Archives For Unfair Practices

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)—cosponsors of the American Innovation Online and Choice Act, which seeks to “rein in” tech companies like Apple, Google, Meta, and Amazon—contend that “everyone acknowledges the problems posed by dominant online platforms.”

In their framing, it is simply an acknowledged fact that U.S. antitrust law has not kept pace with developments in the digital sector, allowing a handful of Big Tech firms to exploit consumers and foreclose competitors from the market. To address the issue, the senators’ bill would bar “covered platforms” from engaging in a raft of conduct, including self-preferencing, tying, and limiting interoperability with competitors’ products.

That’s what makes the open letter to Congress published late last month by the usually staid American Bar Association’s (ABA) Antitrust Law Section so eye-opening. The letter is nothing short of a searing critique of the legislation, which the section finds to be poorly written, vague, and departing from established antitrust-law principles.

The ABA, of course, has a reputation as an independent, highly professional, and heterogenous group. The antitrust section’s membership includes not only in-house corporate counsel, but lawyers from nonprofits, consulting firms, federal and state agencies, judges, and legal academics. Given this context, the comments must be read as a high-level judgment that recent legislative and regulatory efforts to “discipline” tech fall outside the legal mainstream and would come at the cost of established antitrust principles, legal precedent, transparency, sound economic analysis, and ultimately consumer welfare.

The Antitrust Section’s Comments

As the ABA Antitrust Law Section observes:

The Section has long supported the evolution of antitrust law to keep pace with evolving circumstances, economic theory, and empirical evidence. Here, however, the Section is concerned that the Bill, as written, departs in some respects from accepted principles of competition law and in so doing risks causing unpredicted and unintended consequences.

Broadly speaking, the section’s criticisms fall into two interrelated categories. The first relates to deviations from antitrust orthodoxy and the principles that guide enforcement. The second is a critique of the AICOA’s overly broad language and ambiguous terminology.

Departing from established antitrust-law principles

Substantively, the overarching concern expressed by the ABA Antitrust Law Section is that AICOA departs from the traditional role of antitrust law, which is to protect the competitive process, rather than choosing to favor some competitors at the expense of others. Indeed, the section’s open letter observes that, out of the 10 categories of prohibited conduct spelled out in the legislation, only three require a “material harm to competition.”

Take, for instance, the prohibition on “discriminatory” conduct. As it stands, the bill’s language does not require a showing of harm to the competitive process. It instead appears to enshrine a freestanding prohibition of discrimination. The bill targets tying practices that are already prohibited by U.S. antitrust law, but while similarly eschewing the traditional required showings of market power and harm to the competitive process. The same can be said, mutatis mutandis, for “self-preferencing” and the “unfair” treatment of competitors.

The problem, the section’s letter to Congress argues, is not only that this increases the teleological chasm between AICOA and the overarching goals and principles of antitrust law, but that it can also easily lead to harmful unintended consequences. For instance, as the ABA Antitrust Law Section previously observed in comments to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, a prohibition of pricing discrimination can limit the extent of discounting generally. Similarly, self-preferencing conduct on a platform can be welfare-enhancing, while forced interoperability—which is also contemplated by AICOA—can increase prices for consumers and dampen incentives to innovate. Furthermore, some of these blanket prohibitions are arguably at loggerheads with established antitrust doctrine, such as in, e.g., Trinko, which established that even monopolists are generally free to decide with whom they will deal.

In response to the above, the ABA Antitrust Law Section (reasonably) urges Congress explicitly to require an effects-based showing of harm to the competitive process as a prerequisite for all 10 of the infringements contemplated in the AICOA. This also means disclaiming generalized prohibitions of “discrimination” and of “unfairness” and replacing blanket prohibitions (such as the one for self-preferencing) with measured case-by-case analysis.

Arguably, the reason why the Klobuchar-Grassley bill can so seamlessly exclude or redraw such a central element of antitrust law as competitive harm is because it deliberately chooses to ignore another, preceding one. Namely, the bill omits market power as a requirement for a finding of infringement or for the legislation’s equally crucial designation as a “covered platform.” It instead prescribes size metrics—number of users, market capitalization—to define which platforms are subject to intervention. Such definitions cast an overly wide net that can potentially capture consumer-facing conduct that doesn’t have the potential to harm competition at all.

It is precisely for this reason that existing antitrust laws are tethered to market power—i.e., because it long has been recognized that only companies with market power can harm competition. As John B. Kirkwood of Seattle University School of Law has written:

Market power’s pivotal role is clear…This concept is central to antitrust because it distinguishes firms that can harm competition and consumers from those that cannot.

In response to the above, the ABA Antitrust Law Section (reasonably) urges Congress explicitly to require an effects-based showing of harm to the competitive process as a prerequisite for all 10 of the infringements contemplated in the AICOA. This also means disclaiming generalized prohibitions of “discrimination” and of “unfairness” and replacing blanket prohibitions (such as the one for self-preferencing) with measured case-by-case analysis.

Opaque language for opaque ideas

Another underlying issue is that the Klobuchar-Grassley bill is shot through with indeterminate language and fuzzy concepts that have no clear limiting principles. For instance, in order either to establish liability or to mount a successful defense to an alleged violation, the bill relies heavily on inherently amorphous terms such as “fairness,” “preferencing,” and “materiality,” or the “intrinsic” value of a product. But as the ABA Antitrust Law Section letter rightly observes, these concepts are not defined in the bill, nor by existing antitrust case law. As such, they inject variability and indeterminacy into how the legislation would be administered.

Moreover, it is also unclear how some incommensurable concepts will be weighed against each other. For example, how would concerns about safety and security be weighed against prohibitions on self-preferencing or requirements for interoperability? What is a “core function” and when would the law determine it has been sufficiently “enhanced” or “maintained”—requirements the law sets out to exempt certain otherwise prohibited behavior? The lack of linguistic and conceptual clarity not only explodes legal certainty, but also invites judicial second-guessing into the operation of business decisions, something against which the U.S. Supreme Court has long warned.

