Articles Posted in Antitrust News

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Author: Molly Donovan

Yesterday the DOJ’s Antitrust Division announced updates to its Leniency Policy and issued nearly 50 new FAQs, and related responses, regarding its leniency practices. One welcome development is that the new FAQs clarify some the DOJ’s positions concerning ACPERA—the statute designed to limit an amnesty company’s potential exposure in civil lawsuits. Previously, guidance on ACPERA was almost non-existent, yet seriously needed to curb the unreasonable demands that plaintiffs were placing on amnesty companies relative to their co-defendants, making ACPERA not particularly incentivizing, at least at times. Even worse, plaintiffs could continually threaten expensive litigation over the satisfaction of ACPERA, undermining its incentive powers even more. Now, the FAQs make the DOJ’s view clear that an applicant who chooses to pursue ACPERA benefits need not be at a plaintiff’s beck and call regardless of plaintiff’s reasonableness, or lack thereof.

While the changes on this front are helpful to potential applicants, the Division could have gone further and some uncertainties for companies contemplating a self-report to the DOJ will remain.

Here are some of the critical bullet points.

Prompt Self-Reporting. To qualify for leniency, a company is required to “promptly” self-report once the relevant conduct is discovered. While there’s no bright-line rule, “promptly” does not appear to mean that an inkling of wrongdoing must be followed immediately by a call to DOJ, as some may have previously thought. Rather, with the new FAQ guidance, the condition of “promptly” appears to be aimed at disqualifying companies whose lawyers or compliance officers investigate and confirm anticompetitive activity, yet purposefully choose not to self-report in hopes that the conduct remains otherwise unearthed.

On the other hand, the DOJ seems to recognize the fact that internal investigations conducted by counsel are typically a necessary step between some indication of wrongdoing and the seeking of a marker, and that cartel investigations in particular often span jurisdictions, and are otherwise complex and take time. This mindset and approach appear to be appropriate to the DOJ in terms of timing.

Relatedly, the FAQs say that an internal failure to appreciate that the activities at issue are illegal (or illegal in the United States) is not a defense to a failure to promptly self-report. Companies (and particularly non-U.S. companies) that are unsure how problematic a particular activity is are wise to seek U.S. counsel as early as practicable.

In any event, the DOJ’s FAQs say that if an organization is too late to obtain leniency, but nevertheless chooses to self-report and cooperate, it may earn credit applicable at sentencing.

Remediation and Compliance. To qualify for leniency, the corporate applicant must now “undertake remedial measures” and improve compliance to prevent recidivism. This requirement, as stated, is new in that “remediation” appears separate and apart from the condition that an applicant make best efforts to pay restitution. While “restitution” is focused on compensating victims, “remediation” appears to be focused mostly on internal efforts to “address the root causes” of the conduct by, for example, recognizing its seriousness, accepting responsibility, implementing measures to prevent similar conduct from reoccurring, and disciplining or firing “culpable, non-cooperating personnel.” What constitutes sufficient remediation will depend on the circumstances, according to the FAQs, but detailed guidance as to compliance can be found in the Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs in Criminal Antitrust Investigations Guidance (the DOJ’s guidelines regarding effective compliance programs).

What is unclear is what “recognizing seriousness” and “accepting responsibility” mean in this context. For leniency applicants who can admit to a criminal U.S. antitrust violation, but must litigate certain nuances elsewhere in the world, or in civil lawsuits in the U.S., as to the extent of harm, for example, there is a potential tension.

Restitution. The program has long required an applicant to make best efforts to pay restitution to victims where possible. Previously, “where possible” was unclear, and it’s now been clarified to mean that actual payments of restitution will be excused only in relatively narrow circumstances, e.g., “the applicant is in bankruptcy and prohibited by court order from making payments; where such payments would likely cause the applicant to cease operations or declare bankruptcy; or if the sole victim is defunct.”

Absent such circumstances, to receive a final leniency letter, “applicants must actually pay restitution.”  This obviously sounds like a higher burden than merely “making efforts” to pay restitution, and the questions remain who is a “victim,” how that will be decided, and whether 100% of all victims must be compensated before final leniency can be achieved. Assuming a final letter is desired for some practical reason, the situation could be a tough one for applicants who disagree that a particular claimant is an actual victim, or that a particular claimant is owed the full amounts it says it is. In such cases, litigation over these questions could take years, making the quest for a final leniency letter a very long and uncertain one.

The same goes for another new requirement that, to get even a conditional letter, an applicant must “present concrete, reasonably achievable plans about how they will make restitution.” It’s questionable how this would work in practice. At the outset of a cartel investigation, it’s unclear how many claimants will come forward, when they’ll come forward and how much they will claim they are owed. A generic “plan” may be one thing—a prediction about who the bona fide victims are and whether they will claim compensation and how and when they will be paid is another.

As with remediation, there is also tension here for an amnesty applicant that admits to conspiratorial agreements, but will litigate the nuances involved in the complex determination of whether an agreement had full or only partial success. Given all the economic facts, there may be nothing inconsistent with an admission of criminal guilt, on the one hand, and the position that a particular claimant did not suffer.  But determining who is a victim and who is not can be an intensive undertaking.  If the Division is going to require actual competition to all victims, it’s an inquiry they should be willing to look at closely for fairness, particularly where the civil plaintiffs are alleging a conspiracy much bigger in size and scope (and therefore, in damages) than the conspiracy admitted to for purposes of criminal guilt.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

Just weeks before our ABA antitrust panel on State Action Immunity takes place in Washington DC, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has allowed SmileDirectClub to proceed against the members of the California Dental Board for antitrust violations, rejecting the board’s immunity claim on active supervision grounds.

At Bona Law we are no stranger to enforcing the federal antitrust laws against anticompetitive conduct enabled by state and local governments. In fact, we filed an amicus curiae brief in the NC Dental case.

Background of the SmileDirectClub Antitrust Saga

This is part of the antitrust group of cases that SmileDirectClub has filed against dental boards in Alabama, Georgia and California.

