Articles Posted in FTC

FTC-Antitrust-Challenge-300x225

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.

Continue reading →

FTC-DOJ-Antitrust-Merger-Loses-206x300

Authors: Steven Cernak and Luis Blanquez

Hard times for the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and Department of Justice (“DOJ”). In the last few weeks, the Biden Administration has suffered three significant antitrust loses. This is the result of the Government’s determination to try to block mergers that, despite their size, were found by courts to not hinder competition.

Below is a short summary of the three merger cases with some final remarks on what to expect from the Government moving forward.

Illumina/Grail

In March 2021 the FTC filed an administrative complaint to block Illumina’s $7.1 billion proposed acquisition of Grail. Grail is a maker of a non-invasive early detection (MCED) test to screen multiple types of cancer using DNA sequencing, known as next generation sequencing or NGS.

In its complaint, the FTC alleged that the proposed transaction would substantially lessen competition in the U.S. MCED test market by reducing innovation and potentially increasing prices and diminishing the choice and quality of MCED tests. According to the FTC, Illumina, as the dominant provider of NGS––an essential input for the development and commercialization of MCED tests in the United States––would have the ability to foreclose or disadvantage Grail’s rivals while having at the same time the incentive to also disadvantage or foreclose firms that pose a significant competitive threat.

In September 2022, Chief Administrative Law Judge D. Michael Chappell dismissed the complaint in an unexpected decision ruling for the first time against the FTC in a merger case. In a nutshell, Judge Chappell concluded that the FTC failed to prove that Illumina’s post-acquisition ability and incentive to advantage Grail to the disadvantage of Grail’s alleged rivals would likely result in a substantial lessening of competition in the relevant market for the research, development, and commercialization of MCED tests.” On September 2, the FTC Complaint Counsel filed a Notice of Appeal.

Of interest is the fact that shortly after Judge’s Chappell ruling, in parallel the European Commission decided to block the acquisition under the EU Merger Regulation using similar antitrust arguments as the FTC. And that was despite the fact that the transaction did not initially trigger EU merger control thresholds and that the parties closed the acquisition during the investigation. The stakes are also high on that side of the Atlantic.

UnitedHealth/Change Highlights

In February 2022, the DOJ, together with Attorneys General in Minnesota and New York, filed a complaint to stop UnitedHealth Group Incorporated (UHG) from acquiring Change Healthcare Inc. According to the complaint the proposed $13 billion transaction would harm competition in commercial health insurance markets, as well as in the market for a vital technology used by health insurers to process health insurance claims and reduce health care costs.

In the complaint the Government argued that the proposed acquisition was (i) an illegal horizontal merger because it would create a monopoly in the sale of first-pass claims editing solutions in the U.S., (ii) an illegal vertical merger because UHG’s control over a key input—Change’s EDI clearinghouse—would give it the ability and incentive to use rivals’ CSI for its own benefit, which in turn would lessen competition in the markets for national accounts and large group commercial health insurance; and (iii) an illegal vertical merger because United’s control over Change’s EDI clearinghouse would give it the ability and incentive to withhold innovations and raise rivals’ costs to compete in those same markets for national accounts and large group plans.

In its press release, the DOJ also stated that the proposed transaction would give United access to a vast amount of its rival health insurers’ competitively sensitive information. Post-acquisition, United would be able to use its rivals’ information to gain an unfair advantage and harm competition in health insurance markets. The proposed transaction also would eliminate United’s only major rival for first-pass claims editing technology — a critical product used to efficiently process health insurance claims and save health insurers billions of dollars each year — and give United a monopoly share in the market. It further claimed that the proposed acquisition would eliminate an independent and innovative firm, Change, that today supports a variety of participants in the health care ecosystem, including United’s major health insurance competitors, with vital software and services.

To tackle DOJ’s three theories of harm, UHG agreed to divest Change’s claims editing business, ClaimsXten, to TPG upon consummation of the proposed acquisition. The divestiture package included all four of Change’s current claims-editing products. In May 2022, UHG also issued its “UnitedHealth Group Firewall Policy for Optum Insight and Change Healthcare,” addressing the sharing of customers’ competitively sensitive information (CSI) following the transaction.

In September 2022, U.S. District Judge Carl J. Nichols, after a two-week trial concluded that the Government was not able to meet its burden of proving that the transaction would substantially lessen competition in the relevant markets, which allowed the deal to move forward.