Finally, the bill’s choice of language and recent amendments to its terminology seem to confirm the dynamic discussed in the previous section. Most notably, the latest version of AICOA replaces earlier language invoking “harm to the competitive process” with “material harm to competition.” As the ABA Antitrust Law Section observes, this “suggests a shift away from protecting the competitive process towards protecting individual competitors.” Indeed, “material harm to competition” deviates from established categories such as “undue restraint of trade” or “substantial lessening of competition,” which have a clear focus on the competitive process. As a result, it is not unreasonable to expect that the new terminology might be interpreted as meaning that the actionable standard is material harm to competitors.

In its letter, the antitrust section urges Congress not only to define more clearly the novel terminology used in the bill, but also to do so in a manner consistent with existing antitrust law. Indeed:

The Section further recommends that these definitions direct attention to analysis consistent with antitrust principles: effects-based inquiries concerned with harm to the competitive process, not merely harm to particular competitors

Conclusion

The AICOA is a poorly written, misguided, and rushed piece of regulation that contravenes both basic antitrust-law principles and mainstream economic insights in the pursuit of a pre-established populist political goal: punishing the success of tech companies. If left uncorrected by Congress, these mistakes could have potentially far-reaching consequences for innovation in digital markets and for consumer welfare. They could also set antitrust law on a regressive course back toward a policy of picking winners and losers.

[The 15th entry in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium is a guest post from DePaul University College of Law‘s Josh Sarnoff, a former Thomas A. Edison Distinguished Scholar at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. You can find other posts at 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.]

We used to have a robust aftermarket for non-original equipment manufacturer (OEM) automobile repair parts and “independent” repair services, but car companies have increasingly resorted to design-patent protection to prevent competition in the supply of cosmetic repair parts such as bumpers, hoods, panels, and mirrors. The predictable and intended consequence has been to raise prices and reduce options for consumers, effectively monopolizing the separate repair parts and services markets through federal intellectual-property control over needed repair products or inputs to service markets.

Because this is a federal legal right, moreover, it preempts state “right to repair” laws that would authorize such products and services, either as a matter of consumer rights or as a remedy for anti-competitive conduct or “unfair or deceptive” acts and practices resulting from tying a monopoly over the original sales market for specific automobiles (protected by those intellectual-property rights) into a monopoly in the repair markets for those automobiles. Existing law under Section 102(c) of the 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act does not explicitly prohibit such supply-restriction anti-competitive conduct when protecting against warranty requirements that would void warranties based on “tie-in sales” requirements that would void warranties if third-party repair parts or independent repair services are used by consumers. 

Unlike for functional parts of “machines,” which have always been subject to utility-patent rights, non-functional parts of machines were not (and still are not) statutorily authorized as the subject of design-patent rights. However, in 1980, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit—in an opinion by Judge Giles Rich—held that design patents can protect parts or fragments of “articles of manufacture,” the class of statutory subject matter for which ornamental design-patent rights can be provided.

By reducing the “size” of the thing to which the design-patent right applies—here, a part rather than an entire automobile (leaving aside the question of how machines get protection in the first place, when Congress hasn’t authorized it for design patents)—the historic right to repair a purchased machine without reconstructing it can be effectively overridden. This is because the third-party parts supplier is now constructing an entire part (e.g., a headlight) subject to design-patent rights, whereas they would have been authorized to make a part for use in repairing the entire car (and note that designs are supposed to be understood as a whole, not by assessing only parts of the objects to be protected—the article of manufacture).

In 2019, the Federal Circuit held that consumer desires to purchase and use replacement cosmetic auto parts to repair cars to their original appearance is not a “functional” requirement for which ornamental design-patent rights cannot be provided, and thus design patents protect against competition to supply such ornamental repair parts. As the court stated:

Our precedent gives weight to this language, holding that a de-sign patent must claim an “ornamental” design, not one ‘dictated by function.’…  We hold that, even in this context of a consumer preference for a particular design to match other parts of a whole, the aesthetic appeal of a design to consumers is inadequate to render that design functional.

This decision assures that design patents override both consumers’ “right” to restore the appearance of their products to the original condition and state or insurance-policy requirements that require the use of “must-match” aftermarket parts to do so. If the manufacture or import of aftermarket parts is prohibited by design-patent law, then obviously consumers and independent repair shops cannot use them to repair their vehicles, and insurers cannot control costs by paying for the use such aftermarket parts. This is true even when those aftermarket parts are superior in quality to the OEM parts, at lower prices.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in theory could address the over-extension by the judiciary of design-patent protection for cosmetic auto parts, by finding such repair-restricting practices relying on design-patent protection to be either anticompetitive or unfair to consumers. The FTC has already recognized the need to protect the right to repair products. In 2013, the Supreme Court held in FTC v. Actavis that conduct within the scope of granted patent rights may still constitute an antitrust violation. Using patent rights to tie repair parts and services to the original purchase market may violate either Section 1 or Section 2 of the Sherman Act. 

The FTC might also, in theory, extend antitrust principles beyond what is prohibited under the Sherman Act, using its adjudicatory “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) authority under Section 5(a)(2) & (b) or its rulemaking authority under Section 6(g). Some have argued that the FTC cannot or should not adopt prohibitions on anticompetitive conduct that does not violate other statutory antitrust laws, and that Section 6(g) rulemaking authority is limited to procedural rules and does not authorize substantive antitrust rulemaking, even though the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld such substantive rulemaking in 1973 (which would now be overruled if the issue reached the Supreme Court). I’ll leave that issue aside for now, even though it is often difficult to distinguish UMC from unfair commercial practices.

Instead, I’ll focus on the clearer and undisputed authority of the FTC to issue (admittedly procedurally burdensome) rules to prohibit “unfair or deceptive commercial practices” (UDCP) using rulemaking authority under Section 18 of the FTC Act. Under that section, subsection (a)(1)(B), the FTC can “prescribe … rules which define with specificity acts or practices which are unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.” But the rulemaking authority does not define what “practices are unfair, except to refer to Section 5(a)(1)’s legislative declaration that “unfair … commercial practices” are “unlawful.”

In turn, Section 5(n) of the FTC Act defines an “unfair” act or practice as one that must “cause[] or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition.”

For the reasons described above, use of design-patent rights (even if they may result in lower upfront sales prices of cars, because manufacturers may obtain additional profits through leveraging those rights to prevent an aftermarket in repair parts) should clearly qualify as “unfair” under this definition, even if Congress (at least according to the Federal Circuit, even if the statutory text doesn’t support that and only activist judicial interpretation is the proximate cause of the authority) is the source of the patent right that is being used “unfairly.”

