A White House administration typically announces major new antitrust initiatives in the fall and spring, and this year is no exception. Senior Biden administration officials kicked off the fall season at Fordham Law School (more on that below) by shedding additional light on their plans to expand the accepted scope of antitrust enforcement.
(Incidentally, on the other side of the Atlantic, the European Commission has faced some obstacles itself. Despite its recent Google victory, the Commission has effectively lost two abuse of dominance cases this year—the Intel and Qualcomm matters—before the European General Court.)
So, are the U.S. antitrust agencies chastened? Will they now go back to basics? Far from it. They enthusiastically are announcing plans to charge ahead, asserting theories of antitrust violations that have not been taken seriously for decades, if ever. Whether this turns out to be wise enforcement policy remains to be seen, but color me highly skeptical. Let’s take a quick look at some of the big enforcement-policy ideas that are being floated.
Fordham Law’s Antitrust Conference
Admiral David Farragut’s order “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” was key to the Union Navy’s August 1864 victory in the Battle of Mobile Bay, a decisive Civil War clash. Perhaps inspired by this display of risk-taking, the heads of the two federal antitrust agencies—DOJ Assistant Attorney General (AAG) Jonathan Kanter and FTC Chair Lina Khan—took a “damn the economics, full speed ahead” attitude in remarks at the Sept. 16 session of Fordham Law School’s 49th Annual Conference on International Antitrust Law and Policy. Special Assistant to the President Tim Wu was also on hand and emphasized the “all of government” approach to competition policy adopted by the Biden administration.
In his remarks, AAG Kanter seemed to be endorsing a “monopoly broth” argument in decrying the current “Whac-a-Mole” approach to monopolization cases. The intent may be to lessen the burden of proof of anticompetitive effects, or to bring together a string of actions taken jointly as evidence of a Section 2 violation. In taking such an approach, however, there is a serious risk that efficiency-seeking actions may be mistaken for exclusionary tactics and incorrectly included in the broth. (Notably, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s 2001 Microsoft opinion avoided the monopoly-broth problem by separately discussing specific company actions and weighing them on their individual merits, not as part of a general course of conduct.)
Kanter also recommended going beyond “our horizontal and vertical framework” in merger assessments, despite the fact that vertical mergers (involving complements) are far less likely to be anticompetitive than horizontal mergers (involving substitutes).
Finally, and perhaps most problematically, Kanter endorsed the American Innovative and Choice Online Act (AICOA), citing the protection it would afford “would-be competitors” (but what about consumers?). In so doing, the AAG ignored the fact that AICOA would prohibit welfare-enhancing business conduct and could be harmfully construed to ban mere harm to rivals (see, for example, Stanford professor Doug Melamed’s trenchant critique).
Chair Khan’s presentation, which called for a far-reaching “course correction” in U.S. antitrust, was even more bold and alarming. She announced plans for a new FTC Act Section 5 “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) policy statement centered on bringing “standalone” cases not reachable under the antitrust laws. Such cases would not consider any potential efficiencies and would not be subject to the rule of reason. Endorsing that approach amounts to an admission that economic analysis will not play a serious role in future FTC UMC assessments (a posture that likely will cause FTC filings to be viewed skeptically by federal judges).
In noting the imminent release of new joint DOJ-FTC merger guidelines, Khan implied that they would be animated by an anti-merger philosophy. She cited “[l]awmakers’ skepticism of mergers” and congressional rejection “of economic debits and credits” in merger law. Khan thus asserted that prior agency merger guidance had departed from the law. I doubt, however, that many courts will be swayed by this “economics free” anti-merger revisionism.
Tim Wu’s remarks closing the Fordham conference had a “big picture” orientation. In an interview with GW Law’s Bill Kovacic, Wu briefly described the Biden administration’s “whole of government” approach, embodied in President Joe Biden’s July 2021 Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy. While the order’s notion of breaking down existing barriers to competition across the American economy is eminently sound, many of those barriers are caused by government restrictions (not business practices) that are not even alluded to in the order.
Moreover, in many respects, the order seeks to reregulate industries, misdiagnosing many phenomena as business abuses that actually represent efficient free-market practices (as explained by Howard Beales and Mark Jamison in a Sept. 12 Mercatus Center webinar that I moderated). In reality, the order may prove to be on net harmful, rather than beneficial, to competition.
What is one to make of the enforcement officials’ bold interventionist screeds? What seems to be missing in their presentations is a dose of humility and pragmatism, as well as appreciation for consumer welfare (scarcely mentioned in the agency heads’ presentations). It is beyond strange to see agencies that are having problems winning cases under conventional legal theories floating novel far-reaching initiatives that lack a sound economics foundation.
It is also amazing to observe the downplaying of consumer welfare by agency heads, given that, since 1979 (in Reiter v. Sonotone), the U.S. Supreme Court has described antitrust as a “consumer welfare prescription.” Unless there is fundamental change in the makeup of the federal judiciary (and, in particular, the Supreme Court) in the very near future, the new unconventional theories are likely to fail—and fail badly—when tested in court.
Bringing new sorts of cases to test enforcement boundaries is, of course, an entirely defensible role for U.S. antitrust leadership. But can the same thing be said for bringing “non-boundary” cases based on theories that would have been deemed far beyond the pale by both Republican and Democratic officials just a few years ago? Buckle up: it looks as if we are going to find out.
[This guest post from Yale Law Schoolstudent Leah Samuel—the third post in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium—is a condensed version of a full-length paper. Please reach out to Leah at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like a copy of the full draft. It is the first of two contributions to the symposium posted today, along with this related post from Corbin K. Barthold of TechFreedom. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]
The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) ability to conduct substantive rulemaking under both its “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) and “unfair and deceptive practices” (UDAP) mandates was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1973’s National Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC. Nonetheless, the FTC has seldom exercised this authority with respect to UMC—its antitrust authority. And various scholars and commentators have suggested that such an attempt would quickly be rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.
I argue that the plain text and procedural history of the 1975 Magnuson–Moss Warranty Act demonstrate that Congress implicitly ratified the National Petroleum decision as it applied to UMC rulemaking. The scholarly focus on the intentions of the framers of the 1914 Federal Trade Commission Act with respect to substantive rulemaking is therefore misplaced—whether the FTC has exercised its UMC rulemaking powers in recent decades, its ability to do so was affirmed by Congress in 1974.
When the FTC first began to promulgate substantive rules under Section 5, neither the agency nor reviewing courts readily distinguished between UMC and UDAP authority. In 1973, the D.C. Circuit determined that the FTC was empowered to promulgate a legally binding trade regulation rule that required the posting of octane numbers at gas stations as a valid legislative rule under both UMC and UDAP. The given trade regulation rule was not clearly categorized as consumer protection or antitrust by the court. In 1975, Congress passed the Magnuson-Moss Act, which added procedural requirements to UDAP rulemaking without changing the processes applicable to UMC rulemaking as it stood after National Petroleum. In 1980, Congress added additional cumbersome procedural hurdles, as well as certain outright prohibitions to so-called Magnuson-Moss rulemaking with the Federal Trade Commission Improvements Act (FTCIA), still leaving UMC untouched.
A textualist reading of the Magnuson-Moss Act should lead to the conclusion that the FTC has the power to conduct substantive UMC rulemaking. Because Congress was actively aware of and responding to the National Petroleum decision and the FTC’s Octane Rule, the Magnuson-Moss Act should be read to leave UMC rulemaking intact under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).
Interpreting Magnuson-Moss to acknowledge the existence of, and therefore validate, UMC rulemaking does the least violence to the text, in keeping with the supremacy-of-text principle, as described by Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner in “Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts.” Absent any express statement eliminating or bracketing that authority, the contextual meaning of Magnuson-Moss § 202(a)(2)—“[t]he preceding sentence shall not affect any authority of the Commission to prescribe rules…with respect to unfair methods of competition”—is most clearly understood as protecting the existence of UMC rulemaking as it existed in law at the moment of the bill’s passage. In his famous concurrence in Green v. Bock Laundry Machine Co., Justice Scalia explained that:
The meaning of terms on the statute books ought to be determined, not on the basis of which meaning can be shown to have been understood by a larger handful of the Members of Congress; but rather on the basis of which meaning is . . . most compatible with the surrounding body of law into which the provision must be integrated—a compatibility which, by a benign fiction, we assume Congress always has in mind.
In Branch v. Smith, Scalia applied this method to the Voting Rights Act, reasoning that Congress has a constructive awareness of lower-court decisions when it amends a statute. While that constructive awareness, and the statutory meaning that it implies, cannot trump the plain text of the amended statute, it is an important aid to interpretation. Here, the benign fiction of constructive awareness is actually a demonstrable fact: Congress was aware of National Petroleum and took it to be the legal default. Where the lower court decision-making process and the legislative process were closely intertwined, the presumption that Congress knew and adopted the D.C. Circuit’s reasoning is more defensible from a textualist perspective than any other reading of Section 202.
This is not an argument derived from legislative silence or inaction, canons disfavored by today’s textualists. Here, Congress definitively acted, amending the FTC Act multiple times over the decade. To read into the text of the Magnuson-Moss Act a provision stripping the FTC of its UMC rulemaking authority and overturning National Petroleum would be to violate the omitted case canon, as Scalia and Garner put it: “The absent provision cannot be supplied by the courts. What the legislature ‘would have wanted’ it did not provide, and that is the end of the matter.” In sum, the Congresses of 1974 and 1980 affirmed the existence of UMC rulemaking under APA procedures.
FTC Rulemaking Before the Octane Rule
During its first 50 years, the FTC carried out its mandate exclusively through nonbinding recommendations called “trade practice rules” (TPRs), alongside case-by-case adjudications. TPRs emerged from FTC-facilitated “trade practice conferences,” where industry participants formulated rules around what constituted unfair practices within their industry. In the early 1960s, Kennedy-appointed FTC Chair Phil Elman began to push the agency to shift away from a reactive “mailbag approach” based on individual complaints and toward a systematic approach based on binding agency rules. The result was the promulgation of “trade regulation rules” (TRRs) through notice-and-comment rulemaking, which the FTC initiated by amending its procedural rules to permit binding rulemaking in 1962. The FTC’s first TRR, promulgated in 1964, explicitly relied upon the agency’s UDAP authority. However, its statement of basis and purpose contained a full-throated defense of FTC rulemaking in general, including UMC rulemaking. The history of these early rulemaking efforts has been documented comprehensively by Luke Herrine.
Of the TRRs that the FTC promulgated before the Octane Rule, only one appears to have been explicitly identified as an exercise of antitrust rulemaking under Section 6(g) of the FTC Act. That rule, promulgated in 1968, identified its authority as sections 2(d) and 2(e) of the Clayton Act, rather than UMC under Section 5 of the FTC Act. The agency itself, upon repealing the rule, found that no enforcement actions were ever brought under it. Given the existence, however underutilized, of the 1968 rule—alongside the 1971 Octane Rule described below—it is clear that FTC personnel during the 1960s and 1970s did not understand TRRs to mean only consumer protection rules under UDAP. Furthermore, the Congress that enacted the Magnuson-Moss Act was aware of and legislating against the background fact that the FTC had already promulgated two final rules drawing on antitrust authority.
The National Petroleum Decision
In December 1971, the FTC promulgated a TRR through APA notice-and-comment rulemaking declaring that the failure to post octane ratings on gas pumps constituted a violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act, citing both UMC and UDAP as its authorizing provisions. Quoting from the statement of base and purpose of the 1964 Cigarette Rule, the FTC declared that it was empowered to promulgate the TRR under the “general grant of rulemaking authority in section 6(g) (of the Federal Trade Commission Act), and authority to promulgate it is in any event, implicit in section 5(a) (6) (of the Act) and in the purpose and design of the Trade Commission Act as a whole.”
Like the Octane Rule itself, Judge J. Skelly Wright’s 1973 National Petroleum decision affirming the FTC’s authority to promulgate the rule did not distinguish between UMC and UDAP rulemaking and did not limit its holding to one or the other.
Wright’s opinion rested first on a plain language reading of 15 U.S.C. § 46(g), which provides that the FTC may “[f]rom time to time … classify corporations and … make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of sections 41 to 46 and 47 to 58 of this title.” He rejected appellees’ claim that the placement of § 6(g) in the section of the FTC Act that empowers the commission to systematically investigate and collect industry reports (colloquially referred to as 6(b) orders) manifests Congress’s intent to limit 6(g) rulemaking to the FTC’s “nonadjudicatory, investigative and informative functions.” As he pointed out, the text of 6(g) as adopted applied to section 45, which corresponds to § 5 of the FTC Act.
Wright acknowledged, however, that in theory 6(g) could be limited to rules of procedure and practice—such was the holding of the district court. Wright declined to follow the district court, holding instead that, “while the legislative history of Section 5 and Section 6(g) is ambiguous, it certainly does not compel the conclusion that the Commission was not meant to exercise the power to make substantive rules with binding effect in Section 5(a) adjudications. We also believe that the plain language of Section 6(g)…confirms the framers’ intent to allow exercise of the power claimed here.”Finding the legislative history “cryptic” and inconclusive, Wright argued that “the need to rely on the section’s language is obvious.”
He resolved the matter in the FTC’s favor by focusing on the agency’s need for effective tools to carry out its mandate; to force the agency to proceed solely by adjudication “would render the Commission ineffective to do the job assigned it by Congress. Such a result is not required by the legislative history of the Act.”