Rather than teeth-whitening like in NC Dental, the product market in these three cases is teeth-alignment treatments. SmileDirectClub provides cost-effective orthodontic treatments through teledentistry. One of SmileDirectClub’s services is SmileShops. These are physical locations in several states at which they take rapid photographs of a consumer’s mouth. Customers may also use an at-home mouth impression kit, which means that an in-person dental examination is not necessary. Afterwards they send the photographs to the SmileDirectClub lab.

SmileDirectClub connects the customer with a dentist or orthodontist, who is licensed to practice locally but is located off-site (and may be even located out-of-state), who evaluates the model and photographs and creates a treatment plan. If the dentist feels that aligners are appropriate for the patient, she prescribes the aligners and sends them directly to the patient. The patient doesn’t need to visit a traditional dental office for teeth alignment treatment. This results in significant cost savings and greater customer convenience and access.

But the members of the boards of dental examiners in Georgia, Alabama and California have, according to plaintiffs, allegedly conspired to harass the SmileDirectClub parties with unfounded investigations and an intimidation campaign, with hopes of driving them out of the market, while using their government-created power in the marketplace to protect the economic interests of the traditional orthodontia market.

District courts in Alabama and Georgia have allowed all cases to proceed, after the 11th Circuit affirmed. The Alabama case settled in 2021, after that state’s dental board signed a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission.

The District Court case in California: Sulitzer v. Tippins, case No. 20-55735

In California, by statute, the dental board regulates the practice of dentistry. See Cal. Bus.&Prof. Code §§ 1600–1621. It enforces dental regulations, administers licensing exams, and issues dental licenses and permits. Id. § 1611. The Board is made up of fifteen members: “eight practicing dentists, one registered dental hygienist, one registered dental assistant, and five public members.” Id. § 1601.1(a). Since many of its members compete in the market for teeth-straightening services, they allegedly view SmileDirect as a “competitive threat.”

Plaintiffs alleged that certain members of the Board, motivated by their private desires to stifle competition, mounted an aggressive, anticompetitive campaign of harassment and intimidation designed to drive the SmileDirectClub out of the market. The Complaint contended that these actions violated the Sherman Antitrust Act; the Dormant Commerce Clause; the Equal Protection Clause; the Due Process Clause; and California’s Unfair Competition Law. The dental board defendants moved to dismiss SmileDirectClub’s claims for anticompetitive conduct based on a state-action immunity defense.

The district court rejected defendants’ argument that the state action doctrine applied because the defendants––members and employees of the Dental Board of California—largely made up of traditional dentists and orthodontists who have a financial motive to view the newcomers as competition—could not show that they were actively supervised. The court nevertheless held plaintiffs failed to state a Section 1 claim and ended up dismissing the complaint without prejudice.

SmileDirectClub amended the complaint once, but the district court dismissed again the federal claims and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claim. This time the court held that SmileDirectClub may have pled enough facts to show the existence of an agreement––by way of a theory of the board’s ratification of the investigation––but surprisingly concluded it was nevertheless insufficient to state a Section 1 claim because the agreement was consistent with its regulatory purpose to undertake their delegated authority as members of the board, and thus was not intended to restrict or restrain competition. Make sure you don’t forget this last sentence. The Ninth Circuit hammers this argument down now in its Opinion.

SmileDirectClub appealed the ruling before the Ninth Circuit

The Case on Appeal: SmileDirectClub and Jeffrey Sulitzer DMD v. Joseph Tippins et al., 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals No. 20-55735

I would strongly suggest you read this opinion. It is absolutely worth your time.

First, the Ninth Circuit concludes that plaintiffs sufficiently alleged anticompetitive concerted action to meet the pleading standards of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), although it makes no judgment on the merits of the claims and whether those claims will withstand scrutiny in the next phase of the litigation

It further explains that by requiring plaintiffs to plead facts inconsistent with the Board’s regulatory purpose, the district court applied a standard more appropriate at the summary judgment stage, where § 1 plaintiffs must offer “evidence that tends to exclude the possibility” of lawful independent conduct. This is something many district courts do across the country and which we have been writing about at Bona Law systematically.

Second, the court plainly rejects the broad proposition—offered up by the board members and the district court—that regulatory board members and employees cannot form an anticompetitive conspiracy when acting within their regulatory authority.

In its opinion, the court highlights how the Supreme Court has stressed, “[t]he similarities between agencies controlled by active market participants and private trade associations are not eliminated simply because the former are given a formal designation by the State, vested with a measure of government power, and required to follow some procedural rules.” N.C. State, 574 U.S. at 511.

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Author: Jarod Bona

The FTC filed an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook (now Meta Platforms Inc.). Judge James E. Boasberg dismissed it. The FTC then filed an amended complaint. And the same judge just denied Facebook’s motion to dismiss that complaint.

The FTC alleges that Facebook has a longstanding monopoly in the market for personal social networking (PSN) services and that it unlawfully maintained that monopoly through (1) acquiring competitors and potential competitors; and (2) preventing apps that Facebook viewed as potential competitive threats from working with Facebook’s platform.

The FTC’s first claim asserts that Facebook monopolized the market through (1), above—acquiring companies (especially Instagram and WhatsApp) instead of competing. The FTC’s second claim includes both (1) and (2), the interoperability allegations, and invokes Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, which allows the agency to seek an injunction against an entity that “is violating” or “is about to violate” the antitrust laws.

The Court permitted the FTC to go forward with both claims, but also concluded that the facts from the interoperability allegations happened too long ago to fit into Section 13(b)’s “is violating” or “is about to violate” temporal requirement.

You can read the play-by-play of the opinion elsewhere or, even better, read the actual decision. My purpose with this article is instead to offer some observations about the opinion and broader antitrust litigation issues.

Direct and Indirect Evidence of Monopoly Power

The FTC argues that it has alleged both indirect and direct evidence of Facebook’s monopoly power. But because the Court concluded that the FTC had adequately alleged indirect evidence of Facebook’s monopoly power, it didn’t need to analyze the direct evidence of monopoly power.