“Common wisdom,” however, suggests that the FTC will not choose to exercise its “unfairness” authority beyond recognized categories of specifically and legislatively prohibited acts, just like with its antitrust UMC authority, without further legislative enactment. This common wisdom may be belied by the fact that the FTC updated its Section 18 rulemaking procedures in July 2021, and recently requested that the public bring complaints over illegal repair restriction practices to its attention and indicated that it would “prioritize investigations into unlawful repair restrictions under … Section 5….”

More importantly, “common wisdom” suggests that Congress restricted the FTC’s authority to impose broad new rules defining unfair commercial practices when it adopted the Section 18 rules in response to purported overreach by the FTC in the late 1970s under the Carter administration, as well as temporarily defunded the agency. But Section 18 does not substantively modify the FTC’s Section 5(a) authority (to which Section 18 rulemaking applies), and the common wisdom is likely incorrect that the FTC lacks the power to issue such rules (even if it lacks the willpower).

Since the 1980 legislative change to FTC’s UDCP rulemaking requirements, the FTC has been reluctant to engage in broad rulemaking to define unfairness in commercial contexts, although it has continued to enforce more vigorously prohibitions against deception against consumers, including through deceptive advertisements. The FTC has not issued any similar, generally applicable principles as to what constitutes “unfairness” in commercial practices.

Nevertheless, it should be clear that the FTC has the power to do so. But in the current judicial-review context, the FTC may be even more reluctant than during the past four decades to exercise such authority, as it may lead to judicial invalidation of its Section 5(a)&(b) authority to declare what practices are “unfair.”

As many administrative law scholars have noted, the Supreme Court has recently adopted a much more aggressive “major questions” doctrine for refusing deference to agency interpretations of the scope of their regulatory authority. Instead of lack of deference, the Court has imposed a new and restrictive “clear statement” rule, requiring greater legislative specificity before finding that an agency possesses regulatory authority to take challenged actions. Accordingly, should the FTC issue a new, broad unfair commercial practices rule under Section 18 prohibiting the use of design patents to prevent aftermarket parts from being manufactured—on grounds that it is “unfair” to consumers and adversely affects their “right” of repair—then absent significant change to the Court’s composition, that rule will likely be invalidated because Congress did not define “unfairness” with sufficient specificity.

Even more importantly, such a rule would provide a very “good” test case for a Supreme Court itching to revive the non-delegation doctrine and to hamstring the administrative regulatory apparatus. Thus, the FTC might rightly fear outright repeal of its Section 5(a) as well as its Section 18 (and Section 6g substantive rulemaking) authority should it adopt an aggressive consumer-protection approach.

In conclusion, given the likely lack of political will on the FTC—in light of the likely response of the Supreme Court should the FTC exercise its legislatively conferred power in a consumer-friendly fashion—the use of design patents to restrict the right to repair is a problem that Congress should and must fix. Congress should do so both by adopting a right-to-repair law (such as the Fair Repair Act) and by amending the design-patent act to ensure that the consumer right to repair can be effectuated.

Since broad legislation to accomplish this in a general right-to-repair law or in a modification of the design-patent law that overturns partial and fragment protection for machines directly is likely to face significant opposition, Congress should at least act swiftly to pass the pending SMART Act, which provides that manufacture, import, and offer for sale of design-patented cosmetic automobile repair parts is not an act of infringement, and permits sale and use of those parts after a limited period of exclusivity (30 months) that assures more than sufficient returns on investment in such parts-design development. That way, consumers will be protected in regard to the second most valuable purchase they can make (the first being their home) and the one that is most likely to need repair given the continuing, widespread problem of traffic accidents (the subject of different consumer protection measures that are needed).

[The ideas in this post from Truth on the Market regular Jonathan M. Barnett of USC Gould School of Law—the eighth entry in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposiumare developed in greater detail in “Regulatory Rents: An Agency-Cost Analysis of the FTC Rulemaking Initiative,” a chapter in the forthcoming book FTC’s Rulemaking Authority, which will be published by Concurrences later this year. This is the first of two posts we are publishing today; see also this related post from Aaron Nielsen of BYU Law. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

In December 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released its statement of regulatory priorities for 2022, which describes its intention to expand the agency’s rulemaking activities to target “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act), in addition to (and in some cases, presumably in place of) the conventional mechanism of case-by-case adjudication. Agency leadership (meaning, the FTC chair and the majority commissioners) largely characterizes the rulemaking initiative as a logistical improvement to enable the agency to more efficiently execute its statutory commitment to preserve competitive markets. Unburdened by the costs and delays inherent to the adjudicative process (which, in the antitrust context, typically requires evidence of actual or likely competitive harm), the agency will be able to take expedited action against UMCs based on rules preemptively set forth by the agency. 

This shift from enforcement by adjudication to enforcement by rulemaking is far from a mechanical adjustment. Rather, it is best understood as part of an initiative to make fundamental changes to the substance and methodology of antitrust enforcement.  Substantively, the initiative appears to be part of a broader effort to alter the goals of antitrust enforcement so that it promotes what are deemed to be “equitable” market outcomes, rather than preserving the competitive process through which outcomes are determined by market forces. Methodologically, the initiative appears to be part of a broader effort to displace rule-of-reason treatment with the practical equivalent of per se prohibitions in a wide range of putatively “unfair” practices. Both steps would be inconsistent with the agency’s statutory mission to safeguard the competitive process or a meaningful commitment to a market-driven economy and the rule of law.

Abandoning Competitive Markets

Little steps sometimes portend bigger changes. 

In July 2021, FTC leadership removed the following words from the mission description of the agency’s Bureau of Competition: “The Bureau’s work aims to preserve the free market system and assure the unfettered operation of the forces of supply and demand.” This omitted statement had tracked what remains the standard characterization by federal courts and agency guidelines of the core objective of the antitrust laws. Following this characterization, the antitrust laws seek to preserve the “rules of the game” for market competition, while remaining indifferent to the outcomes of such competition in any particular market. It is the competitive process, not the fortunes of particular competitors, that matters.