First, on the horizontal theory of harm, Judge Nichols determined that UnitedHealth’s proposal to divest ClaimsXten to TPG, allowed TPG to adequately preserve the level of competition that existed previously in the market for claims-editing software. In other words, the DOJ failed to show that the proposed merger was likely to substantially lessen competition in the market for first-pass claims-editing solutions in the U.S. Thus, the Court required UHG to divest ClaimsXten to TPG as proposed.

Continue reading →

Robinson-Patman-FTC-300x203

Author: Steven Cernak

Recently, FTC Commissioner Bedoya made one of his first speeches and called for a “return to fairness” when enforcing the antitrust laws. In particular, he called for renewed enforcement of the Robinson-Patman Act. This speech is just the latest reason why businesses need to prepare for a new antitrust landscape. But Commissioner Bedoya and anyone else calling for drastic basic changes in antitrust enforcement need to be prepared to patiently work for such change with a skeptical judiciary.

In the speech, Bedoya argued that all the antitrust statutes were passed with the intention of improving the “fairness” of markets, not necessarily their “efficiency,” as the laws have come to be interpreted. Therefore, he wants the FTC to focus the interpretation of all the antitrust statutes on fairness, not efficiency, which he claims to be unambiguous: “People may not know what is efficient — but they know what’s fair.” Specifically, Bedoya called for a rejuvenated enforcement of the Robinson-Patman Act and its prohibitions on various types of discriminations, usually against smaller competitors.

On Bedoya’s Robinson-Patman point in particular, please allow me a short “I told you so.” In a prior post, I explained that Robinson-Patman was forgotten but not gone, still affecting negotiations and leading to a few private suits each year. I have insisted on teaching my Antitrust students about the basics of the law, warning them that it is still alive and was unlikely to ever be repealed. If the FTC were to begin actively enforcing the statute after a couple decades, all that knowledge will come in handy once again for many more lawyers.

More generally, it is not clear that interpretation of antitrust law would need to jettison “efficiency” or consumer welfare and move to “fairness” to reach a different result in some of the anecdotes covered in Bedoya’s speech. At least some of the matters might have come out differently with a longer-term view of competition and consumer welfare. In my view — a view that I know Comm. Bedoya does not share — such a standard would be less ambiguous than trying to figure out what “fairness” requires in any situation.

Continue reading →

Altria-Antitrust-Merger-FTC-300x200

Authors: Steven Cernak and Luis Blanquez

The FTC’s challenge of Altria Group’s proposed minority investment in JUUL Labs, Inc. (JLI) in April 2020 generated attention in both the mainstream media and the competition law press. Press coverage since that time has hit the latest developments but often missed the important issues this challenge raises: When can parties reach an anticompetitive agreement before they sign their official merger documents? Non-compete agreements have been pilloried lately, but are they anticompetitive even in a partial merger situation like this one?

This summary should help you prepare for the September 12 oral arguments in front of the Commissioners. You can read Steve Cernak’s more detailed article on these issues for the Washington Legal Foundation here.

The Parties and the Transaction

Altria, together with its subsidiaries, is the largest and one of the oldest cigarette companies in the U.S. In addition to its other products, it also sold e-cigarettes during the relevant period. JLI, is a smaller, newer company focused only on e-cigarettes.

As with most antitrust matters, especially merger investigations, market definition was contentious. Generally, e-cigarettes are electronic devices that aerosolize nicotine-containing liquid using heat generated by a battery as the user puffs. Open system e-cigarettes contain a reservoir that a consumer can refill with their choice of a nicotine-containing liquid. Closed system e-cigarettes have a container that already contains that liquid. Closed systems include cig-a-likes, which mimic the shape and look of a traditional cigarette, as well as pod products that have various shapes, including a shape like a USB thumb drive.

The e-cigarette category began growing rapidly about ten years ago. A few companies offered different options. Altria offered cig-a-like products and then pod products, but JLI offered only pod products. At the time of the challenged transaction, pods were the dominant choice of consumers, with JLI’s product the market leader.

While sales of pods, especially JLI’s pods, grew strongly at the end of 2017, Altria was only selling cig-a-likes and their sales fell. For regulatory reasons, Altria sought to purchase an existing pod product because it couldn’t develop its own product in a reasonable timeframe. In late 2017, it licensed the rights to a Chinese pod product and rushed it to market in early 2018.