The only reason I am bringing this up is because most monopolization cases focus on indirect evidence of monopoly power—i.e. relevant market definitions, market share, barriers to entry, etc.— so many people don’t consider that a plaintiff can also satisfy this element through direct evidence of monopoly power. For example, if a plaintiff can prove that a defendant is engaged in supracompetitive pricing, it is showing direct evidence of monopoly power. And in an antitrust claim against a government entity, the plaintiff may be able to show directly that the public entity is a monopolist as a result of government coercion.

Notably, the Court dismissed the last FTC Complaint against Facebook for failure to allege monopoly power. Here, the Court concludes that “the Amended Complaint alleges far more detailed facts to support its claim that Facebook” has a dominant share of the relevant market for US personal social networking services.

In reaching this conclusion, the Court agreed with the FTC that Facebook’s dominance is durable because of entry barriers, particularly network effects and high switching costs.

Anticompetitive Conduct

The alleged anticompetitive conduct consists of a series of mergers and acquisitions. Within antitrust and competition law, you typically hear about antitrust M&A in the context of Hart-Scott-Rodino filings and direct merger challenges by the FTC or DOJ.

Courts will sometimes conclude that mergers and acquisitions are a means of exclusionary conduct by a monopolist. As in the present case, that can come up when a company that dominates a market confronts a potential competitor and must decide how to respond. Sometimes the monopolist will compete better—reduce prices, improve quality, etc. That’s the way competition works. But in other situations, the monopolist might solve its problem by dipping into its cash or stock and remove the threat to its monopoly profits by buying the nascent competitive threat.

You could also imagine a scenario in which a monopolist engages in exclusionary conduct by going vertical and purchasing either a supplier or customer in a context in which such doing so makes it difficult for the monopolist’s competitors to achieve economies of scale. This can be similar in effect to an exclusive-dealing arrangement.

Harm to Competition

The FTC, of course, must allege harm to competition. The standard harm to competition is an increase in prices or a decrease in quality—which are two sides of the same coin. But these aren’t the only harms to competition that a plaintiff can allege.

Here, of course, the FTC is asserting an antitrust claim centered on purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp, which were free before and after the acquisitions. And the Facebook social network site is, of course, also free.

But the Court concluded that the FTC did, in fact, allege harm to competition. The FTC alleged “a decrease in service quality, lack of innovation, decreased privacy and data protection, excessive advertisements and decreased choice and control with regard ads, and a general lack of consumer choice in the market for such services.” And the FTC emphasized the lower levels of service quality on privacy and data protection resulting from lack of meaningful competition.

The Court accepted these allegations as sufficient harm to competition: “In short, the FTC alleges that even though Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp did not lead to higher prices, they did lead to poorer services and less choice for consumers.”

The question of whether less choice is sufficient harm-to-competition to support an antitrust claim has been controversial over the years, but Courts are increasingly permitting it.

Previously Cleared Transactions

Facebook understandably grumbles that the FTC previously cleared through the HSR process the two transactions that it now complains about. But the Court rejects this argument because it says the “HSR Act does not require the FTC to reach a formal determination as to whether the acquisition under review violates the antitrust laws.” And, in fact, an HSR approval expressly reserves the antitrust enforcers the right to take further action. It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s the way it is.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

“The legislature hereby finds and declares that there is great concern for the growing accumulation of power in the hands of large corporations. While technological advances have improved society, these companies possess great and increasing power over all aspects of our lives. Over one hundred years ago, the state and federal governments identified these same problems as big businesses blossomed after decades of industrialization. Seeing those problems, the state and federal governments enacted transformative legislation to combat cartels, monopolies, and other anti-competitive business practices. It is time to update, expand and clarify our laws to ensure that these large corporations are subject to strict and appropriate oversight by the state.”  

Self-explanatory, isn’t it? This is just an extract from the draft Act. Indeed, while the antitrust world is watching the U.S. Senate due to the vast reforms going on, and the FTC continues to repeal unilaterally the Hart-Scott-Rodino (“HSR”) merger review process, something is also currently cooking in New York: The New York 21st Century Antitrust Act.

In June 2021 New York’s proposed 21st Century Antitrust Act (Senate Bill S933A) passed the State Senate. The remaining steps before that bill becomes law are passage by the Assembly and the signature of the Governor, both of which are expected at some point next year. When that happens, the proposed law will radically amend the long-standing Donnelly Antitrust Act. This is potentially a much bigger deal than it may seem. Not just for the state of New York, but also for the future of U.S. antitrust law more generally. Why? Basically, because if the Act becomes law, it will import the well-known and more far-reaching “abuse of dominance” standard from the European Union ––targeting companies with market shares as low as 30% in NY; and will establish––for the first time––a state premerger notification system in the U.S.

General Scope but with a Specific Focus on Big Tech and Importing the Abuse of Dominant Position Standard

The Donnelly Act applies to any conduct that restrains any business, trade or commerce or in the furnishing of any service in New York. N.Y. Gen. Bus. Law § 340. The New Antitrust Act has the same scope but introduces two important wrinkles.

First, even though it generally applies to all sectors and industries, it expressly addresses and calls out anticompetitive behavior in the Big Tech industry. This is clearly in line with all the recent proposed antitrust bills and monopolization cases at federal level.

Second, it also imports the well-known and more far- reaching “abuse of dominant position” standard from Article 102 the Treaty of Functioning of the European Union. Until now, under the current standards applied by courts under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, Big Tech has been able successfully to challenge or defeat many of the unilateral action complaints filed in federal court. The New Antitrust Act explicitly acknowledges this: “effective enforcement against unilateral anti-competitive conduct has been impeded by courts, for example, applying narrow definitions of monopolies and monopolization, limiting the scope of unilateral conduct covered by the federal anti-trust laws, and unreasonably heightening the legal standards that plaintiffs must over-come to establish violations of those laws.” A good example of such limitations are refusal to deal cases in the U.S. But, if passed, this is going to change next year. NY’s Attorney General is going to have not only the authority to enforce the New Antitrust Act, but also the powers to define what constitutes––under New York Antitrust law––an abuse of a dominant position. As a European antitrust attorney who currently practices antitrust law in the U.S., this is indeed very interesting news.

