Antitrust-for-Kids-300x143

Author: Molly Donovan

You might recall that Max and Margie are next-door neighbors on Lemon Lane.

In a strange turn of events, after Max was found liable for an illegal hub-and-spoke conspiracy against Margie, she let bygones be bygones and hired Max to procure materials for her lemonade stand and to develop new flavors of soft drinks for kids. In that role, Margie and Max agreed that, should Max ever leave Margie’s employ, he wouldn’t compete with Margie by working to sell any kids’ beverages within the city limits for a period of 2 years.

That was all fine until the FTC announced a proposed ban on non-competes, defining “non-compete clause” as a “contractual term between an employer and a worker that prevents the worker from seeking or accepting employment with a person, or operating a business, after the conclusion of the worker’s employment with the employer.” Substance is more important than form—so that if any agreement functions as a “non-compete,” under the FTC’s definition, it would be banned, too, regardless of its label.

Now Margie’s in a bind—does she undo her noncompete with Max? Does she try to language around the proposed ban? Does she wait to see if the ban comes to fruition? Certainly, due to their history, she doesn’t fully trust Max who she has trained at length (including in antitrust compliance), is privy to top-secret recipes, and has developed key relationships with Margie’s lemon suppliers, all in the course of his employment with Margie. Given all that, can’t he be stopped from competing against her in the event he works for another beverage company someday?

Here’s what Margie should know: the FTC has recognized two carve-outs to the potential ban—one for non-solicitation agreements and one for non-disclosures. Such agreements aren’t subject to the proposed ban because they don’t “prevent” workers from competing with their former employers. Instead, a non-solicitation would prevent workers only from soliciting clients or customers with whom the former employer has a business relationship. And non-disclosures would prevent workers only from using proprietary information learned during the course of employment in a new job.

If used as an alternative to a non-compete, these types of clauses should continue to be tailored to particular customers, products and geographic areas that are relevant to the employee at issue and the pertinent procompetitive justifications. An overly broad non-solicitation or non-disclosure could be said to function the same as a non-compete and therefore, become subject to the proposed ban.

Margie could consider other options as well. Perhaps a unilateral policy that deferred compensation or other incentive payments will be clawed back should a worker choose to compete, disclose confidential information in a new position, or disparage Margie in some way. Such a policy is not a contractual agreement because it’s unilateral, and it doesn’t prevent Max from competing—it merely discourages him. (Of course, Margie should be sure a clawback is legit under other laws like ERISA).

Further, if Margie is considering a stick, she might also consider a carrot: a unilateral incentive program for workers that don’t compete within a specified time period or a specific geographic region, etc.

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Noncompetes-and-the-FTC-300x200

Author: Steven Cernak

Recently, the Federal Trade Commission proposed a nearly complete ban on noncompete provisions in employment agreements. Because it faces the usual lengthy rulemaking process and several expected legal challenges, the proposed rule might not become effective for months, if ever. Through the proposal and attendant publicity, however, the FTC already has drastically changed how such provisions will be used.

Noncompete Basics and the Law Today

Noncompetes prevent workers from leaving an employer to work for other employers, typically competitors. The clauses usually are limited in time and geography. So, for example, a worker is prohibited from working for specific other employers — say, competitors — in a particular geographic area — say, Michigan — for a limited period of time — say, six months after leaving the first employer. Through these clauses, employers hope to better protect their secrets and avoid training a worker for a competitor. For example, a nondisclosure agreement might not adequately prevent use of the first employer’s competitive details that are embedded in the worker’s brain.

Today, such provisions are usually evaluated under state common or statutory law. A handful of states ban them. A few statutorily limit their use to high salary workers. Most try to balance the interests of the employer with those of the worker trying to earn a living in a chosen field. Such provisions are more likely to be upheld if the interests of the employer are legitimate and the restrictions on the worker’s mobility are limited.

FTC Proposed Rule

On January 5, 2023, the FTC proposed a rule that would upend that status quo developed over hundreds of years, declaring nearly all noncompetes as an “unfair method of competition” under the FTC Act, and outlawing nearly all of them. The proposal would allow some noncompetes in the sale of a business and sought comment on partially exempting noncompetes for high salary workers. The proposal would prohibit parties from entering new noncompete provisions and employers from enforcing existing ones. Also, all state laws that were not as restrictive would be pre-empted. The FTC is seeking comment on the proposal through March 10.