Altria then approached JLI in early 2018 about an acquisition. By the end of July, the up-and-down negotiations centered around a multi-billion-dollar investment by Altria in exchange for a minority interest in JLI, possibly a non-voting interest convertible to voting after antitrust clearance. (An acquisition of non-voting securities does not require Hart-Scott-Rodino approval; conversion of such securities does.) At this point, the parties were far from reaching a deal, but began to discuss two other items that would lead to the FTC’s challenge of the eventual transaction.

The ironic first issue was how the parties could obtain antitrust clearance for the entire transaction. The parties’ term sheet described cooperation with the FTC and agreement to any “concessionary requirements of the FTC” related to Altria’s e-cigarette business. That is, the parties agreed that Altria would “divest (or if divestiture is not reasonably practicable, contribute at no cost to [JLI] and if such contribution is not reasonably practicable, then cease to operate” Altria’s e-cigarette business. JLI did not want to compete with Altria because Altria, as a major JLI shareholder, would have access to important JLI information. JLI’s executives later testified that they expected the FTC to oversee this process.

Second, in exchange for regulatory aid, Altria would agree to not compete with JLI’s e-cigarette products. Again, JLI didn’t want Altria’s to access sensitive JLI information when performing these services would allow Altria to improve its current e-cigarette products (before divestiture) or develop better new ones.

While negotiating over financial considerations and Altria’s voting rights, the parties continued to refine these two items. In later term sheets, the requirement that Altria “cease to operate” its e-cigarette assets disappeared while the requirement that Altria either contribute those assets to JLI or divest them remained.

Negotiations broke down in early September, but improved in October as Altria came around to terms much closer to JLI’s proposals. In early December, Altria announced that it was pulling its remaining e-cigarette products from the market, allegedly to conserve costs for product development or to invest in JLI. The parties finally reached an agreement later in December.  Altria then ceased its other e-cigarette development efforts.

The Challenge and Initial Decision

On April 20, 2020, the FTC issued a two-count administrative complaint against the parties. Count I 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 the ownership interest in JLI. Specifically, that agreement took the form of the non-compete provisions of the written agreement as well as an agreement to exit the market reached during negotiations as a “condition for any deal.” Count II alleged that the transaction, including the agreed upon market exit by Altria and the written non-compete provisions, violated Clayton Act Section 7’s prohibition of mergers that “substantially lessen competition” in the relevant market.

Continue reading →

FTC-and-HSR-Thresholds-Increase-300x219

Authors: Steven J. Cernak and Luis Blanquez  

As we have discussed in several recent posts, the FTC has made several changes to the merger antitrust review process. This month, the FTC made two more changes, one completely expected and one hinted at in other recent announcements.

HSR Thresholds Updated

As expected — in fact, required by statute — the FTC announced the annual update to various HSR thresholds based on growth in the economy in the last year. The minimum threshold for filings was increased to $101M. Any transactions properly valued at that level or less do NOT trigger any HSR filing requirement. The upper threshold was also increased, this time to $403.9M. Any transaction valued in excess of that level will trigger a filing requirement unless one of several exemptions apply. Transactions valued in between those two amounts will trigger a filing requirement only if the size of the person thresholds are crossed. In short, those thresholds require one of the parties to have annual net sales or total assets exceeding $202M while the other party’s figures exceed $20.2M.

While the FTC announced these new threshold levels this month, they will only become effective thirty days after the official announcement is published in the Federal Register — so, late in February. The FTC has said that it is exploring other, more substantive, changes to the HSR process but none have been announced. As we have discussed previously, HSR’s valuation and exemption rules can be complicated so be sure to reach out to your Bona Law contact for further advice on HSR filing requirements and strategy.

Merger Guidelines to Change?

Earlier in the month, the FTC also announced that it was joining with the DOJ Antitrust Division to consider a complete rewrite of both the Horizontal and Vertical Merger Guidelines. In a virtual conference and a long statement, the agencies announced both the dozens of questions they hope to consider in the coming months and the process for the exercise. Comments and suggestions from the public are welcome until the end of March. The agencies expect to have a draft of new Guidelines shortly thereafter before opening another comment period. They hope to complete the process by the end of 2022.

The Guidelines have been issued by the agencies for decades. They are meant to describe the analysis that the agencies use to evaluate whether any merger or similar transaction violates the antitrust laws. Making the Guidelines public helps merging parties have some idea if their transaction will be challenged by the agencies. While not officially law, they have proven to be highly influential with courts considering such challenges.