Other statements by FTC leadership suggest that they seek to abandon this outcome-agnostic perspective. A memo from the FTC chair to staff, distributed in September 2021, states that the agency’s actions “shape the distribution of power and opportunity” and encourages staff “to take a holistic approach to identifying harms, recognizing that antitrust and consumer protection violations harm workers and independent businesses as well as consumers.” In a draft strategic plan distributed by FTC leadership in October 2021, the agency described its mission as promoting “fair competition” for the “benefit of the public.”  In contrast, the agency’s previously released strategic plan had described the agency’s mission as promoting “competition” for the benefit of consumers, consistent with the case law’s commitment to protecting consumer welfare, dating at least to the Supreme Court’s 1979 decision in Reiter v. Sonotone Corp. et al. The change in language suggests that the agency’s objectives encompass a broad range of stakeholders and policies (including distributive objectives) that extends beyond, and could conflict with, its commitment to preserve the integrity of the competitive process.

These little steps are part of a broader package of “big steps” undertaken during 2021 by FTC leadership. 

In July 2021, the agency abandoned decades of federal case law and agency guidelines by rejecting the consumer-welfare standard for purposes of enforcement of Section 5 of the FTC Act against UMCs. Relatedly, FTC leadership asserted in the same statement that Congress had delegated to the agency authority under Section 5 “to determine which practices fell into the category of ‘unfair methods of competition’”. Remarkably, the agency’s claimed ambit of prosecutorial discretion to identify “unfair” practices is apparently only limited by a commitment to exercise such power “responsibly.”

This largely unbounded redefinition of the scope of Section 5 divorces the FTC’s enforcement authority from the concepts and methods as embodied in decades of federal case law and agency guidelines interpreting the Sherman and Clayton Acts. Those concepts and methods are in turn anchored in the consumer-welfare principle, which ensures that regulatory and judicial actions promote the public interest in the competitive process, rather than the private interests of any particular competitor or other policy goals not contemplated by the antitrust laws. Effectively, agency leadership has unilaterally converted Section 5 into an empty vessel into which enforcers may insert a fluid range of business practices that are deemed by fiat to pose a risk to “fair” competition. 

Abandoning the Rule of Reason

In the same statement in which FTC leadership rejected the consumer-welfare principle for purposes of Section 5 enforcement, it rejected the relevance of the rule of reason for these same purposes. In that statement, agency leadership castigated the rule of reason as a standard that “leads to soaring enforcement costs” and asserted that it is incompatible with Section 5 of the FTC Act. In March 2021 remarks delivered to the House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee, Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter similarly lamented “[t]he effect of cramped case law,” specifically viewing as problematic the fact that “[u]nder current Section 5 jurisprudence, courts have to consider conduct under the ‘rule of reason,’ a fact-intensive investigation into whether the anticompetitive effects of the conduct outweigh the procompetitive justifications.” Hence, it appears that the FTC, in exercising its purported rulemaking powers against UMCs under Section 5, does not intend to undertake the balancing of competitive harms and gains that is the signature element of rule-of-reason analysis. Tellingly, the agency’s draft strategic plan, released in October 2021, omits language that it would execute its enforcement mission “without unduly burdening legitimate business activity” (language that had appeared in the previously released strategic plan)—again, suggesting that it plans to take littleaccount of the offsetting competitive gains attributable to a particular business practice.

This change in methodology has two profound and concerning implications. 

First, it means that any “unfair” practice targeted by the agency under Section 5 is effectively subject to a per se prohibition—that is, the agency can prevail merely by identifying that the defendant engaged in a particular practice, rather than having to show competitive harm. Note that this would represent a significant step beyond the per se rule that Sherman Act case law applies to certain cases of horizontal collusion. In those cases, a per se rule has been adopted because economic analysis indicates that these types of practices in general pose such a high risk of net anticompetitive harm that a rule-of-reason inquiry is likely to fail a cost-benefit test almost all of the time. By contrast, there is no indication that FTC leadership plans to confine its rulemaking activities to practices that systematically pose an especially high risk of anticompetitive harm, in part because it is not clear that agency leadership still views harm to the competitive process as being the determinative criterion in antitrust analysis.  

Second, without further clarification from agency leadership, this means that the agency appears to place substantially reduced weight on the possibility of “false positive” error costs. This would be a dramatic departure from the conventional approach to error costs as reflected in federal antitrust case law. Antitrust scholars have long argued, and many courts have adopted the view, that “false positive” costs should be weighted more heavily relative to “false negative” error costs, principally on the ground that, as Judge Richard Posner once put it, “a cartel . . . carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.” To be clear, this weighted approach should still meaningfully assess the false-negative error costs that arise from mistaken failures to intervene. By contrast, the agency’s blanket rejection of the rule of reason in all circumstances for Section 5 purposes raises doubt as to whether it would assign any material weight to false-positive error costs in exercising its purported rulemaking power under Section 5 against UMCs. Consistent with this possibility, the agency’s July 2021 statement—which rejected the rule of reason specifically—adopted the view that Section 5 enforcement should target business practices in their “incipiency,” even absent evidence of a “likely” anticompetitive effect.

While there may be reasonable arguments in favor of an equal weighting of false-positive and false-negative error costs (on the grounds that markets are sometimes slow to correct anticompetitive conduct, as compared to the speed with which courts correct false-positive interventions), it is hard to fathom a reasonable policy argument in favor of placing no material weight on the former cost category. Under conditions of uncertainty, the net economic effect of any particular enforcement action, or failure to take such action, gives rise to a mix of probability-adjusted false-positive and false-negative error costs. Hence, any sound policy framework seeks to minimize the sum of those costs. Moreover, the wholesale rejection of a balancing analysis overlooks extensive scholarship identifying cases in which federal courts, especially during the period prior to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1977 decision in Continental TV Inc. v. GTE Sylvania Inc., applied per se rules that erroneously targeted business practices that were almost certainly generating net-positive competitive gains. Any such mistaken intervention counterproductively penalizes the efforts and ingenuity of the most efficient firms, which then harms consumers, who are compelled to suffer higher prices, lower quality, or fewer innovations than would otherwise have been the case.

The dismissal of efficiency considerations and false-positive error costs is difficult to reconcile with an economically informed approach that seeks to take enforcement actions only where there is a high likelihood of improving economic welfare based on available evidence. On this point, it is worth quoting Oliver Williamson’s well-known critique of 1960s-era antitrust: “[I]f neither the courts nor the enforcement agencies are sensitive to these [efficiency] considerations, the system fails to meet a basic test of economic rationality. And without this the whole enforcement system lacks defensible standards and becomes suspect.”