While contemporary skeptics of the administrative state might take issue with Wright’s statutory interpretation, it is difficult to argue with his textualist premise: nothing in the text of 6(g) limits the provision to procedural rulemaking.
More importantly, the Magnuson-Moss Act was passed Dec. 19, 1974, only a year and a half after the National Petroleum decision. The text and history of the Magnuson-Moss Act evinces an awareness of and attentiveness to the National Petroleum decision—the proposed legislation and the National Petroleum case were both pending during the early 1970s. The text of Magnuson-Moss canonizes Wright’s authorization of FTC rulemaking powers under both UMC and UDAP, while specifying a more rigorous set of procedural hurdles for UDAP rulemaking.
Legislative History of the Magnuson-Moss Act
Some commentators have suggested that the general purpose of Magnuson-Moss with respect to FTC rulemaking must have been to bog down the rule-promulgation process, because the act added procedural requirements like cross-examination to UDAP rulemaking. From that premise, it may be argued that a Congress hostile to FTC rulemaking would not have simultaneously sandbagged UDAP rulemaking while validating UMC rulemaking under the APA. That logical jump oversimplifies the process of negotiation and compromise that typifies any legislative process, and here it leads to the wrong conclusion. Magnuson-Moss was the result of consumer-protection advocates’ painstaking efforts to strengthen the FTC across many dimensions. The addition of trial-type procedures was a concession that they ultimately offered to business interests to move the bill out of the hostile U.S. House Commerce and Finance Subcommittee. However, the bill moved out of conference committee and to the President Gerald Ford’s desk only after its champions were assured that, in the immediate aftermath of National Petroleum, UMC rulemaking would be unimpaired.
Sen. Warren Magnuson’s (D-Wash.) strategy from the beginning was to marry together the popular and relatively easy-to-understand warranty provisions with a revitalization of the FTC. As early as 1971, President Richard Nixon publicized his support for a watered-down version of a warranty-FTC bill. Notwithstanding the political cover from Nixon, House Republicans were reluctant to move any bill forward. Michael Lemov, counsel to Rep. John E. Moss (D-Calif.) during this period, wrote that the House Commerce Committee in the early 70s was increasingly attentive to business interests and hostile to consumer-protection legislation. It ultimately took Moss’ deal-brokering to make Magnuson’s consumer-protection legacy a reality by unsticking multiple consumer-protection bills from the House “graveyard of consumer bills.” While Magnuson succeeded in passing the Magnuson-Moss draft to a full Senate vote three times in between 1970 and 1974, Moss spent years (and 12 full days of hearings) trying to get the bill out of his Commerce and Finance Subcommittee.
What finally unstuck the bill on the House side, according to Lemov, was the participation of the Nixon-appointed but surprisingly vigorous FTC Chair Lewis Engman. Engman testified before the subcommittee on March 19, 1973, that if the cross-examination provisions couldn’t be cut out of the bill, then all of the rulemaking provisions of the bill should be stripped out. By this time, the National Petroleum Refiners decision was pending, and Engman evidently felt that the FTC could do better with the rulemaking authority that might be left to it by Wright’s decision, rather than the burdensome procedure set out in the House draft. The National Petroleum decision came down June 28, 1973, and by Feb. 25, 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court had denied certiorari, such that Congress could and did consider Wright’s decision to be the state of the law. According to Lemov, Moss was upset that Engman blindsided him with his demand to leave the entirety of Section 5 rulemaking under the National Petroleum standard. In response, he doubled down and brokered a deal with key Republican committee member Rep. Jim Broyhill (R-N.C.), which would keep cross-examination but limit it to material issues of fact, not policy or minutia. After being further weakened in the full House Commerce Committee, the bill made it to a floor vote and along to the conference committee on Sept. 19, 1974, to be reconciled with the stronger Senate version.
In conference, the bill was somewhat resuscitated. It made it out of the House and Senate in December 1974 and was signed by Ford in January 1975. The House’s industry-influenced version of cross-examination made it into law, since the Senate version would have left the entirety of FTC rulemaking power under the National Petroleum holding. In short, the burdensome procedures included in the Magnuson-Moss Act, particularly cross-examination, were either devised by or advocated for by industry-friendly interests intending to tie the FTC’s hands. However, at the urging of Engman, both the Senate and House were attentive to the progress of the National Petroleum decision, and ultimately conferred on a bill that deliberately left UMC rulemaking under the simpler APA process permitted by that decision’s precedent.
The Plain Meaning of Magnuson-Moss
The text of the critical passage of the Magnuson-Moss Act, as codified at 15 U.S.C. § 57a, has not been substantially changed since 1975, though two modifications appear in italics:
(a) Authority of Commission to prescribe rules and general statements of policy
(1) Except as provided in subsection (h), the Commission may prescribe–
(A) interpretive rules and general statements of policy with respect to unfair or deceptive acts or practices […] and
(B) rules which define with specificity acts or practices which are unfair or deceptive acts or practices […], except that the Commission shall not develop or promulgate any trade rule or regulation with regard to the regulation of the development and utilization of the standards and certification activities pursuant to this section.Rules under this subparagraph may include requirements prescribed for the purpose of preventing such acts or practices.
(2) The Commission shall have no authority under this subchapter, other than its authority under this section, to prescribe any rule with respect to unfair or deceptive acts or practices […]. The preceding sentence shall not affect any authority of the Commission to prescribe rules (including interpretive rules), and general statements of policy, with respect to unfair methods of competition…
Both of the two changes in italics were the result of the 1980 FTCIA, which is discussed in more depth below. An uncodified section of the bill, labeled “15 USC 57a Note,” reads as follows:
(C)(1) The amendment made by subsections (a) and (b) of this section shall not affect the validity of any rule which was promulgated under section 6(g) of the Federal Trade Commission act prior to the date of enactment of this section. Any proposed rule under section 6(g) of such act with respect to which presentation of data, views, and arguments was substantially completed before such date may be promulgated in the same manner and with the same validity as such rule could have been promulgated had this section not been enacted.
Taken together, the language of Section 202 and 202(c) display a consciousness of the FTC’s prior norms of rulemaking authorized by Section 6(g), and an intent to bifurcate the treatment of UDAP and UMC rulemaking. Section 202 (a)(2) limits UDAP rulemaking, whether interpretive or legislative, to the new boundaries established in the bill, while explicitly leaving UMC rulemaking, including, but not limited to, interpretative rules and statements of policy, outside the new constraints and tethered to Section 6(g).
Clearly UMC is subject to the residual of FTC rulemaking authority—but the interpreter is left to determine whether that residual:
eliminates UMC rulemaking altogether;
leaves UMC rulemaking viable under 6(g) and the APA procedures as established in National Petroleum; or
is agnostic to UMC rulemaking but repudiates National Petroleum, thereby leaving UMC rulemaking open to interpretation based on the meaning of the 1914 FTCA.
Without reference to legislative history, a textualist approach to determining which of the three possibilities is most plausible is to ask what an enacting Congress with a clear preference would have done (see, e.g., Scalia’s majority opinion in Edmond v. United States). Congress could, with even greater parsimony and clarity in drafting, have limited all rulemaking to the Magnuson-Moss procedures by simply referencing Section 5 in the first sentence of (a)(2), or in the first sentences of (a)(1)(A) and (B). Alternately, if the objective was to prohibit UMC rulemaking while allowing a more procedurally limited form of UDAP rulemaking, Congress could have written the second sentence of (a)(2) as: “The preceding sentence shall not authorize the Commission to prescribe rules (including interpretive rules), and general statements of policy, with respect to unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce” or “The preceding sentence shall not authorize the Commission to prescribe rules, except interpretive rules and general statements of policy, with respect to unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce.”
We presume that Congress enacted the Magnuson-Moss Act with, as Scalia put it in Bock Laundry, a meaning “most compatible with the surrounding body of law into which the provision must be integrated—a compatibility which, by a benign fiction, we assume Congress always has in mind.” Therefore, while a textualist would not admit the legislative history and administrative history of the FTC to this interpretation, the history is relevant inasmuch as we presume that Congress legislates against the existing state of the law as it understands it. The foregoing history demonstrates conclusively that Congress was aware of and accounting for the National Petroleum decision at multiple stages of the legislative process. The FTC’s UMC rulemaking history further lends support to the fact that Congress and the agency understood UMC rulemaking power to exist before and after the enactment of Magnuson-Moss.
Rulemaking After the Magnuson-Moss Act and the 1980 FTCIA
Returning to the current statutory text, both of the changes in italics were the result of the 1980 FTCIA, which was designed to rein in perceived FTC overreach in the consumer-protection space. The reference to Subsection (h) incorporates an explicit halt to the FTC’s then-pending consumer-protection rulemaking relating to advertising directed at children. The exception codified at (a)(1)(B) targeted the FTC’s ongoing rulemaking in standards and certification.
The Standards and Certifications Rule was the most significant attempt at competition rulemaking after the Octane Rule, although it was never finalized. Two staff reports indicate that FTC staff in both 1978 and 1983 believed that the agency’s authority to make rules under UMC authority was not abrogated by Magnuson-Moss, nor by the FTCIA. The proposed rule would have authorized the FTC to define situations in which the process of developing standards and certifications for a wide variety of industries may give rise to competitive injuries in violation of Section 5. The 1978 proposed rule and staff teport drew on both UMC and UDAP authority, noting that, in the years since National Petroleum, Magnuson-Moss had codified the FTC’s rulemaking authority and added procedural requirements, but that the act, by its own terms, applied only to UDAP rulemaking. Accordingly, the FTC’s “authority to promulgate rules relating to unfair methods of competition was expressly left unchanged by the Act.” Because of the bifurcation in UMC and UDAP rulemaking procedures, Bureau of Consumer Protection (BCP) staff opted to proceed with the standards and certification rulemaking under the new Magnuson-Moss procedures, on the understanding that meeting the higher procedural bar of Magnuson-Moss would also satisfy the requirements of § 553 of the APA.
By 1983, however, BCP staff had shifted gears. The standards and certification final staff report of April 1983, which would have been delivered to the FTC commissioners for a vote on whether to promulgate the rule or not, recommended UMC rulemaking under 6(g). In drawing on its 6(g) authority, BCP staff acknowledged that the 1980 FTCIA had explicitly removed commission authority to promulgate a standards and certification rule under Section 18 of the FTC Act, referring to the new UDAP section.
Clearly, the 1980 FTCIA was intended as a rebuke to the FTC’s efforts at consumer-protection rulemaking. However, the fact that earlier House and Senate drafts contemplated removing all FTC rulemaking authority, or removing standards and certification rulemaking authority for both UMC and UDAP, strongly suggests that Congress understood that the two rulemaking powers existed, had been affirmed by Magnuson-Moss, and continued to be legally viable, even as their exercise became politically infeasible.
BCP staff was bolstered in this interpretation by the D.C. District Court, which granted summary judgment in February 1982 against the American National Standards Institute, which brought suit against the commission claiming that the proposed Standards and Certification Rule proceeding under 6(g) violated the FTCIA of 1980.In an unpublished opinion, the court held that “the text and legislative history of the FTCIA belie Plaintiffs’ claims,” while also defending the continuing dispositivity of National Petroleum on the question of § 6(g) rulemaking. ANSI did not appeal the district court’s decision.
BCP staff forged ahead with the final report in April 1983, acknowledging that, to the extent that certain substantive requirements around disclosures from the 1978 proposed rule were directed at preventing “deception,” the FTC was no longer able to proceed with such rules. To the extent that such disclosures “would have alleviated unfair methods of competition,” the final rule could “provide similar relief.” The Standards and Certifications Rule was never adopted, however, because by 1983, FTC leadership was actively hostile to regulation. The only mentions of “unfair methods of competition” in the rulemaking context in the Federal Register after the Standards and Certification Rule appears to be in the context of repeals.
The Magnuson-Moss Act explicitly left UMC rulemaking unchanged when establishing an additional set of procedural hurdles for UDAP rulemaking. Congress in 1974 both constructively and demonstrably knew that the legal default against which these changes were made was Judge Wright’s National Petroleum decision, as well as the final agency action embodied in the Octane Rule. A textualist reading of the Magnuson-Moss Act must begin with this background legal context to avoid doing violence to the text of the statute. This interpretation is further reinforced by the FTCIA, which also left UMC rulemaking intact, while banning specific instances of UDAP rulemaking. In short, the FTC has substantive UMC rulemaking authority under FTC Act Section 5.
[This guest post from Lawrence J. Spiwak of the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studiesis the second in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium. 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.]
While antitrust and regulation are supposed to be different sides of the same coin, there has always been a healthy debate over which enforcement paradigm is the most efficient. For those who have long suffered under the zealous hand of ex ante regulation, they would gladly prefer to be overseen by the more dispassionate and case-specific oversight of antitrust. Conversely, those dissatisfied with the current state of antitrust enforcement have increased calls to abandon the ex post approach of antitrust and return to some form of active, “always on” regulation.
While the “antitrust versus regulation” debate has raged for some time, the election of President Joe Biden has brought a new wrinkle: Lina Khan, the controversial chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), has made it very clear that she would like to expand the commission’s role from that of a mere enforcer of the nation’s antitrust laws to that of an agency that also promulgates ex ante “bright line” rules. Thus, the “antitrust versus regulation” debate is no longer academic.
