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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants to review in advance all future acquisitions by Facebook parent Meta Platforms. According to a Sept. 2 Bloomberg report, in connection with its challenge to Meta’s acquisition of fitness-app maker Within Unlimited,  the commission “has asked its in-house court to force both Meta and [Meta CEO Mark] Zuckerberg to seek approval from the FTC before engaging in any future deals.”

This latest FTC decision is inherently hyper-regulatory, anti-free market, and contrary to the rule of law. It also is profoundly anti-consumer.

Like other large digital-platform companies, Meta has conferred enormous benefits on consumers (net of payments to platforms) that are not reflected in gross domestic product statistics. In a December 2019 Harvard Business Review article, Erik Brynjolfsson and Avinash Collis reported research finding that Facebook:

…generates a median consumer surplus of about $500 per person annually in the United States, and at least that much for users in Europe. … [I]ncluding the consumer surplus value of just one digital good—Facebook—in GDP would have added an average of 0.11 percentage points a year to U.S. GDP growth from 2004 through 2017.

The acquisition of complementary digital assets—like the popular fitness app produced by Within—enables Meta to continually enhance the quality of its offerings to consumers and thereby expand consumer surplus. It reflects the benefits of economic specialization, as specialized assets are made available to enhance the quality of Meta’s offerings. Requiring Meta to develop complementary assets in-house, when that is less efficient than a targeted acquisition, denies these benefits.

Furthermore, in a recent editorial lambasting the FTC’s challenge to a Meta-Within merger as lacking a principled basis, the Wall Street Journal pointed out that the challenge also removes incentive for venture-capital investments in promising startups, a result at odds with free markets and innovation:

Venture capitalists often fund startups on the hope that they will be bought by larger companies. [FTC Chair Lina] Khan is setting down the marker that the FTC can block acquisitions merely to prevent big companies from getting bigger, even if they don’t reduce competition or harm consumers. This will chill investment and innovation, and it deserves a burial in court.

This is bad enough. But the commission’s proposal to require blanket preapprovals of all future Meta mergers (including tiny acquisitions well under regulatory pre-merger reporting thresholds) greatly compounds the harm from its latest ill-advised merger challenge. Indeed, it poses a blatant challenge to free-market principles and the rule of law, in at least three ways.

  1. It substitutes heavy-handed ex ante regulatory approval for a reliance on competition, with antitrust stepping in only in those limited instances where the hard facts indicate a transaction will be anticompetitive. Indeed, in one key sense, it is worse than traditional economic regulation. Empowering FTC staff to carry out case-by-case reviews of all proposed acquisitions inevitably will generate arbitrary decision-making, perhaps based on a variety of factors unrelated to traditional consumer-welfare-based antitrust. FTC leadership has abandoned sole reliance on consumer welfare as the touchstone of antitrust analysis, paving the wave for potentially abusive and arbitrary enforcement decisions. By contrast, statutorily based economic regulation, whatever its flaws, at least imposes specific standards that staff must apply when rendering regulatory determinations.
  2. By abandoning sole reliance on consumer-welfare analysis, FTC reviews of proposed Meta acquisitions may be expected to undermine the major welfare benefits that Meta has previously bestowed upon consumers. Given the untrammeled nature of these reviews, Meta may be expected to be more cautious in proposing transactions that could enhance consumer offerings. What’s more, the general anti-merger bias by current FTC leadership would undoubtedly prompt them to reject some, if not many, procompetitive transactions that would confer new benefits on consumers.
  3. Instituting a system of case-by-case assessment and approval of transactions is antithetical to the normal American reliance on free markets, featuring limited government intervention in market transactions based on specific statutory guidance. The proposed review system for Meta lacks statutory warrant and (as noted above) could promote arbitrary decision-making. As such, it seriously flouts the rule of law and threatens substantial economic harm (sadly consistent with other ill-considered initiatives by FTC Chair Khan, see here and here).

In sum, internet-based industries, and the big digital platforms, have thrived under a system of American technological freedom characterized as “permissionless innovation.” Under this system, the American people—consumers and producers—have been the winners.

The FTC’s efforts to micromanage future business decision-making by Meta, prompted by the challenge to a routine merger, would seriously harm welfare. To the extent that the FTC views such novel interventionism as a bureaucratic template applicable to other disfavored large companies, the American public would be the big-time loser.

With thanks to Geoff and everyone else, it’s great to join the cast here at TOTM. Geoff gave a nice introduction, so I won’t use this first post to further that purpose – especially when I have substance to discuss. The only prefatory words I’ll offer are that my work lies at the intersection of law and technology, with a focus on telecommunications and the regulation of technology. Most of my posts here will likely relate to those subjects. But I may occasionally use this forum to write briefly on topics further afield of my research agenda (and to which I therefore cannot dedicate more than blog-post-length musings to develop).