Reaction was quick. The proposal at regulations.gov generated thousands of official comments, mostly positive, in the first couple weeks. Negative commentary in the media took several angles. First, some renewed arguments that the FTC does not have the authority to issue rules under its “unfair methods of competition authority.” Others questioned whether the FTC has the authority under recent Supreme Court precedent to answer, without explicit Congressional direction, such a “major question” that has generated thousands of opinions and state laws over hundreds of years.

Finally, even granting that the FTC has the authority for such a rule, some argued that the FTC’s 200+ page notice did not adequately support the wisdom of departing from the typical case-by-case evaluation because other analyses found the overall effect of such noncompetes to be mixed. The FTC will need to consider all the official comments and decide if any tweaks to the proposed rule are appropriates. Unless the rule drastically changes, legal challenges seem certain. Therefore, a ban on nearly all noncompete provisions might not be effective for many months, if ever.

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Antitrust-Group-Boycott-300x200

Author: Jarod Bona

Do you feel paranoid? Maybe everyone really is conspiring against you? If they are competitors with each other—that is, if they have a horizontal relationship—they may even be committing a per se antitrust violation.

A group boycott occurs when two or more persons or entities conspire to restrict the ability of someone to compete. This is sometimes called a concerted refusal to deal, which unlike a standard refusal to deal requires, not surprisingly, two or more people or entities. This antitrust claim fits into Section 1 of the Sherman Act, which requires a meeting of the minds, i.e an agreement or conspiracy.

A group boycott can create per se antitrust liability. But the per se rule is applied to group boycotts like it is applied to tying claims, which means only sometimes. By contrast, horizontal price-fixing, market allocation, and bid-rigging claims are almost always per se antitrust violations.

We receive a lot of questions about potential group boycott actions. This is probably the most frustrating type of antitrust conduct to experience as a victim. Companies often feel blocked from competing in their market. They might be the victim of marketplace bullying.

You can also read our Bona Law article on five questions you should ask about possible group boycotts.

Many antitrust violations, like price-fixing, tend to hurt a lot of people a little bit. A price-fixing scheme may increase prices ten percent, for example. Price-fixing victims feel the pain, but it is diffused pain among many. Typically either the government antitrust authorities or plaintiff class-action attorneys have the biggest incentive to pursue these claims.

Perpetrators of group-boycott activity, by contrast, usually direct their action toward one or very few victims. The harm is not diffused; it is concentrated. And it is often against a competitor that is just trying to establish itself in the market. The victim is often a company that seeks to disrupt the market, creating a threat to the established players. This is common. Of course, excluding or limiting competitors from a market may also create diffused harm among customers or sellers for those excluded competitors.

The defendants may act like bullies to try to keep that upstart competitor from gaining traction in the market. Sometimes trade associations lead the anticompetitive charge.

Group boycott activity often occurs when someone new enters a market with a different or better idea or way of doing business. The current competitors—who like things just the way they are—band together to use their joint power to keep the enterprising competitor from succeeding, i.e. stealing their customers and market share.

Sometimes group-boycott claims are further complicated when the established competitors—the bullies—use their relationships with government power to further suppress competition. Indeed, sometimes the competitors actually exercise governmental power.

This is what occurred in the NC Dental v. FTC case (discussed here, and here; our amicus brief is here): A group of dentists on the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners engaged in joint conduct, using their government power, to thwart teeth-whitening competition from non-dentists.

This, in my opinion, is the most disgusting of antitrust violations: a group of bullies engaging government power to knock out innovation and competition. And we, at least in the past, have watched the Federal Trade Commission take a pro-active role against such anticompetitive thuggery.

Group Boycotts and ESG

An increasingly prominent example of a group boycott that you should watch for are companies that coordinate their ESG policies such that they exclude competitors that decline to accept these rigid restrictions. You can see how this could develop: A group of companies in an industry decide that they want to win some PR points by announcing ESG policies, but quickly realize that this decision increases their own costs such that they can’t offer products or services that are of competitive quality and price with those in their industry that focus on the consumer. So they coordinate together and try to stop suppliers from dealing with this consumer-friendly company, or engage in other collective tactics to exclude this lower-priced competition. There is a good chance that these actions create antitrust liability for the coordinating ESG companies. And as the FTC recently reiterated, ESG does not create antitrust immunity.