Khan’s efforts to convert the FTC into a de facto regulator should surprise no one, however. Even before she was nominated, Khan was quite vocal about her policy vision for the FTC. For example, in 2020, she co-authored an essay with her former boss (and later briefly her FTC colleague) Rohit Chopra in the University of Chicago Law Review titled “The Case for ‘Unfair Methods of Competition’ Rulemaking.” In it, Khan and Chopra lay out both legal and policy arguments to support “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) rulemaking. But as I explain in a law review published last year in the Federalist Society Review titled “A Change in Direction for the Federal Trade Commission?”, Khan and Chopra’s arguments simply do not hold up to scrutiny. While I encourage those interested in the bounds of the FTC’s UMC rulemaking authority to read my paper in full, for purposes of this symposium, I include a brief summary of my analysis below.
Khan’s Legal Arguments for a UMC Rulemaking
At the outset of their essay, Chopra and Khan lay out what they believe to be the shortcomings of modern antitrust enforcement. As they correctly note, “[a]ntitrust law today is developed exclusively through adjudication,” which is designed to “facilitate nuanced and fact-specific analysis of liability and well-tailored remedies.” However, the authors contend that, while a case-by-case approach may sound great in theory, “in practice, the reliance on case-by-case adjudication yields a system of enforcement that generates ambiguity, unduly drains resources from enforcers, and deprives individuals and firms of any real opportunity to democratically participate in the process.” Chopra and Khan blame this alleged policy failure on the abandonment of per se rules in favor of the use of the “rule-of-reason” approach in antitrust jurisprudence. In their view, a rule-of-reason approach is nothing more than “a broad and open-ended inquiry into the overall competitive effects of particular conduct [which] asks judges to weigh the circumstances to decide whether the practice at issue violates the antitrust laws.” To remedy this perceived analytical shortcoming, they argue that the commission should step into the breach and promulgate ex ante bright-line rules to better enforce the prohibition against “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) outlined in Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.
As a threshold matter, while courts have traditionally provided guidance as to what exactly constitutes “unfair methods of competition,” Chopra and Khan argue that it should be the FTC that has that responsibility in the first instance. According to Chopra and Khan, because Congress set up the FTC as the independent expert agency to implement the FTC Act and because the phrase “unfair methods of competition” is ambiguous, courts must accord great deference to “FTC interpretations of ‘unfair methods of competition’” under the Supreme Court’s Chevron doctrine.
The authors then argue that the FTC has statutory authority to promulgate substantive rules to enforce the FTC’s interpretation of UMC. In particular, they point to the broad catch-all provision in Section 6(g) of the FTC Act. Section 6(g) provides, in relevant part, that the FTC may “[f]rom time to time . . . make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter.” Although this catch-all rulemaking provision is far from the detailed statutory scheme Congress set forth in the Magnuson-Moss Act to govern rulemaking to deal with Section 5’s other prohibition against “unfair or deceptive acts and practices” (UDAP), Chopra and Khan argue that the D.C. Circuit’s 1973 ruling in National Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC—a case that predates the Magnuson-Moss Act—provides judicial affirmation that the FTC has the authority to “promulgate substantive rules, not just procedural rules” under Section 6(g). Stating Khan’s argument differently: although there may be no affirmative specific grant of authority for the FTC to engage in UMC rulemaking, in the absence of any limit on such authority, the FTC may engage in UMC rulemaking subject to the constraints of the Administrative Procedure Act.
As I point out in my paper, while there are certainly strong arguments that the FTC lacks UMC rulemaking authority (see, e.g., Ohlhausen & Rill, “Pushing the Limits? A Primer on FTC Competition Rulemaking”), it is my opinion that, given the current state of administrative law—in particular, the high level of judicial deference accorded to agencies under both Chevron and the “arbitrary and capricious standard”—whether the FTC can engage in UMC rulemaking remains a very open question.
That said, even if we assume arguendo that the FTC does, in fact, have UMC rulemaking authority, the case law nonetheless reveals that, despite Khan’s hopes and desires, the FTC cannot unilaterally abandon the consumer welfare standard. As I explain in detail in my paper, even with great judicial deference, it is well-established that independent agencies simply cannot ignore antitrust terms of art (especially when that agency is specifically charged with enforcing the antitrust laws). Thus, Khan may get away with initiating UMC rulemaking, but, for example, attempting to impose a mandatory common carrier-style non-discrimination rule may be a bridge too far.
Khan’s Policy Arguments in Favor of UMC Rulemaking
Separate from the legal debate over whether the FTC can engage in UMC rulemaking, it is also important to ask whether the FTC should engage in UMC rulemaking. Khan essentially posits that the American economy needs a generic business regulator possessed with plenary power and expansive jurisdiction. Given the United States’ well-documented (and sordid) experience with public-utility regulation, that’s probably not a good idea.
Indeed, to Khan and Chopra, ex ante regulation is superior to ex post antitrust enforcement. For example, they submit that UMC “rulemaking would enable the Commission to issue clear rules to give market participants sufficient notice about what the law is, helping ensure that enforcement is predictable.” Moreover, they argue that “establishing rules could help relieve antitrust enforcement of steep costs and prolonged trials.” In particular, “[t]argeting conduct through rulemaking, rather than adjudication, would likely lessen the burden of expert fees or protracted litigation, potentially saving significant resources on a present-value basis.” And third, they contend that rulemaking “would enable the Commission to establish rules through a transparent and participatory process, ensuring that everyone who may be affected by a new rule has the opportunity to weigh in on it, granting the rule greater legitimacy.”
Khan’s published writings argue forcefully for greater regulatory power, but they suffer from analytical omissions that render her judgment questionable. For example, it is axiomatic that, while it is easy to imagine or theorize about the many benefits of regulation, regulation imposes significant costs of both the intended and unintended sorts. These costs can include compliance costs, reductions of innovation and investment, and outright entry deterrence that protects incumbents. Yet nowhere in her co-authored essay does Khan contemplate a cost-benefit analysis before promulgating a new regulation; she appears to assume that regulation is always costless, easy, and beneficial, on net. Unfortunately, history shows that we cannot always count on FTC commissioners to engage in wise policymaking.
Khan also fails to contemplate the possibility that changing market circumstances or inartful drafting might call for the removal of regulations previously imposed. Among other things, this failure calls into question her rationale that “clear rules” would make “enforcement … predictable.” Why, then, does the government not always use clear rules, instead of the ham-handed approach typical of regulatory interventions? More importantly, enforcement of rules requires adjudication on a case-by-case basis that is governed by precedent from prior applications of the rule and due process.
Taken together, Khan’s analytical omissions reveal a lack of historical awareness about (and apparently any personal experience with) the realities of modern public-utility regulation. Indeed, Khan offers up as an example of purported rulemaking success the Federal Communications Commission’s 2015 Open Internet Order, which imposed legacy common-carrier regulations designed for the old Ma Bell monopoly on the internet. But as I detail extensively in my paper, the history of net-neutrality regulation bears witness that Khan’s assertions that this process provided “clear rules,” was faster and cheaper, and allowed for meaningful public participation simply are not true.
[This post is the first in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium. 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 1500-4000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]
There is widespread interest in the potential tools that the Biden administration’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) may use to address a range of competition-related and competition-adjacent concerns. A focal point for this interest is the potential that the FTC may use its broad authority to regulate unfair methods of competition (UMC) under Section 5 of the FTC Act to make rules that address a wide range of conduct. This “potential” is expected to become a “likelihood” with confirmation of Alvaro Bedoya, a third Democratic commissioner, expected to occur any day.
This post marks the start of a Truth on the Market symposium that brings together academics, practitioners, and other commentators to discuss issues relating to potential UMC-related rulemaking. Contributions to this symposium will cover a range of topics, including:
Constitutional and administrative-law limits on UMC rulemaking: does such rulemaking potentially present “major question” or delegation issues, or other issues under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA)? If so, what is the scope of permissible rulemaking?
Substantive issues in UMC rulemaking: costs and benefits to be considered in developing rules, prudential concerns, and similar concerns.
Using UMC to address competition-adjacent issues: consideration of how or whether the FTC can use its UMC authority to address firm conduct that is governed by other statutory or regulatory regimes. For instance, firms using copyright law and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to limit competitors’ ability to alter or repair products, or labor or entry issues that might be governed by licensure or similar laws.
Timing and Structure of the Symposium
Starting tomorrow, one or two contributions to this symposium will be posted each morning. During the first two weeks of the symposium, we will generally try to group posts on similar topics together. When multiple contributions are posted on the same day, they will generally be implicitly or explicitly in dialogue with each other. The first week’s contributions will generally focus on constitutional and administrative law issues relating to UMC rulemaking, while the second week’s contributions will focus on more specific substantive topics.
Readers are encouraged to engage with these posts through comments. In addition, academics, practitioners, and other antitrust and regulatory commentators are invited to submit additional contributions for inclusion in this symposium. Such contributions may include responses to posts published by others or newly developed ideas. Interested authors should submit pieces for consideration to Gus Hurwitz and Keith Fierro Benson.
This symposium will run through at least Friday, May 6. We do not, however, anticipate, ending or closing it at that time. To the contrary, it is very likely that topics relating to FTC UMC rulemaking will continue to be timely and of interest to our community—we anticipate keeping the symposium running for the foreseeable future, and welcome submissions on an ongoing basis. Readers interested in these topics are encouraged to check in regularly for new posts, including by following the symposium page, the FTC UMC Rulemaking tag, or by subscribing to Truth on the Market for notifications of new posts.
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) competition rulemakings, like spring, are in the air. But do they make policy or legal sense?
In two commentaries last summer (see here and here), I argued that FTC competition rulemaking initiatives would not pass cost-benefit muster, on both legal grounds and economic policy grounds.
As a legal matter, I stressed that they would be time-consuming and pose serious litigation risks, suggesting a significant probability that costs would be incurred in proposing rules that ultimately would fail to be upheld.
As an economic policy matter, I explained that the inherent inflexibility of rule-based norms is ill-suited to deal with dynamic evolving market conditions, compared with matter-specific antitrust litigation that flexibly applies the latest economic thinking to particular circumstances. Furthermore, new competition rules would also exacerbate costly policy inconsistencies that stem from the existence of dual federal antitrust enforcement agencies, the FTC and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ).
My pearls of wisdom, however, failed to move the agency. In December 2021, the FTC issued a Statement of Regulatory Priorities (SRP) that stressed that it would, in the coming year, “consider developing both unfair-methods-of competition [UMC] rulemakings as well as rulemakings to define with specificity unfair or deceptive acts or practices [UDAP].”
I have addressed in greater detail the legal case against proceeding with UMC rulemakings in an article that will be included as a chapter in a special Concurrences book dealing with FTC rulemaking, scheduled for release around the end of June. The chapter abstract follows:
Under the Biden Administration, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) appears poised to launch an unprecedented effort to transform American antitrust policy through the promulgation of rules, rather than reliance on case-by-case adjudication, as in the past. The FTC has a long history of rulemaking, centered primarily on consumer protection. The legal basis for FTC competition rulemaking, however, is enormously weak and fraught with uncertainty, in at least five respects.
First, a constitutional principle known as the “non-delegation doctrine” suggests that the FTC may not, as a constitutional matter, possess the specific statutory delegation required to issue rules that address particular competitive practices. Second, principles of statutory construction strongly suggest that the FTC’s general statutory provision dealing with rulemaking refers to procedural rules of organization, not to substantive rules bearing on competition. Third, even assuming that proposed competition rules survived these initial hurdles, principles of administrative law would pose a substantial risk that competition rules would be struck down as “arbitrary and capricious.” Fourth, there is a high probability that courts would not defer to an FTC statutory construction that authorized “unfair methods of competition” rules. Fifth, any attempt by the FTC to rely on its more specific consumer protection rulemaking powers to reach anticompetitive practices would be cabined by the limited statutory scope of those powers (and the possible perception that the FTC’s procedural protections are weak), and quite probably would fail. In sum, the cumulative weight of these legal risks indicates that the probability FTC competition rulemaking would succeed is extremely low. As such, the FTC may wish to undertake a sober assessment of the legal landscape before embarking on a competition rulemaking adventure that almost certainly would be destined for failure. The Commission could better promote consumer welfare by applying its limited resources to antitrust enforcement rather than competition rulemaking.
The language of the federal antitrust laws is extremely general. Over more than a century, the federal courts have applied common-law techniques to construe this general language to provide guidance to the private sector as to what does or does not run afoul of the law. The interpretive process has been fraught with some uncertainty, as judicial approaches to antitrust analysis have changed several times over the past century. Nevertheless, until very recently, judges and enforcers had converged toward relying on a consumer welfare standard as the touchstone for antitrust evaluations (see my antitrust primer here, for an overview).
While imperfect and subject to potential error in application—a problem of legal interpretation generally—the consumer welfare principle has worked rather well as the focus both for antitrust-enforcement guidance and judicial decision-making. The general stability and predictability of antitrust under a consumer welfare framework has advanced the rule of law. It has given businesses sufficient information to plan transactions in a manner likely to avoid antitrust liability. It thereby has cabined uncertainty and increased the probability that private parties would enter welfare-enhancing commercial arrangements, to the benefit of society.
In a very thoughtful 2017 speech, then Acting Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Andrew Finch commented on the importance of the rule of law to principled antitrust enforcement. He noted:
[H]ow do we administer the antitrust laws more rationally, accurately, expeditiously, and efficiently? … Law enforcement requires stability and continuity both in rules and in their application to specific cases.