The exact changes the agencies will propose are not yet known; however, based on their statements during the announcement and the questions posed to the public for comment, here are some key questions that the agencies will consider and that could lead to drastic changes in merger review:

  • Should new Guidelines further de-emphasize market definition in favor of an approach that tries to directly predict competitive effects?
  • Should presumptions based on market shares or similar measures be strengthened?
  • Should effects on parties other than consumers, like labor and local communities, receive greater emphasis?
  • Should effects on elements other than price, such as product quality and wages, receive greater emphasis?
  • Should some efficiencies, such as lower input prices from suppliers, be seen as reasons to challenge the merger?
  • Should distinctions between horizontal and vertical transactions reflected in the guidelines should be revisited considering trends in the modern economy?

The agencies also seek input on potential updates to the guidelines’ discussion of potential and nascent competitors, which may be key sources of innovation and competition, as well as how to account for key areas of the modern economy like digital markets in the guidelines, which often have characteristics like zero-price products, multi-sided markets, and data aggregation that the current guidelines do not address in detail.

Continue reading →

Court-rejects-Facebook-Motion-to-Dismiss-Antitrust-Amended-Complaint-300x169

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.

Continue reading →

FTC-Merger-Review-Process-Destruction-300x200

Author:  Steven J. Cernak

The Federal Trade Commission continues to take subtle steps that, in total, will end up significantly changing the merger review process under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act. We have already covered some of the earlier actions:  withdrawal of the 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines, withdrawal of one long-standing HSR rule interpretation and threats to the rest, and the routine issuance of threatening letters to parties closing after the end of HSR’s waiting period. This week, the FTC took another such step when it announced that it would now “routinely” require many parties involved in mergers to obtain prior approval from the FTC for many future transactions.

Before 1995, the FTC had often included a “prior approval” provision in any order settling its review of a merger that it had found to be anticompetitive. That provision required the parties to seek FTC approval for any future merger, usually for the next ten years though usually limited to the markets involved in the original merger. In 1995, the FTC issued a Policy Statement explaining that it would no longer routinely require such prior approval provisions and, instead, would simply rely on HSR’s requirement for most large mergers to be reported to the antitrust agencies prior to consummation.  Earlier this year, the FTC rescinded that 1995 Policy Statement. This week, the FTC announced its replacement.

To understand the import of the new policy, you must understand how the HSR merger review process has worked in practice. The parties to most mergers and similar transactions above the threshold set by Congress (and automatically updated each year) must file certain forms and documents with both the FTC and the Department of Justice Antitrust Division before closing.  The reviewing agency, say, the FTC, then has thirty days to investigate and determine if it will allow the transaction to proceed or seek more information through a “second request.”

If the FTC goes the latter route, the parties then spend months providing the additional documents and information. After the parties certify full compliance with the second request, the FTC must choose to allow the transaction to proceed or sue to enjoin it. By that point months into the investigation, the parties and the FTC often agree to modifications to the transaction — typically, divestiture of certain assets to a buyer — that the FTC thinks will solve any competition concerns.

The details of that agreement are then memorialized. After this week’s statement, that document now will routinely provide that the parties, for future transactions, must seek prior approval from the FTC under terms and timelines set by the FTC, not HSR. Such prior approval requirements certainly will cover future transactions in the markets affected by the original transaction; however, the FTC might also seek broader prior approval provisions in certain cases. Also, the FTC might seek such prior approval requirements even if the parties choose to abandon the proposed transaction, whether prior to or after the FTC sues to enjoin it. Finally, the FTC likely will insist on prior approval before any buyer of divested assets can resell them.

Benefits Expected by the FTC

The FTC sees three main benefits from this new policy. First, it thinks that parties to “facially anticompetitive” transactions will not pursue them in the first place because of fear of imposition of these prior approval requirements for all future transactions. Second, the FTC will be able to preserve its resources by having fewer mergers to review and challenge and, for those subject to prior approval provisions, reviewing them under timelines and rules more FTC-friendly than HSR. Finally, the FTC will be able to review before consummation any deals that would be too small to trigger HSR filing requirements.