But one paragraph of navel-grazing is enough; on to substance:

The WSJ had a nice piece the other day about the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) ongoing persecution of Craig Zucker. Several years ago, Zucker founded a company that sold small, strong, rare-earth magnets that are a ton of fun to play with. He called them BuckyBalls. In 2011, the CPSC determined that BuckBalls are inherently unsafe because children may swallow them, which can result in serious injury. The CPSC effectively forced the company to shut down in 2012. Unsatisfied with forcing a profitable small firm out of the market, the CPSC is now going after Zucker individually to, at his own expense, recall and refund the purchase price of all BuckyBalls the company sold.

BuckyBalls(Full disclosure: I own a bunch of BuckyBalls. In fact, they’re all over my office. To date, they have not harmed anyone. The photo to the left is of the “BuckyBall decapode” that I have behind my chair. Note: the CPSC is not concerned about BuckyBall decapodes, which could pose a legitimate danger if they became sentient, but about the individual magnets.)

The CPSC’s action is a case study in bad judgment, arguably abusive and vindictive government conduct, and a basic lack of common sense. But I don’t want to focus on common sense here – I want to focus on the common law. My question is why in the world do we need the CPSC protecting consumers from these magnets when the common law clearly offers sufficient protection?

These cases almost always follow a similar pattern. Adults buy BuckyBalls. Adults either give children BuckyBalls or leave BuckyBalls where children can get them. Children, acting as children are wont to act, somehow swallow BuckyBalls.

The CPSC’s complaint identifies 5 specific cases of children ingesting BuckyBalls and notes that “over one dozen” reports have been received. The complaint doesn’t discuss in detail any injuries that resulted, beyond noting that in some cases surgery was required (and in one case, treatment included “monitoring for infection and internal damage”). It doesn’t say whether any of these cases resulted in permanent injury or disability (presumably not, or that would surely be mentioned). There have been no reported deaths or, that I have seen reported, debilitating injuries.

On the flipside, over the few years that Zucker was in business (roughly 2009, when the product became popular, through 2012, when the company closed down), he sold about $75 million worth of BuckyBalls (per the WSJ piece, “’Two and a half million adults spent $30’”). This product wasn’t a mere novelty, but something created substantial economic value for consumers.

So, what do we have? A relatively small number of injuries, with very few disputable facts, and readily identifiable harm. These would be some of the easiest possible cases to bring to court, and would occur in small enough numbers that they wouldn’t burden the court system. After the first of these cases was decided, most of the others – given the similarity of facts – would likely settle. If the harms caused by BuckyBalls were sufficient to outweigh the economic value created by this product, Zucker could have responded by altering the product, seeking insurance, or shutting down. This is exactly the sort of case we have the courts for!

That penultimate sentence should be dwelt upon: the incremental approach of the common law would allow the firm to alter and improve its product, to avoid or reduce future harm. In this way, the law develops along with new products and technologies, supporting a dynamic market. Compare this to the CPSC approach, which was to demand that Zucker comply with the agency’s demands in a short period of time (which he did), and then, the very next day, to bring the administrative suit that forced Zucker to shut the company down. The CPSC could not have reviewed his response to its demands in that timeframe; even if it did and found the response lacking, its next step should have been to engage him to address any problems, with the twain objectives of both remedying any problems but also preserving the business. Rather, the CPSC’s purpose seems to have been from the outset to shut Zucker down. It seems that in its fervor to protect the children from negligent adults, it is willing to harm the consumers who enjoy these products — perhaps we should rechristen it the Children’s Product Safety Commission.

Others have written about the CPSC’s lack of common sense in this matter. My contribution to that discussion would be to say that the CPSC has become the FTC’s successor as the “National Nanny” (not to say the FTC does not deserve the title, as demonstrated by the POM Wonderful case – but today CPSC may be even more deserving of the title).

But the BuckyBalls case raises a more fundamental concern. The CPSC surely should be lambasted for its decision to pursue this matter at all; and even more for persecuting Mr. Zucker. But beyond that, this case raises fundamental questions about the need for, and the basic legitimacy of, the CPSC.

Cited today by Gordon Crovitz in the Wall Street Journal:

Instead of letting consumers choose, other search companies including Microsoft are funding to lobby regulators and politicians to stop what it calls “Google’s march toward an ‘unregulatable monopoly.'” Legal academics Geoffrey Manne and Joshua Wright wrote a recent article entitled “If Search Neutrality is the Answer, What’s the Question?” They ridicule the regulatory idea of a “Federal Search Commission” to monitor search providers. Google would lose its position if it gave its properties such as YouTube unfair preference in its search results. By serving consumers well, Google makes it harder for competitors, but that’s not an antitrust violation.

The whole thing is worth reading, of course.

For the few of you out there who have not downloaded our paper yet, it’s available here.