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Author: Jarod Bona

Sometimes parties will enter a contract whereby one agrees to buy (or supply) all of its needs (or product) to the other. For example, a supplier and retailer might agree that only the supplier’s product will be sold in the retailer’s stores. This usually isn’t free as the supplier will offer something—better services, better prices, etc.—to obtain the exclusivity.

If you compete with the party that receives the benefit of the exclusive deal, this sort of contract may aggravate you. After all, you have a great product, you offer a competitive price, and you know that your service is better. Then why is the retailer only buying from your competitor? Shouldn’t you deserve at least a chance? Isn’t that what the antitrust and competition laws are for?

Maybe. But most exclusive-dealing agreements are both pro-competitive and legal under the antitrust laws. That doesn’t mean that you can’t ever bring an antitrust action under exclusive dealing and it doesn’t mean you won’t win. But, percentage-wise, most exclusive-dealing arrangements don’t implicate the antitrust laws and are uncontroversial.

You can read our article about exclusive dealing at the Bona Law website here.

It is important that I deflate your expectations a little bit at the beginning like this because if you are on the outside looking in at an exclusive-dealing agreement, you are probably angry and you may feel helpless. From your perspective, it will certainly seem like an antitrust violation. And your gut feeling about certain conduct is a good first filter about whether you have an antitrust claim. What I am trying to tell you is that with regard to exclusive dealing, your gut may offer some false positives.

Of course, the market is full of exclusive or partial-exclusive dealing agreements and there are relatively few of these that turn into federal antitrust litigation. So if you see an exclusive-dealing claim in federal litigation, it may be one of the rare instances of an exclusive-dealing antitrust violation. Clients and prospective clients often contact Bona Law about exclusive-dealing agreements that are antitrust violations or close to antitrust violations. And we counsel clients on their own exclusive-dealing agreements. But people don’t call us for most varieties of exclusive dealing, which are perfectly legal under the antitrust laws.

So what is an exclusive dealing agreement?

An exclusive dealing agreement occurs when a seller agrees to sell all or most of its output of a product or service exclusively to a particular buyer. It can also happen in the reverse situation: when a buyer agrees to purchase all or most of its requirements from a particular seller. Importantly, although the term used in the doctrine is “exclusive” dealing, the agreement need not be literally exclusive. Courts will often apply exclusive dealing to partial or de facto exclusive dealing agreements, where the contract involves a substantial portion of the other party’s output or requirements. And if there are only two competitors in a market, for example, the exclusive-dealing agreement may take the form of the more powerful of the two competitors telling customers that if they want the powerful company’s products or services, they can’t also purchase from the other competitor.

You should also understand that loyalty-discount agreements and exclusive dealing agreements are, under the law, sometimes indistinguishable.

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bid-rigging-antitrust-300x200

Author: Jarod Bona

You can buy and sell products or services in many different ways in a particular market.

For example, if you want to purchase some whey protein powder, you can walk into a store, go to the protein or smoothie-ingredient section, examine the prices of the different brands, and if one of them is acceptable to you, carry that protein powder to the register and pay the listed price.

Similarly, if you want to purchase a drone from New Bee Drone, you find the manufacturer’s product in a store or online and pay the listed price. Oftentimes products like this, from a specific manufacturer, are the same price wherever you look because of resale price maintenance or a Colgate policy (to be clear, I am not aware of whether New Bee Drone has any such program or policy). But these vertical price arrangements are not the subject of this article.

Another approach—and the true subject of this article—is to accept bids to purchase a product or service. Governments often send out what are called Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to fulfill the joint goals of obtaining the best combination of price and service/product and to minimize favoritism (which doesn’t always work).

But private companies and individuals might also request bids through RFPs. Have you ever renovated your house and sought multiple bids from contractors? If so, that is what we are talking about.

What is Bid-Rigging?

Let’s say you are a bidder and you know that two other companies are also bidding to supply tablets and related services to a business that provides its employees with tablets. The bids are blind, which means you don’t know what the other companies will bid.