Abandoning the Rule of Law

In a liberal democratic system of government, the market relies on the state’s commitment to set forth governing laws with adequate notice and specificity, and then to enforce those laws in a manner that is reasonably amenable to judicial challenge in case of prosecutorial error or malfeasance. Without that commitment, investors are exposed to arbitrary enforcement and would be reluctant to place capital at stake. In light of the agency’s concurrent rejection of the consumer-welfare and rule-of-reason principles, any future attempt by the FTC to exercise its purported Section 5 rulemaking powers against UMCs under what currently appears to be a regime of largely unbounded regulatory discretion is likely to violate these elementary conditions for a rule-of-law jurisdiction. 

Having dismissed decades of learning and precedent embodied in federal case law and agency guidelines, FTC leadership has declined to adopt any substitute guidelines to govern its actions under Section 5 and, instead, has stated (in its July 2021 statement rejecting the consumer-welfare principle) that there are few bounds on its authority to specify and target practices that it deems to be “unfair.” This blunt approach contrasts sharply with the measured approach reflected in existing agency guidelines and federal case law, which seek to delineate reasonably objective standards to govern enforcers’ and courts’ decision making when evaluating the competitive merits of a particular business practice.  

This approach can be observed, even if imperfectly, in the application of the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) metric in the merger-review process and the use of “safety zones” (defined principally by reference to market-share thresholds) in the agencies’ Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property, Horizontal Merger Guidelines, and Antitrust Guidelines for Collaborations Among Competitors. This nuanced and evidence-based approach can also be observed in a decision such as California Dental Association v. FTC (1999), which provides a framework for calibrating the intensity of a rule-of-reason inquiry based on a preliminary assessment of the likely net competitive effect of a particular practice. In making these efforts to develop reasonably objective thresholds for triggering closer scrutiny, regulators and courts have sought to reconcile the open-ended language of the offenses described in the antitrust statutes—“restraint of trade” (Sherman Act Section 1) or “monopolization” (Sherman Act Section 2)—with a meaningful commitment to providing the market with adequate notice of the inherently fuzzy boundary between competitive and anti-competitive practices in most cases (and especially, in cases involving single-firm conduct that is most likely to be targeted by the agency under its Section 5 authority). 

It does not appear that agency leadership intends to adopt this calibrated approach in implementing its rulemaking initiative, in light of its largely unbounded understanding of its Section 5 enforcement authority and wholesale rejection of the rule-of-reason methodology. If Section 5 is understood to encompass a broad and fluid set of social goals, including distributive objectives that can conflict with a commitment to the competitive process, then there is no analytical reference point by which markets can reliably assess the likelihood of antitrust liability and plan transactions accordingly. If enforcement under Section 5, including exercise of any purported rulemaking powers, does not require the agency to consider offsetting efficiencies attributable to any particular practice, then a chilling effect on everyday business activity and, more broadly, economic growth can easily ensue. In particular, firms may abstain from practices that may have mostly or even entirely procompetitive effects simply because there is some material likelihood that any such practice will be subject to investigation and enforcement under the agency’s understanding of its Section 5 authority and its adoption of a per se approach for which even strong evidence of predominantly procompetitive effects would be moot.

From Free Markets to Administered Markets

The FTC’s proposed rulemaking initiative, when placed within the context of other fundamental changes in substance and methodology adopted by agency leadership, is not easily reconciled with a market-driven economy in which resources are principally directed by the competitive forces of supply and demand. FTC leadership has reserved for the agency discretion to deem a business practice as “unfair,” while defining fairness by reference to an agglomeration of loosely described policy goals that include—but go beyond, and in some cases may conflict with—the agency’s commitment to preserve market competition. Concurrently, FTC leadership has rejected the rule-of-reason balancing approach and, by implication, may place no material weight on (or even fail to consider entirely) the efficiencies attributable to a particular business practice. 

In the aggregate, any rulemaking activity undertaken within this unstructured framework would make it challenging for firms and investors to assess whether any particular action is likely to trigger agency scrutiny. Faced with this predicament, firms could only substantially reduce exposure to antitrust liability by seeking various forms of preclearance with FTC staff, who would in turn be led to issue supplemental guidance, rules, and regulations to handle the high volume of firm inquiries. Contrary to the advertised advantages of enforcement by rulemaking, this unavoidable cycle of rule interpretation and adjustment would likely increase substantially aggregate transaction and compliance costs as compared to enforcement by adjudication. While enforcement by adjudication occurs only periodically and impacts a limited number of firms, enforcement by rulemaking is a continuous activity that impacts all firms. The ultimate result: the free play of the forces of supply and demand would be replaced by a continuously regulated environment where market outcomes are constantly being reviewed through the administrative process, rather than being worked out through the competitive process.  

This is a state of affairs substantially removed from the “free market system” to which the FTC’s Bureau of Competition had once been committed. Of course, that may be exactly what current agency leadership has in mind.

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

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

Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

A pending case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit has raised several interesting questions about the FTC enforcement approach and patent litigation in the pharmaceutical industry.  The case, FTC v. AbbVie, involves allegations that AbbVie (and Besins) filed sham patent infringement cases against generic manufacturer Teva (and Perrigo) for the purpose of preventing or delaying entry into the testosterone gel market in which AbbVie’s AndroGel had a monopoly.  The FTC further alleges that AbbVie and Teva settled the testosterone gel litigation in AbbVie’s favor while making a large payment to Teva in an unrelated case, behavior that, considered together, amounted to an illegal reverse payment settlement. The district court dismissed the reverse payment claims, but concluded that the patent infringement cases were sham litigation. It ordered disgorgement damages of $448 million against AbbVie and Besins which was the profit they gained from maintaining the AndroGel monopoly.

The 3rd Circuit has been asked to review several elements of the district court’s decision including whether the original patent infringement cases amounted to sham litigation, whether the payment to Teva in a separate case amounted to an illegal reverse payment, and whether the FTC has the authority to seek disgorgement damages.  The decision will help to clarify outstanding issues relating to patent litigation and the FTC’s enforcement abilities, but it also has the potential to chill pro-competitive behavior in the pharmaceutical market encouraged under Hatch-Waxman. 