Indeed, stability and continuity in enforcement are fundamental to the rule of law. The rule of law is about notice and reliance. When it is impossible to make reasonable predictions about how a law will be applied, or what the legal consequences of conduct will be, these important values are diminished. To call our antitrust regime a “rule of law” regime, we must enforce the law as written and as interpreted by the courts and advance change with careful thought.
The reliance fostered by stability and continuity has obvious economic benefits. Businesses invest, not only in innovation but in facilities, marketing, and personnel, and they do so based on the economic and legal environment they expect to face.
Of course, we want businesses to make those investments—and shape their overall conduct—in accordance with the antitrust laws. But to do so, they need to be able to rely on future application of those laws being largely consistent with their expectations. An antitrust enforcement regime with frequent changes is one that businesses cannot plan for, or one that they will plan for by avoiding certain kinds of investments.
That is certainly not to say there has not been positive change in the antitrust laws in the past, or that we would have been better off without those changes. U.S. antitrust law has been refined, and occasionally recalibrated, with the courts playing their appropriate interpretive role. And enforcers must always be on the watch for new or evolving threats to competition. As markets evolve and products develop over time, our analysis adapts. But as those changes occur, we pursue reliability and consistency in application in the antitrust laws as much as possible.
Indeed, we have enjoyed remarkable continuity and consensus for many years. Antitrust law in the U.S. has not been a “paradox” for quite some time, but rather a stable and valuable law enforcement regime with appropriately widespread support.
Unfortunately, policy decisions taken by the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) leadership in recent weeks have rejected antitrust continuity and consensus. They have injected substantial uncertainty into the application of competition-law enforcement by the FTC. This abrupt change in emphasis undermines the rule of law and threatens to reduce economic welfare.
As of now, the FTC’s departure from the rule of law has been notable in two areas:
Its rejection of previous guidance on the agency’s “unfair methods of competition” authority, the FTC’s primary non-merger-related enforcement tool; and
Its new advice rejecting time limits for the review of generally routine proposed mergers.
In addition, potential FTC rulemakings directed at “unfair methods of competition” would, if pursued, prove highly problematic.
Rescission of the Unfair Methods of Competition Policy Statement
The bipartisan UMC Policy Statement has originally been supported by all three Democratic commissioners, including then-Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. The policy statement generally respected and promoted the rule of law by emphasizing that, in applying the facially broad “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) language, the FTC would be guided by the well-established principles of the antitrust rule of reason (including considering any associated cognizable efficiencies and business justifications) and the consumer welfare standard. The FTC also explained that it would not apply “standalone” Section 5 theories to conduct that would violate the Sherman or Clayton Acts.
In short, the UMC Policy Statement sent a strong signal that the commission would apply UMC in a manner fully consistent with accepted and well-understood antitrust policy principles. As in the past, the vast bulk of FTC Section 5 prosecutions would be brought against conduct that violated the core antitrust laws. Standalone Section 5 cases would be directed solely at those few practices that harmed consumer welfare and competition, but somehow fell into a narrow crack in the basic antitrust statutes (such as, perhaps, “invitations to collude” that lack plausible efficiency justifications). Although the UMC Statement did not answer all questions regarding what specific practices would justify standalone UMC challenges, it substantially limited business uncertainty by bringing Section 5 within the boundaries of settled antitrust doctrine.
The FTC’s announcement of the UMC Policy Statement rescission unhelpfully proclaimed that “the time is right for the Commission to rethink its approach and to recommit to its mandate to police unfair methods of competition even if they are outside the ambit of the Sherman or Clayton Acts.” As a dissenting statement by Commissioner Christine S. Wilson warned, consumers would be harmed by the commission’s decision to prioritize other unnamed interests. And as Commissioner Noah Joshua Phillips stressed in his dissent, the end result would be reduced guidance and greater uncertainty.
In sum, by suddenly leaving private parties in the dark as to how to conform themselves to Section 5’s UMC requirements, the FTC’s rescission offends the rule of law.
New Guidance to Parties Considering Mergers
For decades, parties proposing mergers that are subject to statutory Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act pre-merger notification requirements have operated under the understanding that:
The FTC and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) will routinely grant “early termination” of review (before the end of the initial 30-day statutory review period) to those transactions posing no plausible competitive threat; and
An enforcement agency’s decision not to request more detailed documents (“second requests”) after an initial 30-day pre-merger review effectively serves as an antitrust “green light” for the proposed acquisition to proceed.
Those understandings, though not statutorily mandated, have significantly reduced antitrust uncertainty and related costs in the planning of routine merger transactions. The rule of law has been advanced through an effective assurance that business combinations that appear presumptively lawful will not be the target of future government legal harassment. This has advanced efficiency in government, as well; it is a cost-beneficial optimal use of resources for DOJ and the FTC to focus exclusively on those proposed mergers that present a substantial potential threat to consumer welfare.
Two recent FTC pronouncements (one in tandem with DOJ), however, have generated great uncertainty by disavowing (at least temporarily) those two welfare-promoting review policies. Joined by DOJ, the FTC on Feb. 4 announced that the agencies would temporarily suspend early terminations, citing an “unprecedented volume of filings” and a transition to new leadership. More than six months later, this “temporary” suspension remains in effect.
Citing “capacity constraints” and a “tidal wave of merger filings,” the FTC subsequently published an Aug. 3 blog post that effectively abrogated the 30-day “green lighting” of mergers not subject to a second request. It announced that it was sending “warning letters” to firms reminding them that FTC investigations remain open after the initial 30-day period, and that “[c]ompanies that choose to proceed with transactions that have not been fully investigated are doing so at their own risk.”
The FTC’s actions interject unwarranted uncertainty into merger planning and undermine the rule of law. Preventing early termination on transactions that have been approved routinely not only imposes additional costs on business; it hints that some transactions might be subject to novel theories of liability that fall outside the antitrust consensus.
[T]he FTC may challenge deals that “threaten to reduce competition and harm consumers, workers, and honest businesses.” Adding in harm to both “workers and honest businesses” implies that the FTC may be considering more ways that transactions can have an adverse impact other than just harm to competition and consumers [citation omitted].
Because consensus antitrust merger analysis centers on consumer welfare, not the protection of labor or business interests, any suggestion that the FTC may be extending its reach to these new areas is inconsistent with established legal principles and generates new business-planning risks.
More generally, the Aug. 6 FTC “blog post could be viewed as an attempt to modify the temporal framework of the HSR Act”—in effect, an effort to displace an implicit statutory understanding in favor of an agency diktat, contrary to the rule of law. Commissioner Wilson sees the blog post as a means to keep investigations open indefinitely and, thus, an attack on the decades-old HSR framework for handling most merger reviews in an expeditious fashion (see here). Commissioner Phillips is concerned about an attempt to chill legal M&A transactions across the board, particularly unfortunate when there is no reason to conclude that particular transactions are illegal (see here).
Finally, the historical record raises serious questions about the “resource constraint” justification for the FTC’s new merger review policies:
Through the end of July 2021, more than 2,900 transactions were reported to the FTC. It is not clear, however, whether these record-breaking HSR filing numbers have led (or will lead) to more deals being investigated. Historically, only about 13 percent of all deals reported are investigated in some fashion, and roughly 3 percent of all deals reported receive a more thorough, substantive review through the issuance of a Second Request. Even if more deals are being reported, for the majority of transactions, the HSR process is purely administrative, raising no antitrust concerns, and, theoretically, uses few, if any, agency resources. [Citations omitted.]
Proposed FTC Competition Rulemakings
The new FTC leadership is strongly considering competition rulemakings. As I explained in a recent Truth on the Market post, such rulemakings would fail a cost-benefit test. They raise serious legal risks for the commission and could impose wasted resource costs on the FTC and on private parties. More significantly, they would raise two very serious economic policy concerns:
First, competition rules would generate higher error costs than adjudications. Adjudications cabin error costs by allowing for case-specific analysis of likely competitive harms and procompetitive benefits. In contrast, competition rules inherently would be overbroad and would suffer from a very high rate of false positives. By characterizing certain practices as inherently anticompetitive without allowing for consideration of case-specific facts bearing on actual competitive effects, findings of rule violations inevitably would condemn some (perhaps many) efficient arrangements.
Second, competition rules would undermine the rule of law and thereby reduce economic welfare. FTC-only competition rules could lead to disparate legal treatment of a firm’s business practices, depending upon whether the FTC or the U.S. Justice Department was the investigating agency. Also, economic efficiency gains could be lost due to the chilling of aggressive efficiency-seeking business arrangements in those sectors subject to rules. [Emphasis added.]
In short, common law antitrust adjudication, focused on the consumer welfare standard, has done a good job of promoting a vibrant competitive economy in an efficient fashion. FTC competition rulemaking would not.
Recent FTC actions have undermined consensus antitrust-enforcement standards and have departed from established merger-review procedures with respect to seemingly uncontroversial consolidations. Those decisions have imposed costly uncertainty on the business sector and are thereby likely to disincentivize efficiency-seeking arrangements. What’s more, by implicitly rejecting consensus antitrust principles, they denigrate the primacy of the rule of law in antitrust enforcement. The FTC’s pursuit of competition rulemaking would further damage the rule of law by imposing arbitrary strictures that ignore matter-specific considerations bearing on the justifications for particular business decisions.
Fortunately, these are early days in the Biden administration. The problematic initial policy decisions delineated in this comment could be reversed based on further reflection and deliberation within the commission. Chairwoman Lina Khan and her fellow Democratic commissioners would benefit by consulting more closely with Commissioners Wilson and Phillips to reach agreement on substantive and procedural enforcement policies that are better tailored to promote consumer welfare and enhance vibrant competition. Such policies would benefit the U.S. economy in a manner consistent with the rule of law.
There is little doubt that Federal Trade Commission (FTC) unfair methods of competition rulemaking proceedings are in the offing. Newly named FTC Chair Lina Khan and Commissioner Rohit Chopra both have extolled the benefits of competition rulemaking in a major law review article. What’s more, in May, Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter (during her stint as acting chair) established a rulemaking unit in the commission’s Office of General Counsel empowered to “explore new rulemakings to prohibit unfair or deceptive practices and unfair methods of competition” (emphasis added).
In short, a majority of sitting FTC commissioners apparently endorse competition rulemaking proceedings. As such, it is timely to ask whether FTC competition rules would promote consumer welfare, the paramount goal of competition policy.
In a recently published Mercatus Center research paper, I assess the case for competition rulemaking from a competition perspective and find it wanting. I conclude that, before proceeding, the FTC should carefully consider whether such rulemakings would be cost-beneficial. I explain that any cost-benefit appraisal should weigh both the legal risks and the potential economic policy concerns (error costs and “rule of law” harms). Based on these considerations, competition rulemaking is inappropriate. The FTC should stick with antitrust enforcement as its primary tool for strengthening the competitive process and thereby promoting consumer welfare.
A summary of my paper follows.
Legal Risks of Competition Rulemaking
Section 6(g) of the original Federal Trade Commission Act authorizes the FTC “to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter.” Section 6(g) rules are enacted pursuant to the “informal rulemaking” requirements of Section 553 of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), which apply to the vast majority of federal agency rulemaking proceedings.
Before launching Section 6(g) competition rulemakings, however, the FTC would be well-advised first to weigh the legal risks and policy concerns associated with such an endeavor. Rulemakings are resource-intensive proceedings and should not lightly be undertaken without an eye to their feasibility and implications for FTC enforcement policy.
Only one appeals court decision addresses the scope of Section 6(g) rulemaking. In 1971, the FTC enacted a Section 6(g) rule stating that it was both an “unfair method of competition” and an “unfair act or practice” for refiners or others who sell to gasoline retailers “to fail to disclose clearly and conspicuously in a permanent manner on the pumps the minimum octane number or numbers of the motor gasoline being dispensed.” In 1973, in the National Petroleum Refiners case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the FTC’s authority to promulgate this and other binding substantive rules. The court rejected the argument that Section 6(g) authorized only non-substantive regulations concerning regarding the FTC’s non-adjudicatory, investigative, and informative functions, spelled out elsewhere in Section 6.
In 1975, two years after National Petroleum Refiners was decided, Congress granted the FTC specific consumer-protection rulemaking authority (authorizing enactment of trade regulation rules dealing with unfair or deceptive acts or practices) through Section 202 of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which added Section 18 to the FTC Act. Magnuson-Moss rulemakings impose adjudicatory-type hearings and other specific requirements on the FTC, unlike more flexible section 6(g) APA informal rulemakings. However, the FTC can obtain civil penalties for violation of Magnuson-Moss rules, something it cannot do if 6(g) rules are violated.
In a recent set of public comments filed with the FTC, the Antitrust Section of the American Bar Association stated:
[T]he Commission’s [6(g)] rulemaking authority is buried in within an enumerated list of investigative powers, such as the power to require reports from corporations and partnerships, for example. Furthermore, the [FTC] Act fails to provide any sanctions for violating any rule adopted pursuant to Section 6(g). These two features strongly suggest that Congress did not intend to give the agency substantive rulemaking powers when it passed the Federal Trade Commission Act.
