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Antitrust

Explainer: Antitrust Heats Up as Biden Selects Tech Critic Jonathan Kanter for Top Enforcement Spot

In the fourth in a series of explainers, Broadband Breakfast examines the Biden administration’s intent to bash Big Tech.

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Photo of Jonathan Kanter at the Capitol Forum by New America used with permission

WASHINGTON, July 23, 2021 – On Tuesday, President Joe Biden said he will nominate Jonathan Kanter, a critic of Google, as the next assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s antitrust division.

Kanter is known for his criticism of the “consumer welfare standard” that has come to dominate antitrust enforcement. As reported by Broadband Breakfast, at a 2019 event Kanter hosted by the Capitol Forum, Kanter said that antitrust involves both keeping prices low and protecting the competitive process.

Then an attorney in private practice with Paul Weiss, Kanter – who has also had experience investigating mergers for the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Competition – said that it was unclear that Congress intended for the scope of antitrust laws to be so narrow.

Kanter is the latest in a number of high-profile selections made by Biden that definitively manifest an intent to put big tech under a microscope.

Within the space of four months, Biden will have placed three such critics into major positions, including net neutrality advocate Tim Wu to the National Economic Council and the appointment in June of Lina Khan to chair the Federal Trade Commission, which will investigate big technology companies.

The nomination of Kanter comes after Biden, on July 9, signed an executive order to crack down on the increasing market power of big technology companies and promote competition. The order targets “killer acquisitions,” in which technology companies have purchased “hundreds” of nascent competitors in the past decade. The order says that federal agencies have not done enough to examine or condition these mergers.

Before that, on July 2, the FTC passed a measure in a party-line vote to rescind a 2015 policy statement that limited the scope of antitrust regulation to the framework established by the Sherman Act of 1890. Section 5 of the FTC act permits the FTC to enforce unfair business practices that are not necessarily explicitly outlined by the Sherman Act. By rescinding the statement, the agency will be able to more aggressively crack down on anticompetitive business practices.

Antirust policy and law have a long history in the United States. When antitrust comes to mind, some instantaneously think the United States taking Microsoft to court in 1998 over its alleged monopolization of the personal computer market.

But it’s much older and richer than that. And with quickly emerging developments in antitrust policy on the hill, Broadband Breakfast has selected this topic for a deep dive for our latest explainer.

The original guiding principle behind ‘consumer welfare’

In his 1978 book, The Antitrust Paradox, Robert Bork, former Solicitor General of the U.S., coined the term “consumer welfare” in his attempt to articulate the historical standard of antitrust, dating back to the passing of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.

Archival photo of Robert Bork by Jose R. Lopez from The New York Times

While consumer welfare has been the metric of measuring the need for antitrust enforcement since the 1970s, with the rise of the Chicago schools of thought regarding economic policy, the standard has many frustrated today and pushing for a change in thought.

Consumer welfare refers to the collective benefit derived from all consumed goods and services in a market. It’s measured by assessing an individual’s welfare defined by their own assessment of the satisfaction of a good, given the good’s price and their income. Their assessment is added to the collective’s assessment of that same good, and the sum of all assessed value is considered the consumer welfare in that market.

In general, higher prices mean less consumer welfare and lower prices mean more consumer welfare. Similarly, however, less consumer welfare translates to more revenue and better profit margins for firms.

The problem, according to the critics of Big Tech, is that online platforms such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter present virtually no cost to consumers. Consumer welfare, they argue, cannot measure how these firms are treating their consumer base and whether consumer interests are being harmed or helped.

Challenges to the consumer welfare standard

While antitrust enforcement has historically been measured against this metric, recent happenings in Washington dating the past nine months is challenging this standard as policy makers and legal experts alike have found themselves increasingly dissatisfied with the state of the private sector.

Last year, in October, the Department of Justice opened an antitrust lawsuit against Google, claiming foul play in Google’s competition practices. The FTC followed suit two months later in December, claiming Facebook has violated federal law in illegally maintaining a monopoly in the personal networking market.

Following a 16-month investigation completed last year by the House Judiciary’s Antitrust Subcommittee scrutinizing the business practices of Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook, a package of six antitrust bills awaits vote on the House floor after successfully passing a grueling markup in the House Judiciary Committee.

If passed, the six bills would mark the greatest change in antitrust legislation since the passing of the Clayton Act in 1914 and represent a marked shift in antitrust enforcement.

The July 1 rescinding of the 2015 policy statement that limited the scope of antitrust regulation will mean “greater scrutiny of mergers,” with special attention to the “acquisition of nascent competitors,” as well as, “competition by ‘free’ products, and the effect on user privacy.”

