Articles Posted in FTC

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Authors: Steve Cernak and Luis Blanquez

New management at the FTC keeps reviewing all aspects of the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) premerger notification process.  On August 26, the current head of the Bureau of Competition posted a change to a long-standing FTC informal interpretation about how potential HSR filers should view debt repayments when determining if the transaction is large enough to warrant a filing.  That particular change could affect many transactions; however, perhaps more importantly, the announcement also described potential larger changes in how the FTC develops and promulgates interpretations of the complicated HSR process.  Any such changes could be more examples of the “death of a thousand cuts” for the current HSR process that at least one commissioner has decried and that we discussed recently.

As we have explained, the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act requires companies to file notice of mergers and similar transactions over a certain size before they can close the deal. The first step in complying with HSR’s notification requirements is to determine whether the transaction satisfies the size of transaction test.  Because that determination can be difficult, given HSR’s complicated rules that cannot anticipate every potential deal structure, merging parties have often sought informal interpretations from FTC Premerger Notification Office (PNO) staff.

For at least 15 years, PNO staff has interpreted HSR rules to exclude from the size of the transaction calculation of the payoff of a target’s debt by the acquiring person in transactions involving the acquisitions of voting securities and noncorporate interests (though not of assets). The rationale was that the purchaser of a majority of an issuer’s stock automatically acquires the issuer’s preexisting liabilities and so that fact presumably is reflected in the stock’s acquisition price.

Effective September 27, the FTC will withdraw that informal interpretation. According to the FTC blog post, it appears that some merging parties have structured their deals to take advantage of this interpretation and avoid an HSR filing. Target companies may take on debt shortly before the merger and then have the acquiring person retire it as part of the transaction, thus reducing the size of the transaction, perhaps to a level whereby the parties can avoid a filing.

At the margin, this change likely will result in more HSR filings. It will affect those transactions where the size of the transaction matters, such as transactions of private equity firms focused on the “middle market” near the current HSR threshold of $92M.

If the main reason for the change is that the FTC is seeing transactions structured as described in the blog post, it is not clear why application of 801.90 is insufficient. That regulation allows the FTC to disregard any device used for the purpose of avoiding the HSR filing obligation.  Indeed, the PNO staff pointed to 801.90 last September as it modified a bright-line rule regarding extraordinary dividends into a more “holistic review” to determine reportability. A similar change could have been made here, suggesting that the more important reason for the change simply is an FTC change in policy about the interpretation.

Such changes in informal interpretations happen often, but a few aspects of last week’s post hint at potential larger future changes.

Last week’s post states that the FTC is in the process of reviewing “the voluminous log of informal interpretations [by PNO staff] to determine the best path forward.”  Implicit in that statement and the rest of the post is that one “path forward” would be to eliminate the informal interpretations and rely only on the formal rules and interpretations approved by commissioners and created with assistance from the Department of Justice.  Any such move would be unfortunate.

While the informal rules do not have the force of law (as the post correctly notes), they do represent the best current thinking of the PNO staff, who reviews the thousands of filings and related questions each year. The formal rules regulating the HSR process are already very complicated and it seems foolhardy at best to think any set of humans, especially if they do not regularly deal with HSR intricacies, will be able to anticipate all potential HSR questions in devising new rules.

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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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Authors: Luis Blanquez and Steven Cernak

Strong winds of change keep blowing in the antitrust world. In the past weeks we’ve witnessed two new major developments in the U.S.: (i) President Biden’s Executive Order to increase antitrust enforcement, and (ii) six antitrust bills issued by the House Judiciary Committee. That’s a lot to summarize in one article, so we’ve decided to just unwrap them below for you to decide how deep you want to keep digging.

  1. President’s Biden Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy

This month President Biden issued the Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy (the “Order”). The Order aims to reduce the trend of corporate consolidation, drive down prices for consumers, increase wages for workers and facilitate innovation. It establishes a Whole-of-Government effort to promote competition in the American economy by including 72 initiatives to enforce existing antitrust laws and other laws that may impact competition to combat what it sees as excessive concentration of industry and abuses of market power, as well as to address challenges posed by new industries and technologies.

The Fact Sheet further explains how the Order (i) encourages the leading antitrust agencies to focus enforcement efforts on problems in key markets and (ii) coordinates other agencies’ ongoing response to corporate consolidation.

Calling the DOJ and FTC to enforce the antitrust laws vigorously

The Order calls on the federal antitrust agencies, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC), to enforce the antitrust laws vigorously. The Order acknowledges the overlapping jurisdiction of both agencies and encourages them to cooperate fully, both with each other and with other departments and agencies, in the exercise of their oversight authority.

In particular, the Order encourages the Chair of the FTC to exercise the FTC’s statutory rulemaking authority in areas such as (i) unfair data collection and surveillance practices that may damage competition, consumer autonomy, and consumer privacy, (ii) unfair anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items, such as the restrictions imposed by powerful manufacturers that prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment; (iii) unfair anticompetitive conduct or agreements in the prescription drug industries, such as agreements to delay the market entry of generic drugs or biosimilar; (iv) unfair competition in major Internet marketplaces; (v) unfair occupational licensing restrictions; (vi) unfair tying practices or exclusionary practices in the brokerage or listing of real estate; and (vii) any other unfair industry-specific practices that substantially inhibit competition.