Rephrased, this argument suggests that the structure of the FTC Act indicates that the rulemaking referenced in Section 6(g) is best understood as an aid to FTC processes and investigations, not a source of substantive policymaking. Although the National Petroleum Refiners decision rejected such a reading, that ruling came at a time of significant judicial deference to federal agency activism, and may be dated.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s April 2021 decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC further bolsters the “statutory structure” argument that Section 6(g) does not authorize substantive rulemaking. In AMG, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, which empowers the FTC to seek a “permanent injunction” to restrain an FTC Act violation, does not authorize the FTC to seek monetary relief from wrongdoers. The court’s opinion rejected the FTC’s argument that the term “permanent injunction” had historically been understood to include monetary relief. The court explained that the injunctive language was “buried” in a lengthy provision that focuses on injunctive, not monetary relief (note that the term “rules” is similarly “buried” within 6(g) language dealing with unrelated issues). The court also pointed to the structure of the FTC Act, with detailed and specific monetary-relief provisions found in Sections 5(l) and 19, as “confirm[ing] the conclusion” that Section 13(b) does not grant monetary relief.
By analogy, a court could point to Congress’ detailed enumeration of substantive rulemaking provisions in Section 18 (a mere two years after National Petroleum Refiners) as cutting against the claim that Section 6(g) can also be invoked to support substantive rulemaking. Finally, the Supreme Court in AMG flatly rejected several relatively recent appeals court decisions that upheld Section 13(b) monetary-relief authority. It follows that the FTC cannot confidently rely on judicial precedent (stemming from one arguably dated court decision, National Petroleum Refiners) to uphold its competition rulemaking authority.
In sum, the FTC will have to overcome serious fundamental legal challenges to its section 6(g) competition rulemaking authority if it seeks to promulgate competition rules.
Even if the FTC’s 6(g) authority is upheld, it faces three other types of litigation-related risks.
First, applying the nondelegation doctrine, courts might hold that the broad term “unfair methods of competition” does not provide the FTC “an intelligible principle” to guide the FTC’s exercise of discretion in rulemaking. Such a judicial holding would mean the FTC could not issue competition rules.
Second, a reviewing court might strike down individual proposed rules as “arbitrary and capricious” if, say, the court found that the FTC rulemaking record did not sufficiently take into account potentially procompetitive manifestations of a condemned practice.
Third, even if a final competition rule passes initial legal muster, applying its terms to individual businesses charged with rule violations may prove difficult. Individual businesses may seek to structure their conduct to evade the particular strictures of a rule, and changes in commercial practices may render less common the specific acts targeted by a rule’s language.
Economic Policy Concerns Raised by Competition Rulemaking
In addition to legal risks, any cost-benefit appraisal of FTC competition rulemaking should consider the economic policy concerns raised by competition rulemaking. These fall into two broad categories.
First, competition rules would generate higher error costs than adjudications. Adjudications cabin error costs by allowing for case-specific analysis of likely competitive harms and procompetitive benefits. In contrast, competition rules inherently would be overbroad and would suffer from a very high rate of false positives. By characterizing certain practices as inherently anticompetitive without allowing for consideration of case-specific facts bearing on actual competitive effects, findings of rule violations inevitably would condemn some (perhaps many) efficient arrangements.
Second, competition rules would undermine the rule of law and thereby reduce economic welfare. FTC-only competition rules could lead to disparate legal treatment of a firm’s business practices, depending upon whether the FTC or the U.S. Justice Department was the investigating agency. Also, economic efficiency gains could be lost due to the chilling of aggressive efficiency-seeking business arrangements in those sectors subject to rules.
A combination of legal risks and economic policy harms strongly counsels against the FTC’s promulgation of substantive competition rules.
First, litigation issues would consume FTC resources and add to the costly delays inherent in developing competition rules in the first place. The compounding of separate serious litigation risks suggests a significant probability that costs would be incurred in support of rules that ultimately would fail to be applied.
Second, even assuming competition rules were to be upheld, their application would raise serious economic policy questions. The inherent inflexibility of rule-based norms is ill-suited to deal with dynamic evolving market conditions, compared with matter-specific antitrust litigation that flexibly applies the latest economic thinking to particular circumstances. New competition rules would also exacerbate costly policy inconsistencies stemming from the existence of dual federal antitrust enforcement agencies, the FTC and the Justice Department.
In conclusion, an evaluation of rule-related legal risks and economic policy concerns demonstrates that a reallocation of some FTC enforcement resources to the development of competition rules would not be cost-effective. Continued sole reliance on case-by-case antitrust litigation would generate greater economic welfare than a mixture of litigation and competition rules.
Lina Khan’s appointment as chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is a remarkable accomplishment. At 32 years old, she is the youngest chair ever. Her longstanding criticisms of the Consumer Welfare Standard and alignment with the neo-Brandeisean school of thought make her appointment a significant achievement for proponents of those viewpoints.
Her appointment also comes as House Democrats are preparing to mark up five bills designed to regulate Big Tech and, in the process, vastly expand the FTC’s powers. This expansion may combine with Khan’s appointment in ways that lawmakers considering the bills have not yet considered.
As things stand, the FTC under Khan’s leadership is likely to push for more extensive regulatory powers, akin to those held by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). But these expansions would be trivial compared to what is proposed by many of the bills currently being prepared for a June 23 mark-up in the House Judiciary Committee.
The flagship bill—Rep. David Cicilline’s (D-R.I.) American Innovation and Choice Online Act—is described as a platform “non-discrimination” bill. I have already discussed what the real-world effects of this bill would likely be. Briefly, it would restrict platforms’ ability to offer richer, more integrated services at all, since those integrations could be challenged as “discrimination” at the cost of would-be competitors’ offerings. Things like free shipping on Amazon Prime, pre-installed apps on iPhones, or even including links to Gmail and Google Calendar at the top of a Google Search page could be precluded under the bill’s terms; in each case, there is a potential competitor being undermined.
But this shifts the focus to the FTC itself, and implies that it would have potentially enormous discretionary power under these proposals to enforce the law selectively.
Companies found guilty of breaching the bill’s terms would be liable for civil penalties of up to 15 percent of annual U.S. revenue, a potentially significant sum. And though the Supreme Court recently ruled unanimously against the FTC’s powers to levy civil fines unilaterally—which the FTC opposed vociferously, and may get restored by other means—there are two scenarios through which it could end up getting extraordinarily extensive control over the platforms covered by the bill.
The first course is through selective enforcement. What Singer above describes as a positive—the fact that enforcers would just let “benign” violations of the law be—would mean that the FTC itself would have tremendous scope to choose which cases it brings, and might do so for idiosyncratic, politicized reasons.
The second path would be to use these powers as leverage to get broad consent decrees to govern the conduct of covered platforms. These occur when a lawsuit is settled, with the defendant company agreeing to change its business practices under supervision of the plaintiff agency (in this case, the FTC). The Cambridge Analytica lawsuit ended this way, with Facebook agreeing to change its data-sharing practices under the supervision of the FTC.
This path would mean the FTC creating bespoke, open-ended regulation for each covered platform. Like the first path, this could create significant scope for discretionary decision-making by the FTC and potentially allow FTC officials to impose their own, non-economic goals on these firms. And it would require costly monitoring of each firm subject to bespoke regulation to ensure that no breaches of that regulation occurred.
“economic power as inextricably political. Power in industry is the power to steer outcomes. It grants outsized control to a few, subjecting the public to unaccountable private power—and thereby threatening democratic order. The account also offers a positive vision of how economic power should be organized (decentralized and dispersed), a recognition that forms of economic power are not inevitable and instead can be restructured.” [italics added]
Though I have focused on Cicilline’s flagship bill, others grant significant new powers to the FTC, as well. The data portability and interoperability bill doesn’t actually define what “data” is; it leaves it to the FTC to “define the term ‘data’ for the purpose of implementing and enforcing this Act.” And, as I’ve written elsewhere, data interoperability needs significant ongoing regulatory oversight to work at all, a responsibility that this bill also hands to the FTC. Even a move as apparently narrow as data portability will involve a significant expansion of the FTC’s powers and give it a greater role as an ongoing economic regulator.
As we’ve notedmanytimesbefore here at TOTM (including in our UMC Guidelines Blog Symposium), FTC enforcement principles for UMC actions have been in desperate need of clarification. Without any UMC standards, the FTC has been free to leverage its costly adjudication process into settlements (or short-term victories) and businesses have been left in the dark as to what what sorts of conduct might trigger enforcement. Through a series of unadjudicated settlements, UMC unfairness doctrine (such as it is) has remained largely within the province of FTC discretion and without judicial oversight. As a result, and either by design or by accident, UMC never developed a body of law encompassing well-defined goals or principles like antitrust’s consumer welfare standard.
Commissioner Wright has long been at the forefront of the battle to rein in the FTC’s discretion in this area and to promote the rule of law. Soon after joining the Commission, he called forSection 5 guidelines that would constrain UMC enforcement to further consumer welfare, tied to the economically informed analysis of competitive effects developed in antitrust law.
Today’s UMC Statement embodies the essential elements of Commissioner Wright’s proposal. Under the new guidelines:
The Commission will make UMC enforcement decisions based on traditional antitrust principles, including the consumer welfare standard;
Only conduct that would violate the antitrust rule of reason will give rise to enforcement, and the Commission will not bring UMC cases without evidence demonstrating that harm to competition outweighs any efficiency or business justifications for the conduct at issue; and
The Commission commits to the principle that it is more appropriate to bring cases under the antitrust laws than under Section 5 when the conduct at issue could give rise to a cause of action under the antitrust laws. Notably, this doesn’t mean that the agency gets to use UMC when it thinks it might lose under the Sherman or Clayton Acts; rather, it means UMC is meant only to be a gap-filler, to be used when the antitrust statutes don’t apply at all.
Yes, the Statement is a compromise. For instance, there is no safe harbor from UMC enforcement if any cognizable efficiencies are demonstrated, as Commissioner Wright initially proposed.
But by enshrining antitrust law’s consumer welfare standard in future UMC caselaw, by obligating the Commission to assess conduct within the framework of the well-established antitrust rule of reason, and by prioritizing antitrust over UMC when both might apply, the Statement brings UMC law into the world of modern antitrust analysis. This is a huge achievement.
It’s also a huge achievement that a Statement like this one would be introduced by Chairwoman Ramirez. As recently as last year, Ramirez had resisted efforts to impose constraints on the FTC’s UMC enforcement discretion. In a 2014 speech Ramirez said:
I have expressed concern about recent proposals to formulate guidance to try to codify our unfair methods principles for the first time in the Commission’s 100 year history. While I don’t object to guidance in theory, I am less interested in prescribing our future enforcement actions than in describing our broad enforcement principles revealed in our recent precedent.
The “recent precedent” that Ramirez referred to is precisely the set of cases applying UMC to reach antitrust-relevant conduct that led to Commissioner Wright’s efforts. The common law of consent decrees that make up the precedent Ramirez refers to, of course, are not legally binding and provide little more than regurgitated causes of action.
But today, under Congressionalpressure and pressure from within the agency led by Commissioner Wright, Chairwoman Ramirez and the other two Democratic commissioners voted for the Statement.
Competitive Effects Analysis Under the Statement
As Commissioner Ohlhausen argues in her dissenting statement, the UMC Statement doesn’t remove all enforcement discretion from the Commission — after all, enforcement principles, like standards in law generally, have fuzzy boundaries.
But what Commissioner Ohlhausen seems to miss is that, by invoking antitrust principles, the rule of reason and competitive effects analysis, the Statement incorporates by reference 125 years of antitrust law and economics. The Statement itself need not go into excessive detail when, with only a few words, it brings modern antitrust jurisprudence embodied in cases like Trinko,Leegin, and Brooke Group into UMC law.
Under the new rule of reason approach for UMC, the FTC will condemn conduct only when it causes or is likely to cause “harm to competition or the competitive process, taking into account any associated cognizable efficiencies and business justifications.” In other words, the evidence must demonstrate net harm to consumers before the FTC can take action. That’s a significant constraint.
As noted above, Commissioner Wright originally proposed a safe harbor from FTC UMC enforcement whenever cognizable efficiencies are present. The Statement’s balancing test is thus a compromise. But it’s not really a big move from Commissioner Wright’s initial position.
Commissioner Wright’s original proposal tied the safe harbor to “cognizable” efficiencies, which is an exacting standard. As Commissioner Wright noted in his Blog Symposium post on the subject:
[T]he efficiencies screen I offer intentionally leverages the Commission’s considerable expertise in identifying the presence of cognizable efficiencies in the merger context and explicitly ties the analysis to the well-developed framework offered in the Horizontal Merger Guidelines. As any antitrust practitioner can attest, the Commission does not credit “cognizable efficiencies” lightly and requires a rigorous showing that the claimed efficiencies are merger-specific, verifiable, and not derived from an anticompetitive reduction in output or service. Fears that the efficiencies screen in the Section 5 context would immunize patently anticompetitive conduct because a firm nakedly asserts cost savings arising from the conduct without evidence supporting its claim are unwarranted. Under this strict standard, the FTC would almost certainly have no trouble demonstrating no cognizable efficiencies exist in Dan’s “blowing up of the competitor’s factory” example because the very act of sabotage amounts to an anticompetitive reduction in output.
The difference between the safe harbor approach and the balancing approach embodied in the Statement is largely a function of administrative economy. Before, the proposal would have caused the FTC to err on the side of false negatives, possibly forbearing from bringing some number of welfare-enhancing cases in exchange for a more certain reduction in false positives. Now, there is greater chance of false positives.
But the real effect is that more cases will be litigated because, in the end, both versions would require some degree of antitrust-like competitive effects analysis. Under the Statement, if procompetitive efficiencies outweigh anticompetitive harms, the defendant still wins (and the FTC is to avoid enforcement). Under the original proposal fewer actions might be brought, but those that are brought would surely settle. So one likely outcome of choosing a balancing test over the safe harbor is that more close cases will go to court to be sorted out. Whether this is a net improvement over the safe harbor depends on whether the social costs of increased litigation and error are offset by a reduction in false negatives — as well as the more robust development of the public good of legal case law.