While NY’s Attorney General will need to provide further guidance, for now the New Antitrust Bill states that a dominant position may be established by direct or indirect evidence.

Direct evidence may include, for example, the unilateral power of a monopolist to set prices, terms, conditions, or standards; unilateral power to dictate non-price contractual terms without compensation; or other evidence that an entity is not constrained by meaningful competitive pressures, such as the ability to degrade quality without suffering reduction in profitability. Under the Act, if the direct evidence is sufficient to show a dominant position, conduct that abuses that dominant position is unlawful without regard to a defined relevant market (or the conduct’s effects in that market). This seems to be––for the first time–– in line with a “per se” analysis under Section 1 of the Sherman Act. How the NY Attorney General is going to determine the existence of a dominant position, without even first defining the relevant antitrust market(s) concerned, remains to be seen.

A dominant position may also be established by indirect evidence. For instance, the Act incudes a presumption of a dominant position when a seller enjoys a market share of 40% or greater and 30% or greater for a buyer. This is a significantly lower threshold than the one currently used in federal cases brought under the Sherman Act. But the determination of a dominant position requires a much more detailed analysis of barriers to entry, potential competition, and purchasing power downstream, among many others. That’s without even considering the special circumstances of all the digital and technological markets where Big Tech companies are present. Once again, we will have to wait until we see further guidance from NY’s Attorney General under the newly acquired rulemaking powers to flesh out the definition of dominant position.

As for the existence of an abuse, the Act enumerates a non-exhaustive list of anticompetitive behavior: conduct that tends to foreclose or limit the ability or incentive of actual or potential competitors to compete, such as leveraging a dominant position in one market to limit competition in a separate market, or refusing to deal with another person with the effect of unnecessarily excluding or handicapping actual or potential competitors. With the new abuse of dominance standard in play, it will be interesting to watch how these theories of harm develop in NY, and how much tension they create with existing federal antitrust case law.

The Act, in a very cryptic one-line paragraph, excludes any procompetitive effects as a defense to offset or cure competitive harm. This seems to create a “per se” liability to any abuse of a dominant position, which would be problematic both under U.S. federal law and EU Competition law.

Under EU Competition law, not every exclusionary effect is necessarily detrimental to competition. Competition on the merits may result in the elimination of less efficient competitors from the market. See for instance C-209/10 Post Danmark I, or C-413/14 Intel. Indeed, aside from very few “by nature” abuses which are considered presumptively unlawful (and even under these the European Commission must still carry out a competition analysis if the dominant firm provides evidence on the contrary), a full-blown effects analysis is always required. See T-201/04 Microsoft.

Not only that, even if a specific conduct is found to constitute an abuse of a dominant position and restricts competition, a person can always attempt to show that its conduct is objectively justified. This applies to any alleged abuse, including “by nature” abuses. More information on treatment of exclusionary conduct in the EU may be found in: Guidance on the Commission’s Enforcement Priorities in Applying Article 82 EC Treaty to Abusive Exclusionary Conduct by Dominant Undertakings.

First State Premerger Notification System in the U.S.

The new Act also will establish a separate premerger notification system in New York where buyers––regardless of where they are incorporated––will have to notify the NY Attorney General sixty days before the closing of any transaction where any of the parties involved exceed the applicable reporting thresholds, set at assets or annual net sales in New York exceeding $9.2 million, which is currently 2.5% of the current federal HSR threshold. The sixty-day notification is double the thirty-day period applicable under the HSR Act.

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Author:  Steven J. Cernak

Remember when UPS ran TV commercials, complete with jingles, trying to make logistics something that everyone cares about? No need now. Now, everyone knows how supply chain issues can affect toilet paper supplies, microchips for cars and, perhaps, even make Santa late with toys and decorations for Christmas.

With every supplier, distributor, retailer, and wholesaler scrambling to scrounge supplies and ship finished goods in some reasonably efficient and cost-effective manner, some harried supply chain executives might be tempted to take some bold and dangerous steps. Just as we have done a couple times during the pandemic, your friendly neighborhood antitrust lawyers are here to remind you of the old rules that still apply and speculate on how antitrust might affect these issues in the future.

Price Fixing and Price Gouging Rules Remain the Same

In a time of crisis, one tempting bold but possibly dangerous step for an executive to take is to directly contact or signal intentions to a competitor. For instance, a CEO might want assurance that any price increase to help recover increased transportation costs will be matched by the competitor. Depending on how the conversation goes, antitrust enforcers and courts could find a price fixing agreement — and, as the enforcers have made clear, price fixing is still per se illegal, even during a pandemic or other crisis. An agreement among competitors to boycott logistics providers raising their prices would meet a similar fate.

On the other hand, so-called price gouging does not violate the U.S. federal antitrust laws, as we explained here. So that CEO contemplating a price increase to cover increased transportation costs need not worry about federal antitrust issues; some states, however, do have non-antitrust laws that prohibit price gouging under certain circumstances.

Joint Ventures Might Help

Instead of jail time for price fixing, that phone call between competitor CEO’s could lead to joint efforts that could ease the business pain while staying on the right side of the antitrust laws.  As we explained here, the antitrust rules regarding joint ventures do not change in a crisis and some joint efforts among competitors, if implemented properly, do not violate the antitrust laws.  So if that CEO call will lead to joint research on new shipping methods; a new jointly-run warehouse; or lobbying the local legislature for regulatory relief, the antitrust laws likely will not stand in the way. Looks like some CEO’s are already thinking about joint ventures.

Bottlenecks Turn Out to be Monopolies?