Other Likely Effects

The FTC’s assessment of potential effects seems both one-sided and simplistic. Certainly, the new policy will raise the costs to the parties of making HSR submissions on “facially anticompetitive” mergers and so should reduce their number; however, the costs of the risk of prior approval provisions also will fall on other mergers challenged by the FTC, at least some of which reasonable antitrust minds might have found to be not “facially anticompetitive.” Because parties will not be sure that their “good” merger will be mistakenly challenged as a “bad” one, they might hesitate to pursue mergers beneficial to consumers. So, the new policy could reduce both “bad” and “good” mergers.  The FTC’s new policy implicitly assumes that the benefit to the FTC from not needing to challenge the bad ones outweighs the costs to consumers from losing the benefits of the good ones never pursued.

Continue reading →

Sculpture Man Controlling Trade

Author: Steven J. Cernak

How do you tie together evolution, the wave, and market prices?  As Neil Chilson explains in his brilliant little book, Getting Out of Control, all are examples of emergent order.  While Chilson is a former FTC leader, this book is not just for antitrust and consumer protection lawyers and economists but for anyone trying to understand what they can, and cannot and should not, control.

The book is about more than policy and certainly more than antitrust policy.  It explores many ways in which emergent order can play a role in your life, both personal and professional.  After all, the subtitle is “Emergent Leadership in a Complex World.” So parts of the book read like a self-help or leadership book.

Those parts might be the least interesting, at least to many of us.  There is nothing objectionable in those sections but there also did not seem to be many new insights from viewing familiar issues through an emergent-order lens.  For example, Chilson describes how changing your habits can change you and your actions and how changing your environment can help change your habits: “If you want to stop eating sugar, don’t visit candy stores.”

But that advice does not seem much different than the directions that many of us have received in various six sigma or other corporate efficiency seminars. Many of mine while at General Motors were based on lessons learned from the Toyota Production System applied to the white-collar office.  There, changing the environment might mean putting yellow taping around the stapler on the table next to the copier to develop the habit of returning it to the same place every time. Good advice that all of us, whether in the workplace a few weeks or decades, need to hear periodically, but not particularly new.

Chilson’s policy discussions, however, do offer fresh and necessary takes on policy issues, like antitrust and other economic regulation, that are especially important today.  He starts by defining emergent order and distinguishing it from both randomness and designed order. Here, emergent order is the complex behavior of a system created by the interactions of many smaller components following simpler rules with no central control. To illustrate the differences among the three types, he uses various actions of a crowd at a sporting event.

As an example of emergent order, consider “the wave” at a large sports stadium — I will use the University of Michigan football stadium. The system, that is, the attendees, engage in the complex behavior of creating the coordinated, observable pattern of a wave moving around the stadium. No central authority controls the wave — some group of students, though not always the same one, tries to start it at different points in the game — and the small components, each fan, follows the simple rule of standing at about the right time. The wave peters out as enough fans grow disinterested.

An example of randomness would be the fans entering the stadium.  As Chilson notes, “you would be hard pressed to predict when any particular fan would arrive and take their seat” (although, at Michigan Stadium, a safe prediction is that fans named Cernak will be in their seats at the one hour to kickoff announcement). Designed order, on the other hand, would be if placards are handed out that, “when everyone holds them up, spell out ‘GO TEAM’ [or a Block M] across the entire stadium.”

Chilson builds on those definitions and examples to examine “the classic economic example of emergent order,” the price system. From these concepts, he derives principles for anyone dealing with emergent order, such as: expect complicated results even from simple actions; push decisions down to those actors with important local information; and be humble.

While the book is not overly technical or academic, its points are well-supported with quotes and “greatest hits” from top economists like Adam Smith, F.A. Hayek and his knowledge problem, Ronald Coase and his theory of the firm, and Elinor Ostrom. Chilson even interviews Russ Roberts, who has been popularizing emergent order on his EconTalk podcast for years.  (Surprisingly, there does not seem to be a reference to Roberts’s It’s a Wonderful Loaf, an ode to the magic and beauty of emergent order that I suggest to all my antitrust students.)

Specifically on antitrust and other regulatory matters, Chilson has high praise for his former boss at the Federal Trade Commission, former long-time Commissioner and Acting Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen. She frequently spoke about the need for the FTC to exhibit “regulatory humility,” a position that I have supported in the past. Chilson also seems to channel Edmund Burke in advocating for a common law approach to policy decisions, rather than some elaborate rulemaking, as the many cases decided with specific and local knowledge in the past end up embodying wisdom that should be respected now and in the future.

Continue reading →

FTC-Vertical-Merger-Guidelines-300x225

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.

Continue reading →

Facebook-FTC-Antitrust-300x134

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.

Continue reading →

Contact Information