Reduced FTC Discretion Under the Statement
The other important benefit of the Statement is that it commits the FTC to a regime that reduces its discretion.
Chairwoman Ramirez and former Chairman Leibowitz — among others — have embraced a broader role for Section 5, particularly in order to avoid the judicial limits on antitrust actions arising out of recent Supreme Court cases like Trinko, Leegin, Brooke Group, Linkline, WeyerhaeuserandCredit Suisse.
[T]he Commission should not be tied to the more technical definitions of consumer harm that limit applications of the Sherman Act when we are looking at pure Section 5 violations.
And this was no idle threat. Recent FTC cases, including Intel, N-Data, Google (Motorola), and Bosch, could all have been brought under the Sherman Act, but were brought — and settled — as Section 5 cases instead. Under the new Statement, all four would likely be Sherman Act cases.
There’s little doubt that, left unfettered, Section 5 UMC actions would only have grown in scope. Former Chairman Leibowitz, in his concurring opinion in Rambus, described UMC as
a flexible and powerful Congressional mandate to protect competition from unreasonable restraints, whether long-since recognized or newly discovered, that violate the antitrust laws, constitute incipient violations of those laws, or contravene those laws’ fundamental policies.
Both Leibowitz and former Commissioner Tom Rosch (again, among others) often repeated their views that Section 5 permitted much the same actions as were available under Section 2 — but without the annoyance of those pesky, economically sensible, judicial limitations. (Although, in fairness, Leibowitz also once commented that it would not “be wise to use the broader [Section 5] authority whenever we think we can’t win an antitrust case, as a sort of ‘fallback.’”)
In fact, there is a long and unfortunate trend of FTC commissioners and other officials asserting some sort of “public enforcement exception” to the judicial limits on Sherman Act cases. As then Deputy Director for Antitrust in the Bureau of Economics, Howard Shelanski, told Congress in 2010:
The Commission believes that its authority to prevent “unfair methods of competition” through Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act enables the agency to pursue conduct that it cannot reach under the Sherman Act, and thus avoid the potential strictures of Trinko.
In this instance, and from the context (followed as it is by a request for Congress to actually exempt the agency from Trinko and Credit Suisse!), it seems that “reach” means “win.”
Still others have gone even further. Tom Rosch, for example, has suggested that the FTC should challenge Patent Assertion Entities under Section 5 merely because “we have a gut feeling” that the conduct violates the Act and it may not be actionable under Section 2.
Even more egregious, Steve Salop and Jon Baker advocate using Section 5 to implement their preferred social policies — in this case to reduce income inequality. Such expansionist views, as Joe Sims recently reminded TOTM readers, hearken back to the troubled FTC of the 1970s:
Remember [former FTC Chairman] Mike Pertschuck saying that Section 5 could possibly be used to enforce compliance with desirable energy policies or environmental requirements, or to attack actions that, in the opinion of the FTC majority, impeded desirable employment programs or were inconsistent with the nation’s “democratic, political and social ideals.” The two speeches he delivered on this subject in 1977 were the beginning of the end for increased Section 5 enforcement in that era, since virtually everyone who heard or read them said: “Whoa! Is this really what we want the FTC to be doing?”
Apparently, for some, it is — even today. But don’t forget: This was the era in which Congress actually briefly shuttered the FTC for refusing to recognize limits on its discretion, as Howard Beales reminds us:
The breadth, overreaching, and lack of focus in the FTC’s ambitious rulemaking agenda outraged many in business, Congress, and the media. Even the Washington Post editorialized that the FTC had become the “National Nanny.” Most significantly, these concerns reverberated in Congress. At one point, Congress refused to provide the necessary funding, and simply shut down the FTC for several days…. So great were the concerns that Congress did not reauthorize the FTC for fourteen years. Thus chastened, the Commission abandoned most of its rulemaking initiatives, and began to re-examine unfairness to develop a focused, injury-based test to evaluate practices that were allegedly unfair.
A truly significant effect of the Policy Statement will be to neutralize the effort to use UMC to make an end-run around antitrust jurisprudence in order to pursue non-economic goals. It will now be a necessary condition of a UMC enforcement action to prove a contravention of fundamental antitrust policies (i.e., consumer welfare), rather than whatever three commissioners happen to agree is a desirable goal. And the Statement puts the brakes on efforts to pursue antitrust cases under Section 5 by expressing a clear policy preference at the FTC to bring such cases under the antitrust laws.
Commissioner Ohlhausen’s objects that
the fact that this policy statement requires some harm to competition does little to constrain the Commission, as every Section 5 theory pursued in the last 45 years, no matter how controversial or convoluted, can be and has been couched in terms of protecting competition and/or consumers.
That may be true, but the same could be said of every Section 2 case, as well. Commissioner Ohlhausen seems to be dismissing the fact that the Statement effectively incorporates by reference the last 45 years of antitrust law, too. Nothing will incentivize enforcement targets to challenge the FTC in court — or incentivize the FTC itself to forbear from enforcement — like the ability to argue Trinko, Leegin and their ilk. Antitrust law isn’t perfect, of course, but making UMC law coextensive with modern antitrust law is about as much as we could ever reasonably hope for. And the Statement basically just gave UMC defendants blanket license to add a string of “See Areeda & Hovenkamp” cites to every case the FTC brings. We should count that as a huge win.
Commissioner Ohlhausen also laments the brevity and purported vagueness of the Statement, claiming that
No interpretation of the policy statement by a single Commissioner, no matter how thoughtful, will bind this or any future Commission to greater limits on Section 5 UMC enforcement than what is in this exceedingly brief, highly general statement.
But, in the end, it isn’t necessarily the Commissioners’ self-restraint upon which the Statement relies; it’s the courts’ (and defendants’) ability to take the obvious implications of the Statement seriously and read current antitrust precedent into future UMC cases. If every future UMC case is adjudicated like a Sherman or Clayton Act case, the Statement will have been a resounding success.
Arguably no FTC commissioner has been as successful in influencing FTC policy as a minority commissioner — over sustained opposition, and in a way that constrains the agency so significantly — as has Commissioner Wright today.
Geoffrey Manne is Lecturer in Law at Lewis & Clark Law School and Executive Director of the International Center for Law & Economics
Josh and Maureen are to be commended for their important contributions to the discussion over the proper scope of the FTC’s Section 5 enforcement authority. I have commented extensively on UMC and Section 5, Josh’s statement, and particularly the problems if UMC enforcement against the use of injunctions to enforce FRAND-encumbered SEPs before (see, for example, here, here and here). I’d like to highlight here a couple of the most important issues from among these comments along with a couple of additional ones.
First, there is really no sensible disagreement over Josh’s harm to competition prong. And to the extent there is disagreement over the proper role for efficiencies, given the existence of compelling arguments that we don’t need Section 5 at all (see, e.g., Joe Sims and James Cooper), what might have seemed like a radical position in Josh’s statement that the FTC enforce UMC only where no efficiencies exist, Josh’s position is actually something of a middle ground. In any case, the first prong of Josh’s statement (the harm to competition requirement) really should attract unanimity, as it essentially has here today, and all of the FTC’s commissioners should come out and say so, even if debate persists over the second prong. This alone would provide an enormous amount of certainty and sense to the FTC’s UMC enforcement decisions.
Second, sensible, predictable guidance is essential. In her recent speech, echoing the fundamental issue laid out so well in Josh’s statement and elaborated on in his accompanying speech, Maureen notes that:
For many decades, the Commission’s exercise of its UMC authority has launched the agency into a sea of uncertainty, much like the agency weathered when using its unfairness authority in the consumer protection area in the 1970s. In issuing our 1980 statement on the concept of “unfair acts or practices” under our consumer protection authority, the Commission acknowledged the uncertainty that had surrounded the concept of unfairness, admitting that “this uncertainty has been honestly troublesome for some businesses and some members of the legal profession.” This characterization just as aptly describes the state of our UMC authority today.
It seems uncontroversial that some guidance is required, and a pseudo-common law of un-adjudicated settlements lacking any doctrinal analysis simply doesn’t provide sufficient grounds to separate the fair from the unfair. (What follows is drawn from our amicus brief in the Wyndham case).
The FTC’s current approach to UMC enforcement denies companies “a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited” and thus follow the law. The FTC has previously suggested that its settlements and Congressional testimony offers all the guidance a company would need—see, e.g., here and here, where Chairwoman Ramirez noted that
Section 5 of the FTC Act has been developed over time, case-by-case, in the manner of common law. These precedents provide the Commission and the business community with important guidance regarding the appropriate scope and use of the FTC’s Section 5 authority.
But settlements (and testimony summarizing them) do not in any way constrain the FTC’s subsequent enforcement decisions; they cannot alone be the basis by which the FTC provides guidance on its UMC authority because, unlike published guidelines, they do not purport to lay out general enforcement principles and are not recognized as doing so by courts and the business community. It is impossible to imagine a court faulting the FTC for failure to adhere to a previous settlement, particularly because settlements are not readily generalizable and bind only the parties who agree to them. As we put it in our Wyndham amicus brief:
Even setting aside this basic legal principle, the gradual accretion of these unadjudicated settlements does not solve the vagueness problem: Where guidelines provide cumulative analysis of previous enforcement decisions to establish general principles, these settlements are devoid of doctrinal analysis and offer little more than an infinite regress of unadjudicated assertions.
Rulemaking is generally preferable to case-by-case adjudication as a way to develop agency-enforced law because rulemaking both reduces vagueness and constrains the mischief that unconstrained agency actions may cause. As the Court noted in SEC v. Chenery Corp.,
The function of filling in the interstices of [a statute] should be performed, as much as possible, through this quasi-legislative promulgation of rules to be applied in the future.
Without Article III court decisions developing binding legal principles ,and with no other meaningful form of guidance from the FTC, the law will remain unconstitutionally vague. And the FTC’s approach to enforcement also allows the FTC to act both arbitrarily and discriminatorily—backed by the costly threat of the CID process and Part III adjudication. This means the company faces two practically certain defeats—before the administrative law judge and then the full Commission, each a public relations disaster. The FTC appears to be perfectly willing to use negative media to encourage settlements: The House Oversight Committee is currently investigating whether a series of leaks by FTC staff to media last year were intended to pressure Google to settle the FTC’s antitrust investigation into the company’s business practices.
Third, if the FTC doesn’t act to constrain itself, the courts or Congress will do so, and may do more damage to the FTC’s authority than any self-imposed constraints would.
The power to determine whether the practices of almost any American business are “unfair” methods of competition (particularly if UMC retains the broad reach Tim Wu outlines in his post) makes the FTC uniquely powerful. This power, if it is to be used sensibly, allows the FTC to protect consumers from truly harmful business practices not covered by the FTC’s general consumer protection authority. But without effective enforcement of clear limiting principles, this power may be stretched beyond what Congress intended.
In 1964, the Commission began using its unfairness power to ban business practices that it determined offended “public policy.” Emboldened by vague Supreme Court dicta from Sperry & Hutchinson comparing the agency to a “court of equity,” the Commission set upon a series of rulemakings and enforcement actions so sweeping that the Washington Post dubbed the agency the “National Nanny.” The FTC’s actions eventually prompted Congress to briefly shut down the agency to reinforce the point that it had not intended the agency to operate with such expansive authority. The FTC survived as an institution only because, in 1980, it (unanimously) issued a Policy Statement on Unfairness laying out basic limiting principles to constrain its power and assuring Congress that these principles would be further developed over time—principles that Congress then codified in Section 5(n) of the FTC Act.
And for a time, the Commission used its unfairness power sparingly and carefully, largely out of fear of reawakening Congressional furor. Back in 1980, the FTC itself declared that
The task of identifying unfair trade practices was therefore assigned to the Commission, subject to judicial review, in the expectation that the underlying criteria would evolve and develop over time.
Yet we know little more today than we did in 1980 about how the FTC analyzes each prong of Section 5.
Moreover, courts may not support enforcement given this ambiguity, and in our Wyndham brief we supported Wyndham’s motion to dismiss for exactly this reason (and that was brought under the Commission’s unfairness authority where it even has some guidelines). As we wrote:
Since the problem is a lack of judicial adjudication, it might seem counter-intuitive that the court should dismiss the FTC’s suit on the pleadings. But this is precisely the form of adjudication required: The FTC needs to be told that its complaints do not meet the minimum standards required to establish a violation of Section 5 because otherwise there is little reason to think that the FTC’s complaints will not continue to be the Commission’s primary means of building law (what amounts to “non-law law”). But even if the FTC re-files its unadjudicated complaint to explain its analysis of the prongs of the Unfairness Doctrine, it will not have solved yet another fundamental problem: its failure to provide Wyndham with sufficient guidance ex ante as to what “reasonable” data security practices would be.
The same could be said of the FTC’s UMC enforcement. Section 5(n) applies to UMC, and states that:
The Commission shall have no authority under this section or section 57a of this title to declare unlawful an act or practice on the grounds that such act or practice is unfair unless the act or practice causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition. In determining whether an act or practice is unfair, the Commission may consider established public policies as evidence to be considered with all other evidence. Such public policy considerations may not serve as a primary basis for such determination.