The language used there is particularly interesting because it signals a shift away from the school of thought historically based on prices and consumer welfare, to an embrace of newer theories of competition regulation and antitrust enforcement.

Evolving antitrust: From the Sherman Act to the Chicago school

In the later 19th Century, business collusion and monopoly power posed a threat to America’s burgeoning economic frontier. Monopoly powers stifle innovation in markets when they purchase all other competing firms, and by controlling their supply of a good, they in turn control its price pushing higher prices onto consumers.

To combat this, the Sherman Act of 1890 was passed to regulate domestic business practices that were unfair and harmed consumers by making it illegal to monopolize the trade of any single market or area of commerce in the United States. It also makes it illegal for firms to collude in ways that manipulate or fix prices.

The Sherman Act had a rough start, however. Its language was vague, and prosecutors consistently failed to employ the act in ways that sufficiently regulated business in its intended ways. This led, 24 years later, to the creation of the Clayton Act, which clarified the language of the Sherman Act.

For example, while the Sherman Act made the formation of monopolies illegal, which was difficult to define, prove, and enforce, the Clayton Act made certain business practices that are conducive to monopolization illegal. If the Sherman Act is the dog of antitrust, the Clayton Act is the teeth that gives it its bite.

Referred to by some as the death of antitrust, in the 1970s and 1980s the Chicago school of economic thought caught wind and became the prevailing philosophy of economic doctrine in the United States. The school argues that markets operate most efficiently on their own, without government intervention.

While traditional antitrust approaches aimed at limiting extreme concentrations of power, the Chicago school of thought argued that government intervention makes markets operate inefficiently, which pushes higher prices onto consumers. It argues that consumer interests are best protected by competition, even if that only comes from a few large firms in an industry.

The Lina Khan essay on Amazon

A 2017 essay by now acting FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan while she was a student at Yale law school challenged the Chicago imperative and revived the dying discussion of antitrust enforcement.

Khan’s essay, Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox, examined Amazon’s business structure, taking note that while the company’s profit margins are and always have been meager, they have operated with an enormous capital expenditure, which has allowed them to seize a controlling stake in not just online retail, but expand and become “a marketing platform, a delivery and logistics network, a payment service, a credit lender, an auction house, a major book publisher, a producer of television and films, a fashion designer, a hardware manufacturer, and a leading host of cloud server space.”

FTC Chair Lina Khan

Khan argued that prices are too narrow a standard to measure the need for antitrust enforcement, and regulators should take a broader approach at measuring competition. Her essay gained traction with legal scholars and has led to a new, emerging pattern of economic thought known as the Brandeisian school of thought, which argues that measuring prices is too narrow—that observing and scrutinizing business structures is an essential element of antitrust enforcement.

Congress’ package of antitrust bills in the House integrate elements of Brandeisian thought by concerning itself directly with market concentration and making explicit the illegality of certain business practices, such as favoring one’s own product on marketplaces they operate and mandating data transparency for online platforms.

The package of proposed bills would only apply to firms with a market cap exceeding $600 billion, signaling a distinction between how massive firms will be regulated comparedd to their competitors. Domestically, only six firms exist with such a market cap, and only one of those is not a Big Tech firm (Tesla Inc). The other five are Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet Inc (the parent company of Google), and Facebook.

Online platforms and the consumer welfare standard

Last year, cases were opened by the Justice Department antitrust division and FTC against Google and Facebook, respectively, over antitrust and competition concerns. These cases are both being prosecuted with the original legislation written in the Sherman and Clayton Acts and fought under the lens of consumer welfare.

Google was accused by the antitrust division of illegally maintaining a monopoly power through anticompetitive and exclusionary practices. Facebook was accused by the FTC for similar reasons—specifically for anticompetitive practices in acquiring nascent competitors Instagram and WhatsApp in the early 2010s. The main question facing these trials is whether the consumer welfare standard is enough to tackle these firms and substantiate the government’s claims against them.

The answer: It probably won’t be, primarily because Google and Facebook don’t charge consumers to use their products. They are free to anybody with internet access. And since the consumer welfare standard deals with price, and how those prices are affecting consumers, there is no way of applying the consumer welfare standard to these firms.

Without this standard, lawyers will have little basis of empirically measuring the harm Google and Facebook may be imposing on the market, which will likely make convicting them extremely difficult.

In fact, though the FTC has until the end of July to rework and resubmit their case, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg threw the FTC’s case against Facebook out of court, claiming that it was “legally insufficient.”