While the antitrust laws have not changed, the changed economic conditions might lead to new outcomes. For instance, bottlenecks in the supply chain might start to look more like monopolies and so be subject to restrictions on monopolizing actions.

As we explained here, the first element in a monopolization claim under the U.S. antitrust laws is finding that the defendant is a “monopolist.” Usually, that process means defining a market and then seeing if the defendant has a high market share; however, the market share method is used more often only because the data are available to make the estimate. What a court really is trying to measure is the ability of the defendant to control its own price, that is, to price with little regard to how competitors might react. The supply chain crisis has uncovered several bottleneck companies that, at least in certain geographic areas, can name their price. As we described above, those high prices themselves would not violate the antitrust laws; however, any additional actions by that company to exclude new competition and maintain that pricing power could be a violation. Look for actions against such companies in the future.

More Merger Challenges Coming

As we have detailed here and here, the FTC is modifying their merger review processes and making it clear that they plan to challenge more mergers, irrespective of any supply chain issues.  And because the number of filings under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act is way up, the FTC and DOJ Antitrust Division will have that many more chances to challenge mergers. So expecting more merger challenges is an easy prediction.

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Authors: Steven Cernak and Luis Blanquez

FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan keeps up her frenetic crusade to change the practice of antitrust enforcement. The new––and surely not last––change: the vertical merger guidelines.

On Wednesday, September 15, 2021, the FTC held an open virtual meeting to discuss the following:

Here, we will only discuss the first two items. For more background on these and other recent changes at the FTC, see our previous articles:

The FTC Continues the HSR Antitrust Process’s “Death of a Thousand Cuts”

FTC Guts Major Benefit of Antitrust HSR Process for Merging Parties

FTC Withdraws Vertical Merger Guidelines and Commentary

As expected, the FTC on a 3-2 vote decided to withdraw its approval of the Vertical Merger Guidelines, issued jointly just last year with the Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ), and the FTC’s Vertical Merger Commentary.

According to the FTC’s press release, the guidance documents include unsound economic theories that are unsupported by the law or market realities. The FTC is withdrawing its approval to prevent industry or judicial reliance on this allegedly flawed approach. The FTC reaffirmed its commitment to working closely with the DOJ to review and update the agencies’ merger guidance.

The statements by the various Commissioners show the deep divisions within the FTC since Khan joined the Commission, not just about these Guidelines but more generally about how to enforce the antitrust laws and how to run the FTC.  The statement by the FTC majority asserts that the 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines had improperly contravened the Clayton Act’s language with its approach to efficiencies. The statement explains the majority’s concerns with the Guidelines’ treatment of the purported pro-competitive benefits of vertical mergers, especially its treatment of the elimination of double marginalization.

The dissenting Statement of Commissioners Phillips and Wilson starts with a bang: “Today the FTC leadership continues the disturbing trend of pulling the rug out under from honest businesses and the lawyers who advise them, with no explanation and no sound basis of which we are aware.” The statement goes on to not only lament the confusion the withdrawal will generate but contrast the process used when the Guidelines were issued — months of public input and debate — with the process used for their withdrawal — no public input and, seemingly, no discussion even at the FTC outside the offices of three Commissioners.

The FTC pledged to work with DOJ to update vertical merger guidance to better reflect how the agencies will review such transactions in the future. Just an hour later, DOJ issued a statement explaining that they are reviewing both the Horizontal Merger Guidelines and the Vertical Merger Guidelines and, as to the latter, have already identified several aspects of the guidelines, such as the treatment of and burdens for the elimination of double marginalization, that deserve close scrutiny.  (We raised those issues when the Guidelines went through public debate last year.)  DOJ expects to work closely with the FTC to update the Guidelines so, perhaps, we will have new Guidance at some point in the future.

FTC Staff Presents Report on Nearly a Decade of Unreported Acquisitions by the Biggest Technology Companies

During the same meeting, FTC presented findings from its inquiry into the hundreds of past acquisitions by the largest technology companies that did not require reporting to antitrust authorities at the FTC and DOJ, generally because they were below HSR thresholds. Launched in February 2020, the inquiry analyzed the terms, scope, structure, and purpose of these transactions by Alphabet Inc., Amazon.com, Inc., Apple Inc., Facebook, Inc., and Microsoft Corp. between Jan. 1, 2010 and Dec. 31, 2019.

“While the Commission’s enforcement actions have already focused on how digital platforms can buy their way out of competing, this study highlights the systemic nature of their acquisition strategies,” said Chair Khan. “It captures the extent to which these firms have devoted tremendous resources to acquiring start-ups, patent portfolios, and entire teams of technologists—and how they were able to do so largely outside of our purview.”

The Commission voted 5-0 to make the report public. Chair Khan and Commissioners Chopra and Slaughter each issued separate statements. While the report did not recommend any changes to the merger review process, we expect that the FTC may utilize the report’s findings to recommend changes in the HSR process.

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Authors:  Steven J. Cernak and Luis Blanquez

In late 2020, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the attorneys-general (AGs) from 48 states filed nearly identical antitrust lawsuits against Facebook for stifling competition by acquiring potential competitors, mainly Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014, and for enforcing policies that blocked rival apps from interconnecting their product with Facebook. The alleged effect of this conduct was to (i) blunt the growth of potential competitors that might have used that interoperability to attract new users, and (ii) deter other developers from building new apps or features or functionalities that might compete with Facebook.

This week, the judge hearing the cases agreed to dismiss the claims from the FTC––without prejudice––stating that the lawsuit failed to plead enough facts to plausibly establish that Facebook has monopoly power in the personal social networking services market. Likewise, the Court also dismissed ––with prejudice––a similar case pursued by a group of 48 states on the basis that any alleged violations took place too long ago.

While by no means the final decision on these matters, the motion to dismiss opinion will significantly narrow the FTC case for now. It also highlights some of the difficulties that enforcers will face using the current antitrust laws against Big Tech companies.