First, the 3rd Circuit will review whether AbbVie’s patent infringement case was sham litigation by asking whether the district court applied the right standard and how plaintiffs must prove that lawsuits are baseless.  The district court determined that the case was a sham because it was objectively baseless (AbbVie couldn’t reasonably expect to win) and subjectively baseless (AbbVie brought the cases solely to delay generic entry into the market).  AbbVie argues that the district court erred by not requiring affirmative evidence of bad faith and not requiring the FTC to present clear and convincing evidence that AbbVie and its attorneys believed the lawsuits were baseless.

While sham litigation should be penalized and deterred, especially when it produces anticompetitive effects, the 3rd Circuit’s decision, depending on how it comes out, also has the potential to deter brand drug makers from filing patent infringement cases in the first place.  This threatens to disrupt the delicate balance that Hatch-Waxman sought to establish between protecting generic entry while encouraging brand competition.

The 3rd Circuit will also determine whether AbbVie’s payment to Teva in a separate case involving cholesterol medicine was an illegal reverse payment, otherwise known as a “pay-for-delay” settlement.  The FTC asserts that the actions in the two cases—one involving testosterone gel and the other involving cholesterol medicine—should be considered together, but the district court disagreed and determined there was no illegal reverse payment.  True pay-for-delay settlements are anticompetitive and harm consumers by delaying their access to cheaper generic alternatives.  However, an overly-liberal definition of what constitutes an illegal reverse payment will deter legitimate settlements, thereby increasing expenses for all parties that choose to litigate and possibly dissuading generics from bringing patent challenges in the first place.  Moreover, FTC’s argument that two settlements occurring in separate cases around the same time is suspicious overlooks the reality that the pharmaceutical industry has become increasingly concentrated and drug companies often have more than one pending litigation matter against another company involving entirely different products and circumstances. 

Finally, the 3rd Circuit will determine whether the FTC has the authority to seek disgorgement damages on past acts like settled patent litigation.  AbbVie has argued that the agency has no right to disgorgement because it isn’t enumerated in the FTC Act and because courts can’t order injunctive relieve, including disgorgement, on completed past acts. 

The FTC has sought disgorgement damages only sparingly, but the frequency with which the agency seeks disgorgement and the amount of the damages have increased in recent years. Proponents of the FTC’s approach argue that the threat of large disgorgement damages provides a strong deterrent to anticompetitive behavior.  While true, FTC-ordered disgorgement (even if permissible) may go too far and end up chilling economic activity by exposing businesses to exorbitant liability without clear guidance on when disgorgement will be awarded. The 3rd Circuit will determine whether the FTC’s enforcement approach is authorized, a decision that has important implications for whether the agency’s enforcement can deter unfair practices without depressing economic activity.

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

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

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

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

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

The devil is in the (well-specified) details

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 5(n) states that

The Commission shall have no authority under this section or section 57a of this title to declare unlawful an act or practice on the grounds that such act or practice is unfair unless the act or practice causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition. In determining whether an act or practice is unfair, the Commission may consider established public policies as evidence to be considered with all other evidence. Such public policy considerations may not serve as a primary basis for such determination.

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

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

Just say no to public policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does public policy become well-established law?

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

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

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

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

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

This is Admin Law 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Berin Szoka, President, TechFreedom

Josh Wright will doubtless be remembered for transforming how FTC polices competition. Between finally defining Unfair Methods of Competition (UMC), and his twelve dissents and multiple speeches about competition matters, he re-grounded competition policy in the error-cost framework: weighing not only costs against benefits, but also the likelihood of getting it wrong against the likelihood of getting it right.

Yet Wright may be remembered as much for what he started as what he finished: reforming the Commission’s Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices (UDAP) work. His consumer protection work is relatively slender: four dissents on high tech matters plus four relatively brief concurrences and one dissent on more traditional advertising substantiation cases. But together, these offer all the building blocks of an economic, error-cost-based approach to consumer protection. All that remains is for another FTC Commissioner to pick up where Wright left off.

Apple: Unfairness & Cost-Benefit Analysis

In January 2014, Wright issued a blistering, 17 page dissent from the Commission’s decision to bring, and settle, an enforcement action against Apple regarding the design of its app store. Wright dissented, not from the conclusion necessarily, but from the methodology by which the Commission arrived there. In essence, he argued for an error-cost approach to unfairness:

The Commission, under the rubric of “unfair acts and practices,” substitutes its own judgment for a private firm’s decisions as to how to design its product to satisfy as many users as possible, and requires a company to revamp an otherwise indisputably legitimate business practice. Given the apparent benefits to some consumers and to competition from Apple’s allegedly unfair practices, I believe the Commission should have conducted a much more robust analysis to determine whether the injury to this small group of consumers justifies the finding of unfairness and the imposition of a remedy.

…. although Apple’s allegedly unfair act or practice has harmed some consumers, I do not believe the Commission has demonstrated the injury is substantial. More importantly, any injury to consumers flowing from Apple’s choice of disclosure and billing practices is outweighed considerably by the benefits to competition and to consumers that flow from the same practice.

The majority insisted that the burden on consumers or Apple from its remedy “is de minimis,” and therefore “it was unnecessary for the Commission to undertake a study of how consumers react to different disclosures before issuing its complaint against Apple, as Commissioner Wright suggests.”

Wright responded: “Apple has apparently determined that most consumers do not want to experience excessive disclosures or to be inconvenienced by having to enter their passwords every time they make a purchase.” In essence, he argued, that the FTC should not presume to know better than Apple how to manage the subtle trade-offs between convenience and usability.

Wright was channeling Hayek’s famous quip: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” The last thing the FTC should be doing is designing digital products — even by hovering over Apple’s shoulder.

The Data Broker Report

Wright next took the Commission to task for the lack of economic analysis in its May 2013 report, “Data Brokers: A Call for Transparency and Accountability.” In just four footnotes, Wright extended his analysis of Apple. For example:

Footnote 85: Commissioner Wright agrees that Congress should consider legislation that would provide for consumer access to the information collected by data brokers. However, he does not believe that at this time there is enough evidence that the benefits to consumers of requiring data brokers to provide them with the ability to opt out of the sharing of all consumer information for marketing purposes outweighs the costs of imposing such a restriction. Finally… he believes that the Commission should engage in a rigorous study of consumer preferences sufficient to establish that consumers would likely benefit from such a portal prior to making such a recommendation.