You will likely calculate your own costs, add some profit margin, try to guess what the other companies will bid, then bid the best combination of price, product, and services that you can so the buyer picks your company.

This approach puts the buyer in a good position because each of the bidders doesn’t know what the others will bid, so each potential seller is motivated to put together the best offer they can. The buyer can then pick which one it likes best.

But instead of bidding blind, what if you met ahead of time with the other two bidding companies and talked about what you were going to bid? You could, in fact, decide among the three of you which one of you will win this bid, agreeing to allow the others to win bids with other buying companies. In doing this, you will save both money and hassle.

The reason is that you don’t have to put forth your best offer—you just have to bid something that the buyer will take if it is the best of the three bids. You can arrange among the three bidders for the other two bidders to either not bid (which may arouse suspicion) or you could arrange for them to bid a much worse package, so your package looks the best. The three bidders can then rotate this arrangement for other requests for proposals. Or you offer each other subcontracts from the “winner.”

If you did this, you’d save a lot of money, in the short run.

Of course, in the medium and long run, you might learn more about criminal antitrust law and end up in jail. You could also find yourself on the wrong side of civil antitrust litigation.

This is what is called bid-rigging. It is one of the most severe antitrust violations—so much so that the courts have designated it a per se antitrust violation.

Bid rigging is also a criminal antitrust violation that can lead to jail time. And it often leads to civil antitrust litigation too. Many years ago, when I was still with DLA Piper, I spent a lot of time on a case that included bid-rigging allegations in the insurance and insurance brokerage industries called In re Insurance Brokerage Antitrust Litigation.

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Podcast-Logo-If-I-were-you-300x109

Author: Molly Donovan

A new episode of the “If I Were You” podcast is here! You can listen to it here. Featuring Bona Law partner Jon Cieslak.

This Episode Is About: Investigative Subpoenas

Why: In-house lawyers need to know what to do upon receiving an investigative subpoena in an antitrust or white-collar matter.

The Five Bullets: In-house lawyers, if I were you, I would know the following about subpoenas…

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Antitrust-for-Kids-300x143

Author:  Molly Donovan

Nathan is nine. His grandmother makes excellent meatballs using an age-old family recipe. Together, Nathan and grandma decide to can the meatballs and sell them to their neighbors on the north side of town—just in time for the holidays as a turkey side dish.

Things went great until Nathan’s friend from school, Nicole, also started selling meatballs with help from her grandma. What are the chances? Fortunately, Nicole targeted sales on her side of town (the south side), so that the two meatball-preneurs didn’t directly butt heads.

Wanting to keep things that way, Nathan asked Nicole to make the arrangement official by forming a “strategic partnership”—the gist of it being that Nicole keep her meatballs out of the north side and Nathan keep his out of the south. Nathan even offered to compensate Nicole for any lost business she suffered from the arrangement, and to keep up appearances, Nathan would arrange a few sham transactions to make it look as though each meatball maker had a few sales in the other’s territory.

The glitch, unforeseeable to Nathan, was that Nicole’s dad works for the DOJ’s Antitrust Division. Well versed on the Division’s leniency program since birth, Nicole naturally reported the conduct to the government promptly—before agreeing to Nathan’s proposed deal.

And that was all it took. Although there was no meeting of the minds, so that Nathan couldn’t get nabbed for a Sherman Act Section 1 violation (criminal conspiracy), he did get tagged for a Section 2 violation—attempted monopolization. Poor Nathan was the youngest defendant ever to plead guilty to an antitrust felony. His sentence remains pending.

Moral of the Story: This is based on a true story! Nathan Zito, president of a paving and asphalt business pled guilty in October to attempted monopolization of the highway crack-sealing services in Montana and Wyoming based on his proposal to a competitor that they allocate markets by geography. Although the competitor was already cooperating with the DOJ, precluding a prosecution for Section 1, Nathan did plead guilty to attempted monopolization and will be subject to fines and imprisonment at his sentencing in February.

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Author: Steven J. Cernak

The FTC’s challenge of Altria’s investment into its e-cigarette competitor JUUL Labs, Inc. (JLI) already raised interesting antitrust and administrative law issues: Did the parties’ discussions of FTC compliance during merger negotiations create an unreasonable agreement? Are the structure and procedures of the FTC constitutional?