Photo of Judge James Boasberg by Diego Radzinschi in Law.com

Recently resolved and ongoing cases, including: FTC v. Facebook

Facebook was accused by the FTC of illegally maintaining a monopoly in the personal networking market largely because of its acquisition of Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp two years later.

The agency wrote in a report that those acquisitions, which came at a time when both competitors were growing into massive communications platforms, made it more difficult for other social networking platforms to compete at scale. It also accused the company of forcing third-party developers interfacing with the platform to refrain from promoting other social services.

In Judge Boasberg’s opinion, throwing out the FTC case, he wrote that the FTC had failed to offer adequate evidence that Facebook had monopolized the market for social networking.

Looking forward, however, the FTC’s recent decision to rescind the 2015 statement that directed them to enforce antitrust within the framework of the Sherman Act will allow them more leeway in prosecuting Facebook when they resubmit the case later this month.

United States v. Google

The Justice Department, alongside eleven state attorneys general, sued Google in October, accusing it of illegally maintaining a monopoly through anticompetitive and exclusionary practices. Google does not share its user statistics, but the DoJ claims that around 90% of online searches are routed through Google.

The antitrust division’s complaint alleged that Google entered into a series of exclusionary agreements with firms that promoted their services over competitors, barring the consumer’s choice in the matter.

The division argues in its complaint that these practices damage competition and harm consumers through reducing the ability of innovative competitors to compete at scale with Google. However, alongside the difficulty of empirically demonstrating that harm has been pushed onto consumers, the division must also battle the notion that, generally, most consumers may be happy with Google’s products, and there exists little friction between the company and the public.

Google Play Store lawsuit

On July 7, a group of 36 state attorney general, alongside Washington, D.C., launched a new antitrust case against Google, accusing the search engine of exploiting its control of the Android app store. The lawsuit challenges a policy that forces Google Play app developers to pay a 30 percent commission fee on sales made through the app.

According to reports, the Google Play app store for Android devices is responsible for more than 90 percent of Android app downloads in the United States. No other Android app store has hold of more than a 5 percent market share, according to the plaintiffs.

Essentially, the complaint alleges that, because of Google’s dominant hold in the Android app market, there exists little competition and app developers therefore have no choice but to go through Google wo market their apps and pay the 30 percent commission fee.

Prosecutors will need to, as with the other antitrust cases, prove that Google’s actions have limited competition in the private sphere and damaged consumer welfare in the public.

District of Columbia v. Amazon

On May 25, 2021, Karl Racine, attorney general of Washington, D.C., sued Amazon, alleging that the company’s policies have led to fixed prices, raising prices for Washington, D.C. residents.

The case was filed specifically through the District of Columbia, and is not being prosecuted by federal agencies, the same way the Facebook and Google cases are. However, if Racine successfully establishes liability by Amazon, the ruling could have far-reaching consequences and impact the states.

Photo of Karl Racine by Lexey Swall in the Washingtonian

The Office of the Attorney General alleges that Amazon fixed online retail prices through a policy that applies to third-party sellers on its platform, which prevents third-party sellers from offering their products at lower prices on any other online platform, including their own. The problem with the policy, D.C. argues, is that Amazon charges high fees to sellers using their platform, upwards of 40% in certain cases.

That fee is worked into the price of the good a seller is providing on Amazon, and because they cannot offer that product for a cheaper price anywhere else, Amazon’s commission fee is in turn worked into the price of the good being sold elsewhere. If retailers try to work around this, they risk losing the sales they get from selling their product on Amazon.

Washington, D.C.’s Assistant Attorney General, in its report, said that Amazon accounts for 50-70 percent of all online commerce. Allegedly, Amazon is using this market dominance to manipulate prices throughout the rest of the market. The higher prices are pushed onto consumers, and such business practices are prohibited under the Sherman and Clayton Acts.

The future of antitrust

The package of proposed antitrust bills successfully passed through the House Judiciary Committee and will likely pass in the House of Representatives. However, save a few Republican dissenters who helped draft the bills, the voting turned out to be partisan and the vote followed party lines with few exceptions.

At the risk of Democrats defecting, and with a slim majority in the Senate, the Democrats may need to recruit more GOP support for the bills if the they stand a chance of being passed into law.

On July 9, the FTC opened an official investigation into the legality of Amazon’s acquisition of major entertainment studio, MGM. Amazon filed a recusal motion against Khan, claiming that her special interest in Amazon marks her involvement as a conflict of interest, asking that she remove herself from any proceedings involving Amazon.