Online platforms have been––and continue to be––scrutinized by antitrust enforcers around the world. In the U.S. the Antitrust Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee issued last year its long-anticipated Majority Report of its Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets. The Report detailed its findings from its investigation of Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon along with recommendations for actions for Congress to consider regarding those firms. In addition, the Report included recommendations for some general legislative changes to the antitrust laws. Since then, online platforms have been involved in high-profile antitrust litigation in the U.S. So even though Facebook has won the first round of this litigation, the war is far from over.

Chinese Translation: Thank you to our friends at the Beijing Fairsky Law Firm for preparing a translation in Chinese of this article.

Update: Please see an important update about the FTC’s amended complaint at the end of the article.

The FTC and State AGs Parallel Antitrust Complaints against Facebook

Both suits focused on the same Facebook categories of conduct. First were the acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp, both of which occurred more than five years ago. These deals allegedly increased Facebook’s power over social media networks, facilitating data integration and its sharing among some of the largest social media platforms. Next was Facebook’s requirement that any applications connecting to Facebook may not compete with Facebook or promote any of Facebook’s competitors. The complaint alleged that Facebook enforced these policies by cutting off access to the Application Programming Interface (“API”), the software that allows applications to talk to one another to allow communication with rival personal social networking services, mobile messaging apps, and any other apps with social functionalities.

Both the FTC and AG suits claimed that Facebook’s actions amounted to illegal monopolization in violation of Sherman Act Section 2. The states’ suit also claimed that the two acquisitions violated Clayton Act Section 7, the statutory prohibition of anticompetitive mergers.

In March Facebook Fired Back in its Motion to Dismiss

In March 2021, Facebook moved to dismiss the suits on several grounds.

First, the company claimed that the complaints did not properly allege a relevant market or that Facebook had monopoly power in any market.

Second, Facebook asserted that the FTC could not claim that the two acquisitions were illegal monopolization because the agency had cleared both transactions earlier under the Hart-Scott-Rodino premerger notification system. Even if the agency could make such a claim, the company claimed that the FTC failed to properly allege that such acquisitions were anticompetitive.  (We discussed the concept of post-HSR review both prior to and immediately after the FTC complaint was filed.)

Finally, Facebook claimed that the complaint did not properly allege that the company’s decision not to deal with all potential app developers who were potential competitors was subject  to an exception to antitrust law’s usual rule that even monopolists can choose their own partners. Basically, under U.S. antitrust laws if you are a monopolist, you can still refuse to deal with your competitors, unless: (i) you have already been doing business with them, and (ii) by stopping you are giving up short-term profits for the long-term end of knocking them out of the market.

The District Court’s Opinions Dismissing Both Cases

The judge hearing both cases granted Facebook’s motions to dismiss. The Court dismissed the FTC complaint without prejudice. This means that the FTC is allowed to amend its complaint and refile the case, and now has 30 days to do so. The AGs were not that lucky, and the judge dismissed their complaint with prejudice. The Court applied the doctrine of laches to conclude that AGs waited too long to challenge Facebook’s purchases of Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014.

The Opinion against the FTC

In the decision re the FTC, the Court found that the complaint fails plausibly to allege how Facebook has a monopoly over personal social networking (“PSN”) services.

As with all monopolization plaintiffs, the FTC must plausibly allege that Facebook has monopoly power in some properly defined market. As do most plaintiffs, the FTC chose to allege this power indirectly by alleging that Facebook has a high share of the market, here for PSN services.  Despite some misgivings, the court found that the complaint’s allegations make out a plausible market for PSN services.

But that hardly ends the analysis. The FTC must also explain why Facebook enjoys a high share of that market and, therefore, monopoly power.  Here, the court found that the FTC’s allegations were inadequate for two reasons.

First because that “PSN services are free to use, and the exact metes and bounds of what even constitutes a PSN service — i.e., which features of a company’s mobile app or website are included in that definition and which are excluded — are hardly crystal clear.” In other words, the FTC must further explain whether and why other, non-PSN services available to the public either are or are not reasonably interchangeable substitutes with PSN services.

Second, even if the FTC better defines the market(s) of social networking, it must better explain how it developed the allegation that Facebook enjoys a market share of at least 60%: “[T]he FTC’s inability to offer any indication of the metric(s) or method(s) it used to calculate Facebook’s market share renders its vague ‘60%-plus’ assertion too speculative and conclusory to go forward.” Thus, the FTC has also fallen short to plausibly establish the existence of monopoly power by Facebook in the relevant market.

That finding alone was enough to support the court’s granting the motion to dismiss; however, it helpfully went on to discuss Facebook’s other grounds for dismissal.

The court explained that even if the FTC had sufficiently pleaded market power, its challenge to Facebook’s policy of refusing interoperability permissions with competing apps also failed to state a claim for injunctive relief. The Court held in both decisions that there is nothing unlawful about having such a policy in general. While implementation of such a policy can be illegal monopolization in certain limited circumstances, the FTC did not allege such facts.  Finally, all such denials of access occurred in 2013, seven years ago. Thus, the FTC lacks statutory authority to seek an injunction from a court for such past conduct.

On the other hand, the court did find that the FTC might be able to seek injunctive relief relating to Facebook’s past acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp. While those acquisitions took place years ago, the court found that Facebook’s continued ownership of the companies could be considered a continuing violation of Section 2. While the doctrine of laches does not apply to the US government, including the FTC, the court did note but did not decide several issues, including remedial ones, with such a long-delayed allegation.

The Opinion Against State Enforcers (AGs)

The judge also dismissed the parallel case brought by the AGs. The court explained that unlike the federal government, the states are bound by the doctrine of laches, in which those who “sleep on their rights” and wait too long to file a case cannot seek court relief. As a result, the allegations regarding the Instagram and WhatsApp acquisitions were insufficient to state a claim under either Sherman Act Section 2 or Clayton Act Section 7.

