available may tread upon the privacy interests of friends whose faces appear in those photos. Importing those photos to a new service potentially subjects those individuals to increased and un-bargained-for security risks.
As Sam Bowman and Geoff Manne observe, this is exactly what happened with Facebook and its Social Graph API v1.0, ultimately culminating in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Because v1.0 of Facebook’s Social Graph API permitted developers to access information about a user’s friends without consent, it enabled third-party access to data about exponentially more users. It appears that some 270,000 users granted data access to Cambridge Analytica, from which the company was able to obtain information on 50 million Facebook users.
In short, there is often no simple solution to implement interoperability and data portability. Any such program—whether legally mandated or voluntarily adopted—will need to grapple with these and other tradeoffs.
5. Network Effects Are Rarely Insurmountable
Several scholars in recent years have called for more muscular antitrust intervention in networked industries on grounds that network externalities, switching costs, and data-related increasing returns to scale lead to inefficient consumer lock-in and raise entry barriers for potential rivals (see here, here, and here). But there are countless counterexamples where firms have easily overcome potential barriers to entry and network externalities, ultimately disrupting incumbents.
Zoom is one of the most salient instances. As I wrote in April 2019 (a year before the COVID-19 pandemic):
To get to where it is today, Zoom had to compete against long-established firms with vast client bases and far deeper pockets. These include the likes of Microsoft, Cisco, and Google. Further complicating matters, the video communications market exhibits some prima facie traits that are typically associated with the existence of network effects.
Geoff Manne and Alec Stapp have put forward a multitude of other examples, including: the demise of Yahoo; the disruption of early instant-messaging applications and websites; and MySpace’s rapid decline. In all of these cases, outcomes did not match the predictions of theoretical models.
More recently, TikTok’s rapid rise offers perhaps the greatest example of a potentially superior social-networking platform taking significant market share away from incumbents. According to the Financial Times, TikTok’s video-sharing capabilities and powerful algorithm are the most likely explanations for its success.
While these developments certainly do not disprove network-effects theory, they eviscerate the belief, common in antitrust circles, that superior rivals are unable to overthrow incumbents in digital markets. Of course, this will not always be the case. The question is ultimately one of comparing institutions—i.e., do markets lead to more or fewer error costs than government intervention? Yet, this question is systematically omitted from most policy discussions.
6. Profits Facilitate New and Exciting Platforms
As I wrote in August 2020, the relatively closed model employed by several successful platforms (notably Apple’s App Store, Google’s Play Store, and the Amazon Retail Platform) allows previously unknown developers/retailers to rapidly expand because (i) users do not have to fear their apps contain some form of malware and (ii) they greatly reduce payments frictions, most notably security-related ones.
While these are, indeed, tremendous benefits, another important upside seems to have gone relatively unnoticed. The “closed” business model also gives firms significant incentives to develop new distribution mediums (smart TVs spring to mind) and to improve existing ones. In turn, this greatly expands the audience that software developers can reach. In short, developers get a smaller share of a much larger pie.
The economics of two-sided markets are enlightening here. For example, Apple and Google’s app stores are what Armstrong and Wright (here and here) refer to as “competitive bottlenecks.” That is, they compete aggressively (among themselves, and with other gaming platforms) to attract exclusive users. They can then charge developers a premium to access those users.
This dynamic gives firms significant incentive to continue to attract and retain new users. For instance, if Steve Jobs is to be believed, giving consumers better access to media such as eBooks, video, and games was one of the driving forces behind the launch of the iPad.
This model of innovation would be seriously undermined if developers and consumers could easily bypass platforms, as would likely be the case under the American Innovation and Choice Online Act.
7. Large Market Share Does Not Mean Anticompetitive Outcomes
Scholars routinely cite the putatively strong concentration of digital markets to argue that Big Tech firms do not face strong competition. But this is a non sequitur. Indeed, as economists like Joseph Bertrand and William Baumol have shown, what matters is not whether markets are concentrated, but whether they are contestable. If a superior rival could rapidly gain user traction, that alone will discipline incumbents’ behavior.
Markets where incumbents do not face significant entry from competitors are just as consistent with vigorous competition as they are with barriers to entry. Rivals could decline to enter either because incumbents have aggressively improved their product offerings or because they are shielded by barriers to entry (as critics suppose). The former is consistent with competition, the latter with monopoly slack.