Whether the recusal stands or not, it is likely that aggressive antitrust enforcement will be applied under Khan’s leadership throughout the duration of the Biden Administration.

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.

Antitrust

Premium Shipping and Anti-discounting Policies Central to FTC’s Amazon Lawsuit

The FTC may be able to convince the district court that Amazon is sustaining a monopoly markup, said Herb Hovenkamp.

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Photo of Professor Herb Hovenkamp from the University of Pennsylvania.

WASHINGTON, October 20, 2023 –While the Federal Trade Commission may have a hard time proving that Amazon has monopolistic power, some of its policies could be construed as anticompetitive.

That was the message antitrust experts delivered on Tuesday at an Information, Technology and Innovation Foundation panel on the FTC’s lawsuit against the online retailer in U.S. District Court in Seattle, Washington.

The agency’s complaint argues that the Amazon exerts unlawful monopoly power by forcing third party sellers to fulfill orders on Amazon and by preventing third parties selling products on Amazon from charging lower prices on other platforms.

The first policy coerces third-parties to fulfill orders on Amazon in order to get the e-commerce giant’s premium two-day shipping, the FTC has argued.

The second policy, dubbed anti-discounting, can be used as a form of price control despite having pro-competitive benefits like discouraging free riding and encouraging investment, said Kathleen Bradish, president of the Antitrust Institute.

Because Amazon requires merchants to maintain a price point on its marketplace, it can create barriers to entry when other marketplaces cannot attract merchants to sell their products at a lower price, she said.

A debate about anti-discounting

Steve Salop, professor of antitrust law at Georgetown University, added that “what Amazon does is it has algorithms that scrape all the relevant websites and if it discovers that the merchant’s product is being sold at a lower price anywhere else it contacts the merchant and says [that it has to] lower the price to [Amazon] or raise the price to” the consumer.

Herb Hovenkamp, an antitrust professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said that anti-discounting policies “only work on a product-by-product basis.”

When you look at each product Amazon sells, there may not be anticompetitive power impacting each product, said Hovenkamp.

Amazon sells almost 12 million products on their e-commerce site and its individual market shares for all those products varies, he said. That means it is hard to argue that Amazon holds a monopoly for every product it  sells.

Hovenkamp noted that while Amazon may succeed in areas such as streaming – which has no offline alternative – it struggles in “markets like try on clothing, tires, groceries…. Product by product, the question of how much competition Amazon faces from offline sellers varies immensely,” he said.

Bilal Sayyed, senior competition counsel at TechFreedom, a non-profit tech policy group, echoed this point: Anti-discounting policies can have anti-competitive consequences, but that they can also have pro-competitive benefits.

Sellers may not switch to other fulfillment companies because it does not make sense to do so given the “scale that Amazon has,” Bradish said, even if they prefer to use another e-commerce platform. But she acknowledged that having witnesses testify that those policies have impacted their behavior could favor the FTC’s point.

The role of Amazon’s fulfilment services

Amazon’s fulfillment services apply to several products it sells. But the FTC will need to demonstrate that monopoly prices are a result of those fulfillment services, said Hovenkamp.

“The hard part is going to be for the FTC to convince the fact finder that that’s a grouping of sales that’s capable of sustaining a monopoly markup,” he added. “It may be able to do that.”

While a large-scale operation like Amazon might have a cost advantage with fulfillment services, monopoly power will have to be determined by a finding of fact, he said.

By contrast, Sayyed argued that there is a clear pro-competitive justification for sellers using Amazon’s fulfillment services. That comes from the company’s reputation for quickly delivering goods to consumers.

“This idea that parties should be able to take advantage of the platform and the Amazon brand, but then [sell] their merchandise [through] a third party that may or may not meet the same fulfillment and delivery standards, really strikes me as very dangerous ground for the agency” to argue, said Sayyed.

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Antitrust

FTC Chair Warns Artificial Intelligence Industry of Vigorous Enforcement

The FTC’s statute on consumer protection that ‘prohibits unfair deceptive practices’ extends to AI, said Kahn.

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WASHINGTON, October 2, 2023 – The chair of the Federal Trade Commission warned the artificial intelligence industry Wednesday that the agency is prepared to clamp down on any monopolistic practices, as she proposed more simplistic rules to avoid confrontation.

“We’re really firing on all cylinders to make sure that we’re meeting the moment and the enormous and urgent need for robust and vigorous enforcement,” Lina Khan said at the AI and Tech Summit hosted by Politico on Wednesday.