Footnote 88: Commissioner Wright believes that in enacting statutes such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act, Congress undertook efforts to balance [costs and benefits]. In the instant case, Commissioner Wright is wary of extending FCRA-like coverage to other uses and categories of information without first performing a more robust balancing of the benefits and costs associated with imposing these requirements

The Internet of Things Report

This January, in a 4-page dissent from the FTC’s staff report on “The Internet of Things: Privacy and Security in a Connected World,” Wright lamented that the report neither represented serious economic analysis of the issues discussed nor synthesized the FTC’s workshop on the topic:

A record that consists of a one-day workshop, its accompanying public comments, and the staff’s impressions of those proceedings, however well-intended, is neither likely to result in a representative sample of viewpoints nor to generate information sufficient to support legislative or policy recommendations.

His attack on the report’s methodology was blistering:

The Workshop Report does not perform any actual analysis whatsoever to ensure that, or even to give a rough sense of the likelihood that the benefits of the staff’s various proposals exceed their attendant costs. Instead, the Workshop Report merely relies upon its own assertions and various surveys that are not necessarily representative and, in any event, do not shed much light on actual consumer preferences as revealed by conduct in the marketplace…. I support the well-established Commission view that companies must maintain reasonable and appropriate security measures; that inquiry necessitates a cost-benefit analysis. The most significant drawback of the concepts of “security by design” and other privacy-related catchphrases is that they do not appear to contain any meaningful analytical content.

Ouch.

Nomi: Deception & Materiality Analysis

In April, Wright turned his analytical artillery from unfairness to deception, long the more uncontroversial half of UDAP. In a five-page dissent, Wright accused the Commission of essentially dispensing with the core limiting principle of the 1983 Deception Policy Statement: materiality. As Wright explained:

The materiality inquiry is critical because the Commission’s construct of “deception” uses materiality as an evidentiary proxy for consumer injury…. Deception causes consumer harm because it influences consumer behavior — that is, the deceptive statement is one that is not merely misleading in the abstract but one that causes consumers to make choices to their detriment that they would not have otherwise made. This essential link between materiality and consumer injury ensures the Commission’s deception authority is employed to deter only conduct that is likely to harm consumers and does not chill business conduct that makes consumers better off.

As in Apple, Wright did not argue that there might not be a role for the FTC; merely that the FTC had failed to justify bringing, let alone settling, an enforcement action without establishing that the key promise at issue — to provide in-store opt-out — was material.

The Chamber Speech: A Call for Economic Analysis

In May, Wright gave a speech to the Chamber of Commerce on “How to Regulate the Internet of Things Without Harming its Future: Some Do’s and Don’ts”:

Perhaps it is because I am an economist who likes to deal with hard data, but when it comes to data and privacy regulation, the tendency to rely upon anecdote to motivate policy is a serious problem. Instead of developing a proper factual record that documents cognizable and actual harms, regulators can sometimes be tempted merely to explore anecdotal and other hypothetical examples and end up just offering speculations about the possibility of harm.

And on privacy in particular:

What I have seen instead is what appears to be a generalized apprehension about the collection and use of data — whether or not the data is actually personally identifiable or sensitive — along with a corresponding, and arguably crippling, fear about the possible misuse of such data.  …. Any sensible approach to regulating the collection and use of data will take into account the risk of abuses that will harm consumers. But those risks must be weighed with as much precision as possible, as is the case with potential consumer benefits, in order to guide sensible policy for data collection and use. The appropriate calibration, of course, turns on our best estimates of how policy changes will actually impact consumers on the margin….

Wright concedes that the “vast majority of work that the Consumer Protection Bureau performs simply does not require significant economic analysis because they involve business practices that create substantial risk of consumer harm but little or nothing in the way of consumer benefits.” Yet he notes that the Internet has made the need for cost-benefit analysis far more acute, at least where conduct is ambiguous as its effects on consumers, as in Apple, to avoid “squelching innovation and depriving consumers of these benefits.”

The Wrightian Reform Agenda for UDAP Enforcement

Wright left all the building blocks his successor will need to bring “Wrightian” reform to how the Bureau of Consumer Protection works:

  1. Wright’s successor should work to require economic analysis for consent decrees, as Wright proposed in his last major address as a Commissioner. BE might not to issue a statement at all in run-of-the-mill deception cases, but it should certainly have to say something about unfairness cases.
  2. The FTC needs to systematically assess its enforcement process to understand the incentives causing companies to settle UDAP cases nearly every time — resulting in what Chairman Ramirez and Commissioner Brill frequently call the FTC’s “common law of consent decrees.”
  3. As Wright says in his Nomi dissent “While the Act does not set forth a separate standard for accepting a consent decree, I believe that threshold should be at least as high as for bringing the initial complaint.” This point should be uncontroversial, yet the Commission has never addressed it. Wright’s successor (and the FTC) should, at a minimum, propose a standard for settling cases.
  4. Just as Josh succeeded in getting the FTC to issue a UMC policy statement, his successor should re-assess the FTC’s two UDAP policy statements. Wright’s successor needs to make the case for finally codifying the DPS — and ensuring that the FTC stops bypassing materiality, as in Nomi.
  5. The Commission should develop a rigorous methodology for each of the required elements of unfairness and deception to justify bringing cases (or making report recommendations). This will be a great deal harder than merely attacking the lack of such methodology in dissents.
  6. The FTC has, in recent years, increasingly used reports to make de facto policy — by inventing what Wright calls, in his Chamber speech, “slogans and catchphrases” like “privacy by design,” and then using them as boilerplate requirements for consent decrees; by pressuring companies into adopting the FTC’s best practices; by calling for legislation; and so on. At a minimum, these reports must be grounded in careful economic analysis.
  7. The Commission should apply far greater rigor in setting standards for substantiating claims about health benefits. In two dissents, Genelink et al and HCG Platinum, Wright demolished arguments for a clear, bright line requiring two randomized clinical trials, and made the case for “a more flexible substantiation requirement” instead.

Conclusion: Big Shoes to Fill

It’s a testament to Wright’s analytical clarity that he managed to say so much about consumer protection in so few words. That his UDAP work has received so little attention, relative to his competition work, says just as much about the far greater need for someone to do for consumer protection what Wright did for competition enforcement and policy at the FTC.