Recently, the case took another unusual turn. In early November 2022 — after the Commission voted out the complaint; FTC Complaint Counsel tried the case; the in-house administrative law judge issued a decision favoring the parties; and the Commissioners heard oral argument on an appeal — the Commissioners sought additional briefing on the possibility of applying different theories that would make it easier for the FTC to win. The Commissioners’ request seems to be allowable under the FTC’s procedures but might not help it in responding to potential constitutional challenges to those procedures, whether in this case or another one before the Supreme Court.

Facts and Prior History

We covered the case’s facts and procedural history in detail for this Washington Legal Foundation Legal Backgrounder. Here is a short recap.

Altria was the largest and one of the oldest cigarette companies in the country but struggled mightily with e-cigarettes. JLI was a new, smaller company successfully focusing on e-cigarettes. In early 2018, the two parties began nearly year-long negotiations towards a large Altria investment in JLI. Throughout the rocky negotiations, the parties and their respective antitrust counsel discussed and exchanged documents about the likely need to take some action regarding Altria’s competitive e-cigarette assets during the expected FTC antitrust review.

After some FDA communications and during a break in the negotiations, Altria announced that it would pull some of its e-cigarette products. Negotiations resumed and shortly before reaching an agreement with JLI (which included a formal non-compete agreement), Altria announced that it would cease all e-cigarette sales.

The FTC investigated and the then-Commissioners, including current Commissioners Slaughter and Wilson, issued a complaint challenging the entire transaction. The complaint, inter alia, alleged an unreasonable agreement by which Altria agreed not to compete with JLI in the e-cigarette market “now or in the future” in exchange for an ownership interest in JLI. Specifically, that agreement took the form of the non-compete provisions of the written agreement as well as an implicit agreement to exit the market reached during negotiations as a “condition for any deal.”

Per the FTC’s procedures, the challenge was heard by the FTC’s internal administrative law judge. After extensive pre- and post-trial briefing, 20 witnesses, 2400 exhibits, and 13 days of hearing, in February 2022 the ALJ issued a 250-page opinion finding that the FTC’s Complaint Counsel did not prove that the parties reached an agreement for Altria to exit the e-cigarette market and that the non-compete provision of the investment agreement was not unreasonable. FTC Complaint Counsel immediately appealed to the Commissioners.

Throughout the challenge, the parties challenged the constitutionality of the FTC and its procedure on separation of powers and due process grounds. The parties’ briefing made much of the FTC’s enviable 25-year winning streak of the Commissioners never ruling against a challenge that they voted out. A different company whose actions are being challenged by the FTC, Axon Enterprise, recently argued to the Supreme Court that it should be allowed to raise similar constitutional issues before going through the same FTC’s procedures as Altria/JLI did.

Latest Request from Commissioners

In the WLF piece just before the oral arguments to the Commissioners, I suggested that the most interesting antitrust issue would be whether discussions among parties about actions they might take to address expected FTC antitrust concerns could ever add up to an agreement. I also wondered whether the Commissioners might, for the first time in 25 years, rule against a complaint they had issued to avoid any constitutional challenges in this case and, perhaps, to assist in any constitutional challenge in the Axon case.

I expected that by early November, the four remaining Commissioners would be well on their way to deciding the case and issuing an opinion; instead, on November 3, the Commissioners issued an Order requiring the parties and Complaint Counsel to brief two new issues. Specifically, assuming they overturn the ALJ’s opinion that the parties did not reach an unwritten agreement for Altria to exit the e-cigarette market, the Commissioners sought briefing on whether such an agreement should be analyzed as either per se illegal or inherently suspect. The Commissioners also ask if the history of this matter poses any impediments to considering these different standards and, if so, what steps would be necessary to overcome those impediments.

Applying the per se standard would make automatically illegal any such agreement that the Commissioners find the parties to have reached. Applying the inherently suspect standard would drastically lower the standard that the FTC must clear to find unreasonable any unwritten agreement reached by the parties. The inherently suspect standard, and an appellate court’s criticism of it the last time it was used in a high-profile case, are summarized in this recent post.