[T]he truth is that there was little chance the FTC could have prevailed under the more rigorous Section 2 standard that anchors the liability rule to a demanding standard requiring proof of both exclusionary conduct and competitive harm. One must either accept the proposition that the FTC sought Section 5 liability precisely because there was no evidence of consumer harm or that the FTC believed there was evidence of consumer harm but elected to file the Complaint based only upon the Section 5 theory to encourage an expansive application of that Section, a position several Commissioners joining the Majority Statement have taken in recent years. Neither of these interpretations offers much evidence that N-Data is sound as a matter of prosecutorial discretion or antitrust policy.
None of the FTC’s SEP cases has offered anything approaching proof of consumer harm, and this is where any sensible limiting principles must begin—as just about everyone here today seems to agree. Moreover, even if they did adduce evidence of harm, the often-ignored problem of reverse holdup raises precisely the concern about over-enforcement that Josh’s “no efficiencies” prong is meant to address. Holdup may raise consumer prices (although the FTC has not presented evidence of this), but reverse holdup may do as much or more damage.
The use of injunctions to enforce SEPs increases innovation, the willingness to license generally and the willingness to enter into FRAND commitments in particular–all to the likely benefit of consumer welfare. If the FTC interprets its UMC authority in a way that constrains the ability of patent holders to effectively police their patent rights, then less innovation would be expected–to the detriment of consumers as well as businesses. An unfettered UMC authority will systematically curtail these benefits, quite possibly without countervailing positive effects.
And as I noted in a post yesterday, these costs are real. Innovative technology companies are responding to the current SEP enforcement environment exactly as we would expect them to: by avoiding the otherwise-consumer-welfare enhancing standardization process entirely—as statements made at a recent event demonstrate:
Because of the current atmosphere, Lukander said, Nokia has stepped back from the standardisation process, electing either not to join certain standard-setting organisations (SSOs) or not to contribute certain technologies to these organisations.
Section 5 is a particularly problematic piece of this, and sensible limits like those Josh proposes would go a long way toward mitigating the problem—without removing enforcement authority in the face of real competitive harm, which remains available under the Sherman Act.
On July 24, the Federal Trade Commission issued a modified complaint and consent order in the Google/Motorola case. The FTC responded to the 25 comments on the proposed Order by making several amendments, but the Final Order retains the original order’s essential restrictions on injunctions, as the FTC explains in a letter accompanying the changes. With one important exception, the modifications were primarily minor changes to the required process by which Google/Motorola must negotiate and arbitrate with potential licensees. Although an improvement on the original order, the Complaint and Final Order’s continued focus on the use of injunctions to enforce SEPs presents a serious risk of consumer harm, as I discuss below.
The most significant modification in the new Complaint is the removal of the original UDAP claim. As suggested in my comments on the Order, there is no basis in law for such a claim against Google, and it’s a positive step that the FTC seems to have agreed. Instead, the FTC ended up resting its authority solely upon an Unfair Methods of Competition claim, even though the Commission failed to develop any evidence of harm to competition—as both Commissioner Wright and Commissioner Ohlhausen would (sensibly) require.
Unfortunately, the FTC’s letter offers no additional defense of its assertion of authority, stating only that
[t]he Commission disagrees with commenters who argue that the Commission’s actions in this case are outside of its authority to challenge unfair methods of competition under Section 5 and lack a limiting principle. As reflected in the Commission’s recent statements in Bosch and the Commission’s initial Statement in this matter, this action is well within our Section 5 authority, which both Congress and the Supreme Court have expressly deemed to extend beyond the Sherman Act.
Another problem, as noted by Commissioner Ohlhausen in her dissent from the original order, is that
the consent agreement creates doctrinal confusion. The Order contradicts the decisions of federal courts, standard-setting organizations (“SSOs”), and other stakeholders about the availability of injunctive relief on SEPs and the meaning of concepts like willing licensee and FRAND.
The FTC’s statements in Bosch and this case should not be thought of as law on par with actual court decisions unless we want to allow the FTC to determine the scope of its own authority unilaterally.
This is no small issue. On July 30, the FTC used the Google settlement, along with the settlement in Bosch, as examples of the FTC’s authority in the area of policing SEPs during a hearing on the issue. And as FTC Chairwoman Ramirez noted in response to questions for the record in a different hearing earlier in 2013,
Section 5 of the FTC Act has been developed over time, case-by-case, in the manner of common law. These precedents provide the Commission and the business community with important guidance regarding the appropriate scope and use of the FTC’s Section 5 authority.
But because nearly all of these cases have resulted in consent orders with an administrative agency and have not been adjudicated in court, they aren’t, in fact, developed “in the manner of common law.” Moreover, settlements aren’t binding on anyone except the parties to the settlement. Nevertheless, the FTC has pointed to these sorts of settlements (and congressional testimony summarizing them) as sufficient guidance to industry on the scope of its Section 5 authority. But as we noted in our amicus brief in the Wyndham litigation (in which the FTC makes this claim in the context of its “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” authority):
Settlements (and testimony summarizing them) do not in any way constrain the FTC’s subsequent enforcement decisions; they cannot alone be the basis by which the FTC provides guidance on its unfairness authority because, unlike published guidelines, they do not purport to lay out general enforcement principles and are not recognized as doing so by courts and the business community.
Beyond this more general problem, the Google Final Order retains its own, substantive problem: considerable constraints upon injunctions. The problem with these restraints are twofold: (1) Injunctions are very important to an efficient negotiation process, as recognized by the FTC itself; and (2) if patent holders may no longer pursue injunctions consistently with antitrust law, one would expect a reduction in consumer welfare.
In its 2011 Report on the “IP Marketplace,” the FTC acknowledged the important role of injunctions in preserving the value of patents and in encouraging efficient private negotiation.
Second, the credible threat of an injunction deters infringement in the first place. This results from the serious consequences of an injunction for an infringer, including the loss of sunk investment. Third, a predictable injunction threat will promote licensing by the parties. Private contracting is generally preferable to a compulsory licensing regime because the parties will have better information about the appropriate terms of a license than would a court, and more flexibility in fashioning efficient agreements. But denying an injunction every time an infringer’s switching costs exceed the economic value of the invention would dramatically undermine the ability of a patent to deter infringement and encourage innovation. For this reason, courts should grant injunctions in the majority of cases.
increase innovation, the willingness to license generally and the willingness to enter into FRAND commitments in particular–all to the likely benefit of consumer welfare.
Monopoly power granted by IP law encourages innovation because it incentivizes creativity through expected profits. If the FTC interprets its UMC authority in a way that constrains the ability of patent holders to effectively police their patent rights, then less innovation would be expected–to the detriment of consumers as well as businesses.
And this is precisely what has happened. Innovative technology companies are responding to the current SEP enforcement environment exactly as we would expect them to—by avoiding the otherwise-consumer-welfare enhancing standardization process entirely.
[Jenni Lukander, global head of competition law at Nokia] said the problem of “free-riding”, whereby technology companies adopt standard essential patents (SEPs) without complying with fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) licensing terms was a “far bigger problem” than patent holders pursuing injunctive relief. She said this behaviour was “unsustainable”, as it discouraged innovation and jeopardised standardisation.
Because of the current atmosphere, Lukander said, Nokia has stepped back from the standardisation process, electing either not to join certain standard-setting organisations (SSOs) or not to contribute certain technologies to these organisations.
The fact that every licence negotiation takes places “under the threat of injunction litigation” is not a sign of failure, said Lukander, but an indicator of the system working “as it was designed to work”.
This, said [Dan Hermele, director of IP rights and licensing for Qualcomm Europe], amounted to “reverse hold-up”. “The licensor is pressured to accept less than reasonable licensing terms due to the threat of unbalanced regulatory intervention,” he said, adding that the trend was moving to an “infringe and litigate model”, which threatened to harm innovators, particularly small and medium-sized businesses, “for whom IPR is their life blood”.
Beat Weibel, chief IP counsel at Siemens, said…innovation can only be beneficial if it occurs within a “safe and strong IP system,” he said, where a “willing licensee is favoured over a non-willing licensee” and the enforcer is not a “toothless tiger”.
It remains to be seen if the costs to consumers from firms curtailing their investments in R&D or withholding their patents from the standard-setting process will outweigh the costs (yes, some costs do exist; the patent system is not frictionless and it is far from perfect, of course) from the “over”-enforcement of SEPs lamented by critics. But what is clear is that these costs can’t be ignored. Reverse hold-up can’t be wished away, and there is a serious risk that the harm likely to be caused by further eroding the enforceability of SEPs by means of injunctions will significantly outweigh whatever benefits it may also confer.
FTC Commissioner Wright issued today his Policy Statement on enforcement of Section 5 of the FTC Act against Unfair Methods of Competition (UMC)—the one he promised in April. Wright introduced the Statement in an important policy speech this morning before the Executive Committee Meeting of the New York State Bar Association’s Antitrust Section. Both the Statement and the speech are essential reading, and, collectively, they present a compelling and comprehensive vision for Section 5 UMC reform at the Commission.
As we’ve been saying for some time, and as Wright notes at the outset of his Statement:
In order for enforcement of its unfair methods of competition authority to promote consistently the Commission’s mission of protecting competition, the Commission must articulate a clear framework for its application.
Significantly, in addition to offering important certainty to guide business actions, Wright bases his proposed Policy Statement on the error cost framework:
The Commission must formulate a standard that distinguishes between acceptable business practices and business practices that constitute an unfair method of competition in order to provide firms with adequate guidance as to what conduct may be unlawful. Articulating a clear and predictable standard for what constitutes an unfair method of competition is important because the Commission’s authority to condemn unfair methods of competition allows it to break new ground and challenge conduct based upon theories not previously enshrined in Sherman Act or Clayton Act jurisprudence.
As far as we know, this Statement is the most significant effort yet to cabin FTC enforcement decisions within a coherent error-cost framework, and it is especially welcome.
Ironically, this is former Chairman Jon Leibowitz’s true legacy: His efforts to expand Section 5 to challenge conduct under novel theories, devoid of economic grounding and without proof of anticompetitive harm (in cases like Intel, N-Data and Google, among others) brought into stark relief the potential risks of an unfettered, active Section 5. Commissioner Wright’s Statement can be seen as the unintended culmination of—and backlash against—Leibowitz’s Section 5 campaign.
Particularly given the novelty of circumstances that might come within Section 5’s ambit, the error-cost minimizing structure of Commissioner Wright’s proposed Statement is enormously important. As one of us (Manne) notes in the paper, Innovation and the Limits of Antitrust (co-authored with then-Professor Wright),
Both product and business innovations involve novel practices, and such practices generally result in monopoly explanations from the economics profession followed by hostility from the courts (though sometimes in reverse order) and then a subsequent, more nuanced economic understanding of the business practice usually recognizing its procompetitive virtues.
And as Wright’s Statement notes,
This is particularly true if business conduct is novel or takes place within an emerging or rapidly changing industry, and thus where there is little empirical evidence about the conduct’s potential competitive effects.
The high cost and substantial risk of over-enforcement arising from unbounded Section 5 authority counsel strongly in favor of Wright’s Statement restricting Section 5 to minimize these error costs.
Thus, while the specifics matter, of course, the real import of Commissioner Wright’s Statement is in some ways structural: If adopted, it would both bring much needed, basic guidance to the scope of the FTC’s Section 5 authority; just as important, it would constrain (an important aspect of) the FTC’s enforcement discretion within the error cost framework, bringing the sound economic grounding of antitrust law and economics to Section 5, benefiting consumers as well as commerce generally:
This Policy Statement benefits both consumers and the business community by relying on modern economics and antitrust jurisprudence to strengthen the agency’s ability to target anticompetitive conduct and provide clear guidance about the contours of the Commission’s Section 5 authority.
For Wright, this is about saving Section 5 from its ill-defined and improperly deployed history. As he noted in his speech this morning,
In undertaking this task, I think it is important to recall why the Commission’s use of Section 5 has failed to date. In my view, this failure is principally because the Commission has sought to do too much with Section 5, and in so doing, called into serious question whether it has any limits whatsoever. In order to save Section 5, and to fulfill the vision Congress had for this important statute, the Commission must recast its unfair methods of competition authority with an eye toward regulatory humility in order to effectively target plainly anticompetitive conduct….. I believe that doing anything less would betray our obligation as responsible stewards of the Commission and its competition mission, and may ultimately result in the Commission having its Section 5 authority defined for it by the courts, or worse, having that authority completely revoked by Congress.
This means circumscribing the FTC’s Section 5 authority to limit enforcement to cases where the Commission shows both actual harm to competition and the absence of cognizable efficiencies.
The Status Quo
Both together and separately, we’ve discussed the problems with the Section 5 status quo in numerous places, including:
To summarize: The problem is that Section 5 enforcement standards in the unfairness context are non-existent. Former Chairman Jon Leibowitz and former Commissioner Tom Rosch, in particular, have, in several places, argued for expanded use of Section 5, both as a way around judicial limits on the scope of Sherman Act enforcement, as well as as an affirmative tool to enforce the FTC’s mandate. As the Commission’s statement in the N-Data case concluded:
We recognize that some may criticize the Commission for broadly (but appropriately) applying our unfairness authority to stop the conduct alleged in this Complaint. But the cost of ignoring this particularly pernicious problem is too high. Using our statutory authority to its fullest extent is not only consistent with the Commission’s obligations, but also essential to preserving a free and dynamic marketplace.