Wright’s successor, if she’s going to finish what Wright started, will need something approaching Wright’s sheer intellect, his deep internalization of the error-costs approach, and his knack for brokering bipartisan compromise around major issues — plus the kind of passion for UDAP matters Wright had for competition matters. And, of course, that person needs to be able to continue his legacy on competition matters…

Compared to the difficulty of finding that person, actually implementing these reforms may be the easy part.

Today the FTC filed its complaint in federal district court in Washington against Amazon, alleging that the company’s in-app purchasing system permits children to make in-app purchases without parental “informed consent” constituting an “unfair practice” under Section 5 of the FTC Act.

As I noted in my previous post on the case, in bringing this case the Commission is doubling down on the rule it introduced in Apple that effectively converts the balancing of harms and benefits required under Section 5 of the FTC Act to a per se rule that deems certain practices to be unfair regardless of countervailing benefits. Similarly, it is attempting to extend the informed consent standard it created in Apple that essentially maintains that only specific, identified practices (essentially, distinct notification at the time of purchase or opening of purchase window, requiring entry of a password to proceed) are permissible under the Act.

Such a standard is inconsistent with the statute, however. The FTC’s approach forecloses the ability of companies like Amazon to engage in meaningful design decisions and disregards their judgment about which user interface designs will, on balance, benefit consumers. The FTC Act does not empower the Commission to disregard the consumer benefits of practices that simply fail to mimic the FTC’s preconceived design preferences. While that sort of approach might be defensible in the face of manifestly harmful practices like cramming, it is wholly inappropriate in the context of app stores like Amazon’s that spend considerable resources to design every aspect of their interaction with consumers—and that seek to attract, not to defraud, consumers.

Today’s complaint occasions a few more observations:

  1. Amazon has a very strong case. Under Section 5 of the FTC Act, the Commission will have to prevail on all three elements required to prove unfairness under Section 5: that there is substantial injury, that consumers can’t reasonably avoid the injury and that any countervailing benefits don’t outweigh the injury. But, consistent with its complaint and consent order in Apple, the Amazon complaint focuses almost entirely on only the first of these. While that may have been enough to induce Apple to settle out of court, the FTC will actually have to make out a case on reasonable avoidance and countervailing benefits at trial. It’s not at all clear that the agency will be able to do so on the facts alleged here.
  2. On reasonable avoidance, over and above Amazon’s general procedures that limit unwanted in-app purchases, the FTC will have a tough time showing that Amazon’s Kindle Free Time doesn’t provide parents with more than enough ability to avoid injury. In fact, the complaint doesn’t mention Free Time at all.
  3. Among other things, the complaint asserts that Amazon knew about issues with in-app purchasing by December of 2011 and claims that “[n]ot until June 2014 did Amazon change its in-app charge framework to obtain account holders’ informed consent for in-app charges on its newer mobile devices.” But Kindle Free Time was introduced in September of 2012. While four FTC Commissioners may believe that Free Time isn’t a sufficient response to the alleged problem, it is clearly a readily available, free and effective (read: reasonable) mechanism for parents to avoid the alleged harms. It may not be what the design mavens at the FTC would have chosen to do, but it seems certain that avoiding unauthorized in-app purchases by children was part of what motivated Amazon’s decision to create and offer Free Time.
  4. On countervailing benefits, as Commissioner Wright discussed in detail in his dissent from the Apple consent order, the Commission seems to think that it can simply assert that there are no countervailing benefits to Amazon’s design choices around in-app purchases. Here the complaint doesn’t mention 1-Click at all, which is core to Amazon’s user interface design and essential to evaluating the balance of harms and benefits required by the statute.
  5. Even if it can show that Amazon’s in-app purchase practices caused harm, the Commission will still have to demonstrate that Amazon’s conscious efforts to minimize the steps required to make purchases doesn’t benefit consumers on balance. In Apple, the FTC majority essentially (and improperly) valued these sorts of user-interface benefits at zero. It implicitly does so again here, but a court will require more than such an assertion.
  6. Given these lapses, there is even a chance that the complaint will be thrown out on a motion to dismiss. It’s a high bar, but if the court agrees that there are insufficient facts in the complaint to make out a plausible case on all three elements, Amazon could well prevail on a motion to dismiss. The FTC’s approach in the Apple consent order effectively maintains that the agency can disregard reasonable avoidance and countervailing benefits in contravention of the statute. By following the same approach here in actual litigation, the FTC may well meet resistance from the courts, which have not yet so cavalierly dispensed with the statute’s requirements.

Bill Northey, IA Ag Sec’y, sounds a bit like an economist (ah, turns out he has a degree in ag business and an MBA . . . ).  Yes, price of seeds has gone up, but so has yield, and so has overall value.  The issue, he says, is how to divide the surplus, and he suggests that it’s dividing the pie that drives farmer concerns.  That’s not at all a surprise, but it’s also not much of an antitrust issue.  Unless the pie could be bigger absent, say, Monsanto’s huge investment in seeds and the resulting relatively-concentrated market structure (and basing enforcement on the theoretical possibility of that counter-factual is a perilous enterprise, as Josh and I have suggested many times), this is just a question of pecuniary transfers.  Sure, they matter a lot to the parties involved and there’s always an incentive to deputize the government to put a thumb on the scale of that dispute, but that’s not a matter of allocative efficiency, and not a matter for the antitrust laws.

Now we hear Iowa AG Miller pushing for the development of “the non-antitrust laws to deal with concentration.”  By which he means the Packers and Stockyards Act.  Maybe the DOJ has their Section 5 after all!

As if on cue, AG Miller trots out the pendulum story of antitrust enforcement–“how to bring the antitrust law back to the middle.”  This is not really an accurate description, unfortunately.  Even worse, it’s not an economically-sensible concept, and measuring the efficiency of antitrust enforcement by counting enforcement actions (or looking at rhetoric) is usually just flimsy cover for an essentially-political determination.  Combine that with Miller’s suggestion that the P&S Act’s “unfair practices” language should be enlisted in the service of dealing with concentration, and the risk of false positives is much magnified.  Which, of course, is a perfect lead-in for Christine Varney. Continue Reading…