Conclusion

The briefing by the parties and Complaint Counsel will end just before Christmas. A ruling by the Commission would then be required by around the end of March, unless the Commission again further delays its responsibilities unilaterally. Here are three take-aways.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

Blockchain is an emerging technology that is already changing the way companies do business. But this doesn’t precludn companies using such nascent technology frot getting caught in the same old anticompetitive practices subject to the antitrust laws.

Before diving into the spectrum of anticompetitive behavior that companies using blockchain technology might get involved, let’s first explain below what distributed ledger technology (“DLT”) and blockchain mean, and what are––at least for now––the different types of blockchains.

In the last section of this article, we also analyze how antitrust group boycotts could apply in a blockchain-setting. And we provide two real life recent examples, the Bitmain case and the Ethereum Merge.

What Is Blockchain Technology?

A “blockchain” is a decentralized, electronic register in which transactions and interactions can be recorded and validated in a verifiable and permanent way. A peer-to-peer network where different users or “nodes” share and validate information in a database or network without the need of a centralized and trusted intermediary.

Records of transactions are stored along with other transactions into blocks of data that are linked to one another in a chain, creating a blockchain, which is a type of distributed ledger technology (“DLT”). Each ledger is tamper-proof and recorded using a consensus verification algorithm that encoded every prior block in the blockchain. Once a block is added to the chain, it is virtually impossible to modify. Any change would require modifying every subsequent block of data on the chain. And because each participant on the blockchain has a unique identification key, other users can instantly verify prior transactions involving that participant.

Bitcoin is the first and most prominent use of blockchain technology and has several features that distinguish it from other blockchains, including actual digital scarcity with a programmed limit of 21 million Bitcoin, forever.

With the help of Web3, blockchain technology has opened the door for companies across many industries––not just cryptocurrencies––to make more efficient, inexpensive, and secure business transactions without the need for a centralized authority. In other words, this a whole new ballgame.

Types of Blockchains: Permissionless v. Permissioned

There are two main types of blockchains.

Permissionless (public) blockchains are publicly available and fully decentralized DLTs, which means there is no central authority involved. They allow everyone to interact and participate in the validation process because they are based on open-source protocols, providing strong security. Validators must all vote to adopt the protocols and code that become the decision-making process of the blockchain. This makes it very difficult to change the behavior of the blockchain. Transactions are also fully transparent, and the nodes involved are almost always anonymous. They have, however, some technical restraints such as (i) less control over privacy (everyone has access to what is going on in the blockchain); and (ii) lower scalability and level of performance than permissioned blockchains––mainly due to the wide scope of their verification process and the amount of information they need to process.

Permissioned (private and consortium) blockchains are made by a smaller pool of validators who are partially decentralized DLTs. Only few known (as opposed to anonymous) and previously identified parties can access the ledger and participate in the validation process. Participants need permission to have a copy of the ledger. Thus, even though there is no central authority involved, a short group of participants validate and share the data relevant to transactions. This means less transparency and a higher risk of collusion and abuse of market power because only few nodes manage the transaction verification and consensus process. On the flip side, privacy is stronger, and they are more scalable and customizable.

This distinction is important to identify and analyze antitrust issues, depending on the type of blockchain involved. But the more the blockchain technology develops, the more those differences have become blurred. A combination of small permissioned blockchains with more open, wider, and decentralized ones (although sometimes still using encrypted transactions) had become a common trend. Interoperability between blockchains and existing network externalities are both expected to keep verification prices down while increasing security. In the end, the final configuration of a blockchain and its software code will depend on the strategy and business model selected, which is something that needs to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis, considering the industry and applications involved.

The same applies to the enforcement of antitrust laws to this new technology. That’s why it is essential that companies using blockchain technology have a clear antitrust compliance policy in place and train their key employees accordingly. This is particularly important for those involved with the business strategy of the company and the ones interacting on a regular basis with competitors.

Group Boycotts: The Bitmain case and the Ethereum “Merge”

Private blockchain participants may breach antitrust rules if they exclude competitors from the blockchain without a legitimate business justification. Those who control the blockchain may limit potential competitors access to the chain or may not allow them to conduct transactions therein. This is called a group boycott or a concerted refusal to deal—where multiple entities combine to exclude or otherwise inhibit another party. When that “concerted” boycott involves market power or horizontal control over an essential facility or resource, courts typically always analyze it under the “per se” rule.

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