Khan emphasized that the FTC’s statute on consumer protection “prohibits unfair deceptive practices” and that provision extends to AI development.

The comments come as artificial intelligence products advance at a brisk pace. The advent of new chat bots – such as those from OpenAI and Google that are driven by the latest advances in large language models – has meant individuals can use AI to create content from basic text prompts.

Khan stated that working with Congress to administer “more simplicity in rules” to all businesses and market participants could promote a more equal playing field for competitors.

“It’s no secret that there are defendants that are pushing certain arguments about the FTC’s authority,” Khan said. “Historically we’ve seen that the rules that are most successful oftentimes are ones that are clear and that are simple and so a regime where you have bright line rules about what practices are permitted, what practices are prohibited, I think could provide a lot more clarity and also be much more administrable.”

Khan’s comments came the day before the agency and 17 states filed an antitrust lawsuit against Amazon, which is accusing the e-commerce giant of utilizing anticompetitive practices and unfair strategies to sustain its supremacy in the space.

“Obviously we don’t take on these cases lightly,” Khan said. “They are very resource intensive for us and so we think it’s a worthwhile use of those resources given just the significance of this market, the significance of online commerce, and the degree to which the public is being harmed and being deprived of the benefits of competition.”

Since being sworn in 2021, Khan’s FTC has filed antitrust lawsuits against tech giants Meta, Microsoft, and X, formerly known as Twitter.

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Antitrust

FTC Funding Request Harshly Criticized by Republican Lawmakers

The agency’s aggressive approach to antitrust under Chair Lina Khan has sparked controversy.

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Screenshot of FTC Chair Lina Khan courtesy of the House Energy and Commerce Committee

WASHINGTON, April 19, 2023 — House Republicans expressed skepticism about the Federal Trade Commission’s requested budget increase during a Tuesday hearing, accusing the agency of overstepping its jurisdiction in pursuit of a progressive enforcement agenda.

The hearing of the Innovation, Data and Commerce Subcommittee showcased sharp partisan tension over Chair Lina Khan’s aggressive approach to antitrust — heightened by the fact that both Republican seats on the five-member agency remain vacant.

Khan, alongside Democratic Commissioners Rebecca Slaughter and Alvaro Bedoya, argued that the $160 million budget increase was necessary for maintaining existing enforcement efforts as well as “activating additional authorities that Congress has given us.”

But Republican lawmakers seemed unwilling to grant the requested funds, which would bring the agency’s total annual budget to $590 million.

“You seem to be squandering away the resources that we currently give you in favor of pursuing unprecedented progressive legal theories,” said Subcommittee Chair Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla.

“What is clearly needed — before Congress considers any new authorities or funding — are reforms, more guardrails and increased transparency to ensure you are accountable to the American people,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., ranking member of the full committee, defended the funding request by saying the FTC has “one of the broadest purviews of any federal agency: fighting deceptive and unfair business practices and anti-competitive conduct across the entire economy.”

“Managing this portfolio with less than fourteen hundred employees is no small feat,” Pallone said, noting that the FTC currently has fewer employees than it did 45 years ago.

FTC highlights potential AI threats, other tech developments

FTC staff and Democratic lawmakers have been flagging concerns about understaffing at the agency for years, arguing that rapid technological and market changes have increased the scope and complexity of the agency’s role.

“The same lawyers who ensure that social media companies have robust privacy and data security programs are making sure labels on bed linens are correct,” testified former Chief Technologist Ashkan Soltani at a Senate hearing in 2021.

In their written testimony, commissioners detailed several emerging priorities related to technological developments — such as combatting online harms to children and protecting sensitive consumer data shared with health websites — and emphasized the corresponding need for increased resources.

The agency is also preparing to pursue violations related to artificial intelligence technologies, Khan said, as the “turbocharging of fraud and scams that could be enabled by these tools are a serious concern.”

But several tech-focused trade groups, including the Computer & Communications Industry Association, have signaled opposition to FTC expansion.

“The FTC can best carry out its mission if it heeds the committee’s call to return its focus to consumer needs and consumer fraud — rather than pursuing cases rooted in novel theories against American companies,” CCIA President Matt Schruers said after the hearing.

The Consumer Technology Association urged lawmakers to reject the requested budget increase in a letter sent Friday.

“In 2022, agency data shows consumers reported losing almost $8.8 billion to scams… Despite this mounting caseload of fraud, identity theft and related cases, the FTC appears more interested in attacking U.S. tech companies, to the detriment of consumers who have benefitted from an unparalleled explosion of innovative, online-based products and services,” CTA President Gary Shapiro wrote.

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