Similarly, it would be wrong to presume, as many do, that concentration in online markets is necessarily driven by network effects and other scale-related economies. As ICLE scholars have argued elsewhere (here, here and here), these forces are not nearly as decisive as critics assume (and it is debatable that they constitute barriers to entry).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many factors could explain the relatively concentrated market structures that we see in digital industries. The absence of switching costs and capacity constraints are two such examples. These explanations, overlooked by many observers, suggest digital markets are more contestable than is commonly perceived.
Unfortunately, critics’ failure to meaningfully grapple with these issues serves to shape the “conventional wisdom” in tech-policy debates.
8. Vertical Integration Generally Benefits Consumers
Vertical behavior of digital firms—whether through mergers or through contract and unilateral action—frequently arouses the ire of critics of the current antitrust regime. Many such critics point to a few recent studies that cast doubt on the ubiquity of benefits from vertical integration. But the findings of these few studies are regularly overstated and, even if taken at face value, represent a just minuscule fraction of the collected evidence, which overwhelmingly supports vertical integration.
There is strong and longstanding empirical evidence that vertical integration is competitively benign. This includes widely acclaimed work by economists Francine Lafontaine (former director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Economics under President Barack Obama) and Margaret Slade, whose meta-analysis led them to conclude:
[U]nder most circumstances, profit-maximizing vertical integration decisions are efficient, not just from the firms’ but also from the consumers’ points of view. Although there are isolated studies that contradict this claim, the vast majority support it. Moreover, even in industries that are highly concentrated so that horizontal considerations assume substantial importance, the net effect of vertical integration appears to be positive in many instances. We therefore conclude that, faced with a vertical arrangement, the burden of evidence should be placed on competition authorities to demonstrate that that arrangement is harmful before the practice is attacked.
In short, there is a substantial body of both empirical and theoretical research showing that vertical integration (and the potential vertical discrimination and exclusion to which it might give rise) is generally beneficial to consumers. While it is possible that vertical mergers or discrimination could sometimes cause harm, the onus is on the critics to demonstrate empirically where this occurs. No legitimate interpretation of the available literature would offer a basis for imposing a presumption against such behavior.
9. There Is No Such Thing as Data Network Effects
Although data does not have the self-reinforcing characteristics of network effects, there is a sense that acquiring a certain amount of data and expertise is necessary to compete in data-heavy industries. It is (or should be) equally apparent, however, that this “learning by doing” advantage rapidly reaches a point of diminishing returns.
This is supported by significant empirical evidence. As was shown by the survey pf the empirical literature that Geoff Manne and I performed (published in the George Mason Law Review), data generally entails diminishing marginal returns:
Critics who argue that firms such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook are successful because of their superior access to data might, in fact, have the causality in reverse. Arguably, it is because these firms have come up with successful industry-defining paradigms that they have amassed so much data, and not the other way around. Indeed, Facebook managed to build a highly successful platform despite a large data disadvantage when compared to rivals like MySpace.
Companies need to innovate to attract consumer data or else consumers will switch to competitors, including both new entrants and established incumbents. As a result, the desire to make use of more and better data drives competitive innovation, with manifestly impressive results. The continued explosion of new products, services, and apps is evidence that data is not a bottleneck to competition, but a spur to drive it.
10. Antitrust Enforcement Has Not Been Lax
The popular narrative has it that lax antitrust enforcement has led to substantially increased concentration, strangling the economy, harming workers, and expanding dominant firms’ profit margins at the expense of consumers. Much of the contemporary dissatisfaction with antitrust arises from a suspicion that overly lax enforcement of existing laws has led to record levels of concentration and a concomitant decline in competition. But both beliefs—lax enforcement and increased anticompetitive concentration—wither under more than cursory scrutiny.
The number of Sherman Act cases brought by the federal antitrust agencies, meanwhile, has been relatively stable in recent years, but several recent blockbuster cases have been brought by the agencies and private litigants, and there has been no shortage of federal and state investigations. The vast majority of Section 2 cases dismissed on the basis of the plaintiff’s failure to show anticompetitive effect were brought by private plaintiffs pursuing treble damages; given the incentives to bring weak cases, it cannot be inferred from such outcomes that antitrust law is ineffective. But, in any case, it is highly misleading to count the number of antitrust cases and, using that number alone, to make conclusions about how effective antitrust law is. Firms act in the shadow of the law, and deploy significant legal resources to make sure they avoid activity that would lead to enforcement actions. Thus, any given number of cases brought could be just as consistent with a well-functioning enforcement regime as with an ill-functioning one.
The upshot is that naïvely counting antitrust cases (or the purported lack thereof), with little regard for the behavior that is deterred or the merits of the cases that are dismissed does not tell us whether or not antitrust enforcement levels are optimal.