The problem is that neither the Commission, the courts nor Congress has defined what, exactly, the “fullest extent” of the FTC’s statutory authority is. As Commissioner Wright noted in this morning’s speech,
In practice, however, the scope of the Commission’s Section 5 authority today is as broad or as narrow as a majority of the commissioners believes that it is.
The Commission’s claim that it applied its authority “broadly (but appropriately)” in N-Data is unsupported and unsupportable. As Commissioner Ohlhausen put it in her dissent in In re Bosch,
I simply do not see any meaningful limiting principles in the enforcement policy laid out in these cases. The Commission statement emphasizes the context here (i.e. standard setting); however, it is not clear why the type of conduct that is targeted here (i.e. a breach of an allegedly implied contract term with no allegation of deception) would not be targeted by the Commission in any other context where the Commission believes consumer harm may result. If the Commission continues on the path begun in N-Data and extended here, we will be policing garden variety breach-of-contract and other business disputes between private parties….
It is important that government strive for transparency and predictability. Before invoking Section 5 to address business conduct not already covered by the antitrust laws (other than perhaps invitations to collude), the Commission should fully articulate its views about what constitutes an unfair method of competition, including the general parameters of unfair conduct and where Section 5 overlaps and does not overlap with the antitrust laws, and how the Commission will exercise its enforcement discretion under Section 5. Otherwise, the Commission runs a serious risk of failure in the courts and a possible hostile legislative reaction, both of which have accompanied previous FTC attempts to use Section 5 more expansively.
This consent does nothing either to legitimize the creative, yet questionable application of Section 5 to these types of cases or to provide guidance to standard-setting participants or the business community at large as to what does and does not constitute a Section 5 violation. Rather, it raises more questions about what limits the majority of the Commission would place on its expansive use of Section 5 authority.
Commissioner Wright’s proposed Policy Statement attempts to remedy these defects, and, in the process, explains why the Commission’s previous, broad applications of the statute are not, in fact, appropriate.
Requirement #1: Harm to Competition
It should go without saying that anticompetitive harm is a basic prerequisite of the FTC’s UMC enforcement. Sadly, however, this has not been the case. As the FTC has, in recent years, undertaken enforcement actions intended to expand its antitrust authority, it has interpreted far too expansively the Supreme Court’s statement in FTC v. Indiana Federation of Dentists that Section 5 contemplates
not only practices that violate the Sherman Act and the other antitrust laws, but also practices that the Commission determines are against public policy for other reasons.
But “against public policy for other reasons” does not mean “without economic basis,” and there is no indication that Congress intended to give the FTC unfettered authority unbounded by economically sensible limits on what constitutes a cognizable harm. As one of us (Manne) has written,
Following Sherman Act jurisprudence, traditionally the FTC has understood (and courts have demanded) that antitrust enforcement . . . requires demonstrable consumer harm to apply. But this latest effort reveals an agency pursuing an interpretation of Section 5 that would give it unprecedented and largely-unchecked authority. In particular, the definition of “unfair” competition wouldn’t be confined to the traditional antitrust measures — reduction in output or an output-reducing increase in price — but could expand to, well, just about whatever the agency deems improper.
Commissioner Wright’s Statement and its reasoning are consistent with Congressional intent on the limits of the “public policy” rationale in Section 5’s “other” unfairness authority, now enshrined in Section 45(n) of the FTC Act:
The Commission shall have no authority under this section or section 57a of this title to declare unlawful an act or practice on the grounds that such act or practice is unfair unless the act or practice causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition.
While not entirely foreclosing the possibility of other indicia of harm to competition, Wright provides a clear statement of what would constitute Section 5 UMC harm under his standard:
Conduct that results in harm to competition, and in turn, in harm to consumer welfare, typically does so through increased prices, reduced output, diminished quality, or weakened incentives to innovate.
Most problematically, Commissioner Rosch has suggested that Section Five could address conduct that has the effect of “reducing consumer choice” without requiring any evidence that conduct actually reduces consumer welfare…. Troublingly, “reducing consumer choice” seems to be a euphemism for “harm to competitors, not competition,” where the reduction in choice is the reduction of choice of competitors who may be put out of business by a competitor’s conduct.
The clear limit on “consumer choice” claims contemplated by Wright’s Statement is another of its important benefits.
But Wright emphatically rejects proposals to limit Section 5 to mean only what the antitrust laws themselves mean. Section 5 does extend beyond the limits of the antitrust laws in encompassing conduct that is likely to result in harm to competition, although it hasn’t yet.
Because prospective enforcement of Section 5 against allegedly anticompetitive practices that may turn out not to be harmful imposes significant costs, Wright very nicely here also incorporates an error cost approach, requiring a showing of greater harm where the risk of harm is lower:
When the act or practice has not yet harmed competition, the Commission’s assessment must include both the magnitude and probability of competitive harm. Where the probability of competitive harm is smaller, the Commission will not find an unfair method of competition without reason to believe the act or practice poses a risk of substantial harm.
In this category are the uncontroversial “invitation to collude” cases long agreed by just about everyone to be within the ambit of Section 5. But Commissioner Wright also suggests Section 5 is appropriate to prevent
the use by a firm of unfair methods of competition to acquire market power that does not yet rise to the level of monopoly power necessary for a violation of the Sherman Act.
This is somewhat more controversial as it contemplates (as the Statement’s illustrative examples make clear) deception that results in the acquisition of market power.
But most important to note is that, while deception was the basis for the Commission’s enforcement action in Rambus (later reversed by the D.C. Circuit), Commissioner Wright’s Statement would codify the important limitation (partly developed in Wright’s own work) on such cases that the deception must be the cause of an acquisition of market power.
Requirement #2: Absence of Cognizable Efficiencies
The real work in Wright’s Statement is done by the limitation on UMC enforcement in cases where the complained-of practice produces cognizable efficiencies. This is not a balancing test or a rule of reason. It is a safe harbor for cases where conduct is efficient, regardless of its effect on competition otherwise:
The Commission therefore creates a clear safe harbor that provides firms with certainty that their conduct can be challenged as an unfair method of competition only in the absence of efficiencies.
As noted at the outset, this is the most important and ambitious effort we know of to incorporate the error cost framework into FTC antitrust enforcement policy. This aspect of the Statement takes seriously the harm that can arise from the agency’s discretion, uncertainty over competitive effects (especially in “likely to cause” cases) and the imbalance of power and costs inherent in the FTC’s Part III adjudication to tip the scale back toward avoidance of erroneous over-enforcement.
Importantly, Commissioner Wright called out the last of these in his speech this morning, describing the fundamental imbalance that his Statement seeks to address:
The uncertainty surrounding the scope of Section 5 is exacerbated by the administrative procedures available to the Commission for litigating unfair methods claims. This combination gives the Commission the ability to, in some cases, take advantage of the uncertainty surrounding Section 5 by challenging conduct as an unfair method of competition and eliciting a settlement even though the conduct in question very likely would not violate the traditional federal antitrust laws. This is because firms typically will prefer to settle a Section 5 claim rather than going through lengthy and costly administrative litigation in which they are both shooting at a moving target and have the chips stacked against them. Such settlements only perpetuate the uncertainty that exists as a result of ambiguity associated with the Commission’s Section 5 authority by encouraging a process by which the contours of the Commission’s unfair methods of competition authority are drawn without any meaningful adversarial proceeding or substantive analysis of the Commission’s authority.
In essence, by removing the threat of Section 5 enforcement where efficiencies are cognizable, Wright’s Statement avoids the risk of Type I error, prioritizing the possible realization of efficiencies over possible anticompetitive harm with a bright line rule that avoids attempting to balance the one against the other:
The Commission employs an efficiencies screen to establish a test with clear and predictable results that prevents arbitrary enforcement of the agency’s unfair methods of competition authority, to focus the agency’s resources on conduct most likely to harm consumers, and to avoid deterring consumer welfare-enhancing business practices.
Moreover, the FTC bears the burden of demonstrating that its enforcement meets the efficiencies test, ensuring that the screen doesn’t become simply a rule of reason balancing:
The Commission bears the ultimate burden in establishing that the act or practice lacks cognizable efficiencies. Once a firm has offered initial evidence to substantiate its efficiency claims, the Commission must demonstrate why the efficiencies are not cognizable.
Fundamentally, as Commissioner Wright explained in his speech,
Anticompetitive conduct that lacks cognizable efficiencies is the most likely to harm consumers because it is without any redeeming consumer benefits. The efficiency screen also works to ensure that welfare-enhancing conduct is not inadvertently deterred…. The Supreme Court has long recognized that erroneous condemnation of procompetitive conduct significantly reduces consumer welfare by deterring investment in efficiency-enhancing business practices. To avoid deterring consumer welfare-enhancing conduct, my proposed Policy Statement limits the use of Section 5 to conduct that lacks cognizable efficiencies.
The Big Picture
Wright’s proposed Policy Statement is well thought out and much needed. It offers clear guidance for companies navigating the FTC’s murky Section 5 waters, and it offers clear, economically grounded limits on the FTC’s UMC enforcement authority. While preserving a scope of enforcement authority for Section 5 beyond the antitrust statutes (including against deceptive conduct that harms competition without any corresponding efficiency justification), it nevertheless reins in the most troubling abuses of that authority by clearly prohibiting the agency’s unprincipled enforcement actions in cases like N-Data, Google and Rambus, all of which failed to establish a connection between the complained-of conduct and harm to competition or else ignored clear efficiencies (particularly Google).
No doubt some agency watchers will criticize the Statement, labeling it reflexively deregulatory. But remember this isn’t being proposed in a vacuum. Commissioner Wright’s Statement defines only what should be a fairly narrow set of cases beyond the antitrust statutes’ reach. The Sherman Act doesn’t disappear because Section 5 is circumscribed, and the most recent controversial Section 5 cases could all theoretically have been plead solely as Section 2 cases (although they may well have failed).
What does change is the possibility of recourse to Section 5 as a means of avoiding the standards established by the courts in enforcing and interpreting the Sherman Act.
The Statement does not represent a restriction of antitrust enforcement authority unless you take as your starting point the agency’s recent unsupported and expansive interpretation of Section 5—a version of Section 5 that was never intended to, and doesn’t, exist. Wright’s Statement is, rather, a bulwark against unprincipled regulatory expansion: a sensible grounding of a statute with a checkered past and a penchant for mischief.
Chairman Leibowitz and Commissioner Rosch, in defending the use and expansion of Section 5, argued in Intel that it was necessary to circumvent judicial limitations on the enforcement of Section 2 aimed only at private plaintiffs (like, you know, demonstration of anticompetitive harm, basic pleading standards…)—basically the FTC’s “get out of Trinko free” card. According to Leibowitz, the Court’s economically rigorous, error-cost jurisprudence in cases like linkline, Trinko, Leegin, Twombly, and Brook Group were aimed at private plaintiffs, not agency actions:
But I also believe that the result, at least in the aggregate, is that some anticompetitive behavior is not being stopped—in part because the FTC and DOJ are saddled with court-based restrictions that are designed to circumscribe private litigation. Simply put, consumers can still suffer plenty of harm for reasons not encompassed by the Sherman Act as it is currently enforced in the federal courts.
The claim is meritless (as one of us (Manne) discussed here, for example). But it helps to make clear what the problem with current Section 5 standards are: There are no standards, only post hoc rationalizations to justify pursuing Section 2 cases without the cumbersome baggage of its jurisprudential limits.
The recent Supreme Court cases mentioned above are only the most recent examples of a decades-long jurisprudential trend incorporating modern economic thinking into antitrust law and recognizing the error-cost tradeoff. These cases have served to remove certain conduct (at least without appropriate evidence and analysis) from the reach of Section 2 in a measured, accretive fashion over the last 40 years or so. They have by no means made antitrust irrelevant, and the agencies and private plaintiffs alike bring and win cases all the time—and this doesn’t even measure the conduct that is deterred by the threat of enforcement. The limits on Section 5 suggested by Commissioner Wright’s Statement are marginal limits on the scope of antitrust beyond the Sherman Act, Clayton Act and other statutes. There is nothing in the legislative history or plain language of Section 5 to suggest adopting a more expansive approach, in effect using it to undo what the courts have methodically done.
It is also worth noting that not only the antitrust laws, but also the the Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices (UDAP) prong of Section 5 exerts a regulatory constraint on business conduct, proscribing deception, for example, as a consumer protection matter—without having to prove the existence of market power or its abuse. This also forms a piece of the institutional backdrop against which Wright’s proposed Policy Statement must be adjudged.
Wright was a leading critic of the agency’s expansive use of Section 5 before he joined the Commission, both at Truth on the Market as well as in longer writing. He has, correctly, seen it as a serious problem in need of remedying for quite some time. It is gratifying that Wright is continuing this work now that he is on the Commission, where he is no longer relegated merely to critiquing the agency but is in a position to try to transform it himself.
What remains needed is the political will to move this draft Policy Statement to adoption by the full Commission—something Chairman Ramirez is not likely to embrace without considerable pressure from Congress and/or the antitrust community. In the modest service of fulfilling this need, ICLE and TechFreedom intend to host later this year the first of what we hope will be several workshops on Commissioner Wright’s Statement and the broader topic of Section 5 enforcement reform. If the Commission won’t do it, the private sector will have to step in. For a taste of our perspective, check out the amicus brief we recently filed with FTC law scholars (Todd Zywicki, Paul Rubin and Gus Hurwitz) in the case of FTC v. Wyndham, which may be the first case to really test how the FTC uses is unfairness authority in consumer protection cases.