Also, the Order specifically addresses merger review by (i) encouraging antitrust agencies to revisit and update the Merger Guidelines (both horizonal and vertical) and (ii) challenge bad mergers previously cleared by past Administrations. Immediately after the publication of the Order, FTC and DOJ also issued a joint statement highlighting the fact that the current guidelines deserve a hard look to determine whether they are overly permissive, and how they will jointly launch a review of the merger guidelines with the goal of updating them to reflect a rigorous analytical approach consistent with applicable law.

In parallel, FTC has also passed this month some new resolutions updating its rulemaking procedures to set stage for stronger deterrence of corporate misconduct, and authorizing investigations into key law enforcement priorities for the next decade. As FTC’s chair Lina M. Khan stressed in a recent statement, priority targets include repeat offenders; technology companies and digital platforms; and healthcare businesses such as pharmaceutical companies, pharmacy benefits managers, and hospitals. Last but not least, FTC recently voted to rescind a 1995 policy statement that made it more difficult and burdensome to deter problematic mergers and acquisitions. The 1995 Policy Statement on Prior Approval and Prior Notice Provisions made it less likely that the Commission would require parties that proposed mergers that the Commission had determined would be anticompetitive to obtain prior approval and give prior notice for future transactions. By rescinding this policy statement, the FTC will be more likely to obtain prior notice of future transactions by those parties even beyond HSR notice requirements.

Grab your popcorn. Following President Joe Biden’s recent nomination of Jonathan Kanter as the new AAG for U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division, it is likely we will see some important antitrust enforcement action from both agencies very soon aimed at corporate concentration, especially the big tech sector.

New White House Competition Council

The Order establishes a new White House Competition Council, led by the Director of the National Economic Council, to monitor progress on finalizing the initiatives in the Order and to coordinate the federal government’s response to what it sees as the rising power of large corporations in the economy.

The Council will meet on a semi-annual basis––unless the Chair determines that a meeting is unnecessary––and will work across agencies to provide a coordinated response to overconcentration, monopolization, and unfair competition. The FTC and other independent agencies are welcome and expected to participate in this process.

Granted patents and the protection of standard setting processes

To avoid the potential for anticompetitive extension of market power beyond the scope of granted patents, and to protect standard-setting processes from abuse, the Order encourages the Attorney General and the Secretary of Commerce to consider whether to revise their position on the intersection of the intellectual property and antitrust laws, including by considering whether to revise the Policy Statement on Remedies for Standards-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/RAND Commitments issued jointly by the Department of Justice, the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology on December 19, 2019.

Specific Industry Sectors addressed in the Order

Labor Markets

The Order encourages the FTC to: (i) ban or limit non-compete agreements, (ii) ban unnecessary occupational licensing restrictions that impede economic mobility, and (iii) along with DOJ, strengthen antitrust guidance to prevent employers from collaborating to suppress wages or reduce benefits by sharing wage and benefit information with one another.

The Order directs the Treasury Department to submit a report on the impact of what it sees as the current lack of competition on labor markets within 180 days and encourages the FTC and DOJ to revise the Antitrust Guidance for HR Professionals.

Healthcare

The Order (i) directs the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to work with states and tribes to safely import prescription drugs from Canada, pursuant to the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003; (ii) directs the Health and Human Services Administration (HHS) to increase support for generic and biosimilar drugs, which can provide low-cost options for patients; (iii) directs HHS to issue a comprehensive plan within 45 days to combat high prescription drug prices and price gouging, (iv) encourages the FTC to ban “pay for delay” and similar agreements by rule; (v) encourages HHS to consider issuing proposed rules within 120 days for allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter, (vi) underscores that hospital mergers can be harmful to patients and encourages the DOJ and FTC to review and revise their merger guidelines to ensure patients are not harmed by such mergers; (vii) and directs HHS to support existing hospital price transparency rules and to finish implementing bipartisan federal legislation to address surprise hospital billing.

Transportation

The Order directs the Department of Transportation (DOT) to consider (i) issuing clear rules requiring the refund of fees when baggage is delayed or when service isn’t actually provided—like when the plane’s WiFi or in-flight entertainment system is broken and (ii) issuing rules that require baggage, change, and cancellation fees to be clearly disclosed to the customer.

The Order further encourages (i) the Surface Transportation Board to require railroad track owners to provide rights of way to passenger rail and to strengthen their obligations to treat other freight companies fairly, and (ii) the Federal Maritime Commission to ensure vigorous enforcement against shippers charging American exporters exorbitant charges.

Agriculture

The Order expresses a concern on market concentration and helps ensure that the intellectual property system, while incentivizing innovation, does not also unnecessarily reduce competition in seed and other input markets beyond that reasonably contemplated by other laws.

In particular the Order directs the U.S. Department of Education (USDA) to consider issuing (i) new rules under the Packers and Stockyards Act making it easier for farmers to bring and win claims, stopping chicken processors from exploiting and underpaying chicken farmers, and adopting anti-retaliation protections for farmers who speak out about bad practices; (ii) new rules defining when meat can bear “Product of USA” labels, so that consumers have accurate, transparent labels that enable them to choose products made here; and (iii) a plan to increase opportunities for farmers to access markets and receive a fair return, including supporting alternative food distribution systems like farmers’ markets and developing standards and labels so that consumers can choose to buy products that treat farmers fairly.

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