Using an analysis identical to the one used with the FTC complaint, the judge further rejected the AG’s claims that Facebook’s refusal to allow interoperability with competing apps constituted illegal monopolization. Because all of the claims of the AG’s were rejected in ways that cannot be rectified by the AG’s, the judge dismissed the complaint without any chance for the AG’s to modify the complaint and refile.

Final Remarks

At the time of this writing, the FTC is considering possible next steps. It could beef up its allegations regarding the market definition and Facebook’s share of that market and file an amended complaint regarding Facebook’s prior acquisitions. It could also appeal the dismissal of its current complaint.

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Author: Pat Pascarella

The press is awash in reports on proposed amendments to the antitrust laws and heightened, and in some instances targeted, enforcement agendas at the DOJ, FTC, and state AGs’ offices. While the specifics of each may be fascinating to antitrust attorneys and law professors, the sole question on most general counsels’ minds is whether there is “anything I need to do right now to better protect my client?”  The answer is an unequivocal “not really, but…”

To start, proposed legislation, presidential orders, and enforcement agency  guidelines and statements of interest are not the law. That does not mean however that one should entirely ignore this current antitrust craze. Plaintiff attorneys and certain government enforcers certainly won’t. And I expect an uptick in lawsuits and investigations based on, to be polite, creative interpretations of the antitrust laws.

What it does counsel is that, at present, the most important focus should be on ensuring that internal antitrust guidelines and procedures target not only actual violations, but also conduct that could create the appearance of a potential violation. Price increases, production slow-downs, announcements about future business plans, communications or information exchanges with competitors, and dealer or supplier terminations, are the usual suspects. But care should be taken in any instance in which an action or strategy might appear to be inconsistent with unilateral self-interested behavior in the absence of a conspiracy—or where it will have a significant impact on competitors, suppliers, or downstream market participants (a/k/a plaintiffs).

This of course is not to say that businesses should forego legal strategies or actions for fear of a frivolous antitrust investigation or complaint. But it does mean that in the case of certain activities, there likely will be steps that enable the company to avoid, or at least extract itself more quickly from, lawsuits and investigations based on overly aggressive interpretations of the antitrust laws. Sometimes the solution will be as simple as documenting the business rational for a particular activity, while at other times it could involve active and ongoing oversight by antitrust counsel.

That of course raises its own set of problems for in-house attorneys—i.e., convincing their clients to come to them before taking certain actions. Having been an in-house antitrust attorney myself for many years, I can offer a few suggestions. First, get loud and clear officer-level signoff on any new guidelines or procedures. While you may be the clients’ lawyer, those clients are far more inclined to pay attention to a directive from someone who controls their advancement and salary. Second, market yourselves. Communicate to your clients that you understand their needs both in terms of your substantive guidance as well as in the timing of that guidance.  Your clients have targets and goals they are trying to achieve. They need to believe that engaging with Legal will not delay the achievement of those goals and will only result in a “no go” opinion after every viable option has been exhausted.

Plus, as I often told my clients, some day you are going to be called up to the general counsel’s office and asked, “who approved this?” How the rest of your day goes will be significantly determined by whether your answer is “me” or “our antitrust counsel.”

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Author: Luis Blanquez

Following DOJ’s remarks on blockchain, it was only a matter of time until antitrust law and the unstoppable blockchain world would meet in court. And it finally happened some months ago in the complex Bitmain case.

In this case a cryptocurrency developer and mining company sued Bitcoin Cash miners, developers, and exchange operators for violating of Section 1 of the Sherman Act and Section 4 of the Clayton Act. It accused them of manipulating a network upgrade to take control of the Bitcoin Cash blockchain. The Court dismissed the Amended Complaint twice (the last one with prejudice), for failing to plausibly show a conspiracy to hijack the network and centralize the market, an unreasonable restriction of trade, and antitrust injury.

  1. Blockchain and cryptocurrencies

Blockchain is such a complicated technology that just the simple task of defining it would require a much longer article. But the Southern District Court of Florida did a great job explaining in very simple terms what these two concepts––blockchain and cryptocurrencies–– are:

Cryptocurrency is a form of digital currency that trades in currency markets. The Satoshi Nakamoto whitepaper, published in October 2008, launched the idea of this “peer-to-peer” version of electronic cash that allows online payments from one party to another, independent of any financial institution. The Whitepaper coined the term “Bitcoin”, and today Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash are different forms of cryptocurrency.

Cryptocurrencies are a “permissionless” system that rely on a network of decentralized encrypted public ledgers that document all digital transactions, known as a “blockchain”. The blockchain is a series of blocks, which are units of accounting that record new transactions in cryptocurrency. Confidence and trust in the accuracy of the transactions in the blockchain is possible because the decentralized ledgers are identical and continuously updated and compared.

The system has mechanisms that allow for consensus on the validity of the blockchain. One is “Proof-of-Work”, which is designed to eliminate the insertion of fraudulent transactions in the blockchain. Also, the “main chain” (normally, the longest chain) at any given time, is whichever valid chain of blocks has the most cumulative “Proofs-of-Work” associated with it. A consensus being reached on the longest blockchain is essential to the integrity of the network.

New cryptocurrency is created through a process called “mining”. Miners compete to “mine” virtual currencies by using computing power that solves complex math puzzles. The computer servers that first solve the puzzles are rewarded with new cryptocurrency, and the solutions to those puzzles are used to encrypt and secure the currency. The awarded currency is then stored in a digital wallet associated with the computing device that solved the puzzle.

  1. The Bitmain case

In a nutshell, this case is about how certain mining pools, protocol developers and crypto-exchange defendants allegedly colluded to manipulate a network upgrade by creating a new hard fork, taking control of the Bitcoin Cash cryptocurrency. In the end, however, the court concluded that the plaintiff ––a protocol developer of blockchain transactions and mining cryptocurrencies––, failed to (i) show a plausible conspiracy, (ii) define any relevant product market to prove an unreasonable restriction of trade, and (iii) show any antitrust injury.

The Parties

As Konstantinos Stylianou effectively explains in his article What can the first blockchain antitrust case teach us about the crypto economy?, in the cryptocurrency world it is important to understand what the different players are and how they are connected in the market: investors, mining pools (groups of miners that combine their mining resources), crypto-exchanges, and protocol developers. We highly recommend his article.

The plaintiff, United American Corporation (UAC), is a developer of technologies for both the execution of blockchain transactions and mining cryptocurrencies. One of them is called BlockNum, a distributed and decentralized ledger technology that allows the execution of blockchain transactions between any two telephone numbers regardless of their location, eliminating the need for cryptocurrency wallets. The other one is called BlockchainDome, which provides a low-cost energy-efficient solution for mining cryptocurrency. UAC built four domes in total that operate over 5,000 Bitcoin Cash-based miners, investing more than $4 million in technology.

On the flip side, there are three different categories of defendants:

  • The mining pools: (i) Bitmain Technologies operate two of the largest Bitcoin Core and Bitcoin Cash mining pools in the world: Antpool and BTC.com. It is also the largest designer of Application Specific Integrated Circuits (“ASIC”), which are chips that power the Antminer series of mining servers––the dominant servers mining on a number of cryptocurrency networks, including Bitcoin and Bitcoin derivatives; (ii) Wu, CEO of Bitmain Technologies and one of its founders; and (iii) Ver, founder of Bitcoin.com, which provides Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash services.
  • The crypto exchanges––Kraken and its CEO Jesse Powell––which operate exchanges on which Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash and other cryptocurrencies are traded.
  • The protocol developers Shammah Chancellor, Amaury Sechet and Jason Cox who––similarly to UAC––, work on the development of the software to execute blockchain transactions and mining of cryptocurrencies.

The Alleged Antitrust Conspiracy

Summarized from the briefing:

Bitcoin Cash (or “BCH”) emerged as a cryptocurrency from the original Bitcoin Core (or “BTC”) on August 1, 2017, as a result of a “hard fork”. A hard fork is a change to the protocol of a blockchain network whereby nodes that mine the newest version of the blockchain follow a new set of rules, while nodes that mine the older version continue to follow the previous rules. Because the two rule-sets are incompatible, two different blockchains are formed, with the new version branching off.

The 2017 hard fork resulted from a dispute over Bitcoin’s utility: whether it should primarily be used to store value or conduct transactions.

(Note: BTC’s resistance to this significant attempt to fork it further strengthened it by demonstrating that it can overcome an attack of this type. If BTC were subject to significant forks that change its nature, it would not have the trust it has now as a store of value. This and other attacks on BTC actually strengthen it—Bitcoin is Antifragile in this way).

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Authors:  Steven J. Cernak and Luis Blanquez

On August 3, 2021, the Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Competition announced what might seem like a small technical change to the Hart-Scott-Rodino merger review process: Some proposed mergers would receive form letters at the end of the 30-day initial review period saying that an antitrust investigation remains open and that the FTC might challenge the transaction if the parties close it. The FTC blamed the recent surge in HSR filings for the change. While seemingly small, the new process is another step by the FTC that reduces a major benefit of the HSR process—likely closure.

As this website has discussed frequently, the US was the pioneer among global competition law regimes in requiring parties to most large mergers and similar transactions to obtain approval from the jurisdiction’s enforcer before closing. Under HSR’s latest thresholds, both the buyer and seller for most transactions with values exceeding $92M must submit a form and certain documents and then wait for 30 days before closing the transaction.

Until recently, the reviewing agency, either the FTC or DOJ, would use that time to take one of three steps. If the agencies saw no competitive issues with the transaction and the parties requested it, the agencies would issue an “early termination” of the 30-day waiting period, post that information on the FTC website, and allow the parties to close the transaction. Second, the agencies could forego all communication with the parties and simply allow the 30-day period to expire. This “no news is good news” result also allowed the parties to close the transaction.

Third, the reviewing agency could determine that the transaction might be anti-competitive and so issue a “second request” for information to make a better determination. The prohibition on closing would continue until the parties submitted the requested information, usually months later, and waited again. (The agency usually would have expressed some interest in the transaction before issuing a second request, giving the parties one final shot at heading off the burdensome second request, as we discussed here.)

While the agencies saw the number of HSR filings significantly decline at the beginning of the pandemic, the number has been up sharply the last twelve months, often a multiple of year ago levels. To smooth the process and accommodate staffs working from home, the agencies moved to electronic submissions. Once the kinks were worked out of the system, filing parties also benefited from the streamlined process. Other actions the FTC has taken since the pandemic’s onset, however, have slowed the process and reduced the benefits parties receive from HSR.

First, the agencies suspended the early termination program early in 2021 to conserve resources.  That temporary suspension continues with no end in sight. Unfortunately, because most parties request early termination and receive it, the change in policy means that hundreds of transactions that posed no competitive issues have been delayed ten days or more for an unclear benefit from a shift in agency resources.

Second, in late 2020, the FTC sued Facebook for illegal monopolization through, among other actions, its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp years earlier. Those two transactions had gone through the HSR process and the FTC did not try to block them.  As we have discussed and as the FTC has explicitly stated in its HSR guidance, successfully navigating the HSR process does not preclude either agency from later challenging the transaction.  But in that same Introductory Guide, the FTC also recognized that “the fact that [the agencies rarely challenge reviewed mergers post-consummation] has led many members of the private bar to view [HSR] as a helpful tool in advising their clients.”  HSR will be much less “helpful” if post-HSR challenges become more common and legal uncertainty increases.

That uncertainty will increase further with the August 2021 announcement from the FTC. In a new blog post, FTC Bureau of Competition Director Holly Vedova notes, “for deals that we cannot fully investigate within the requisite timelines [under the Hart Scott Rodino Act], we have begun to send standard form letters alerting companies that the FTC’s investigation remains open and reminding companies that the agency may subsequently determine that the deal was unlawful. Companies that choose to proceed with transactions that have not been fully investigated are doing so at their own risk.”

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