Glenn Manishin

Nearly six months before this week’s reveal of iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple was in talks with Comcast Corp. about “teaming up for a streaming-television service that would use an Apple set-top box and get special treatment on Comcast’s cables to ensure it bypasses congestion on the Web.” For content, the product reportedly would not only offer users access to on-demand movies, TV programs and other apps, including games, but also live Comcast cable programming. This raises a serious question whether such an arrangement would represent a procompetitive development or instead further delay a languishing 20-year federal effort to create a commercially viable retail market for cable set-top boxes (“STBs”).

There are three sets of obstacles potentially standing in the way of this initiative. First are business issues associated with customer control. As commentary noted at the time:

Back in February it seemed both Comcast and DirecTV were reluctant to allow Apple to develop a system where customers logged in using their Apple credentials instead of their pay-TV accounts. The fundamental question of who gets to have the primary relationship with the customer has played prominently in Apple’s negotiations with magazine and newspaper publishers in the past, so it makes sense that the issue would pop up again in a different medium. Given that Comcast has been investing in its own advanced set-top boxes, the cable giant is probably not ready to cede too much ground too quickly.

The second set of issues relates to whether Apple, or any content provider, should be permitted to pay for routing of its IPTV traffic as a managed service, receiving priority handling for the packets involved, from ISPs. That is a subset of the network neutrality debate, commonly referred to as “paid prioritization,” that continues to rage before the FCC and Congress. MORE »

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Last month a Paris appeals court annulled some €3.9 million (US$5.2M) in fines imposed on endive producers and their trade associations by the French Competition Authority (the Autorité de la concurrence). Not dissuaded, that French competition agency just slapped a €1.6M (US$2.1M) fine on Caribbean yogurt maker Societe Nouvelle des Yaourts de Littee (SNYL) for falsely questioning the safety and quality of a rival brand in Martinique and Guadeloupe, characterizing the practice as “abuse of dominance” in the marketplace. SNYL

This epitomizes a fundamental disconnect between antitrust law and competition policy in the U.S. and that of many other nations. (No, the French are not alone…) American antitrust principles and decisions generally limit the reach of competition law — aside from competitor collision like price-fixing cartels — to business conduct that uses market power in an exclusionary manner. As the Supreme Court emphasized in 1993, “[e]ven an act of pure malice by one business competitor against another does not, without more, state a claim under the federal antitrust laws; those laws do not create a federal law of unfair competition or ‘purport to afford remedies for all torts committed by or against persons engaged in interstate commerce.'” In sharp contrast, the FCA reasoned about yogurt that “the dissemination of misleading and disparaging remarks by a dominant operator against one of its competitors is a serious practice with regard to competition rules.”

“Between December 2007 and December 2009, SNYL broadcast information discrediting the sanitary quality of Laiterie de Saint-Malo products using the questionable results of bacteriological tests and questioning the irregular consumption deadlines affixed to its products,” the FCA reported in a (translated) statement. This led a number of retailers to pull Malo products from shelves for an extended period. “This behavior had the effect of limiting product sales of Laiterie de Saint-Malo in Martinique and Guadeloupe — an abuse of dominant position prohibited by Article L 420-2 of the Commercial Code,” the FCA concluded.

In the United States, legal standards for proving antitrust claims are rightly rigorous; they are strict in order to reduce the risk that enforcement of the antitrust laws may chill the very sort of vigorous, competitive conduct they are intended to encourage. It’s been true for at least 35 years that the Sherman Act “is not a panacea for all evils that may infect business life.” Legendary antitrust law scholars Phillip Areeda and Herbert Hovenkamp have advocated a nearly insurmountable presumption against deception and fraud serving as the basis for a monopolization claim, a presumption most courts have readily embraced. As one court of appeals cogently explained, “[i]solated tortious activity alone does not constitute exclusionary conduct for purposes of a [Sherman Act] § 2 violation, absent a significant and more than a temporary effect on competition, and not merely on a competitor or customer…. Business torts will be violative of § 2 only in ‘rare gross cases.’”

The difference is that between competition and consumer protection, which are quite distinct concepts in American jurisprudence. If a firm uses a monopoly to harm competition without business justification, that’s an antitrust violation. If a firm lies about a competitor’s products or runs false advertising, that’s a deceptive business practice. The two legal regimes are directed at different constituencies and conduct, which is why the Federal Trade Commission Act was amended in the 1930s to add a separate provision (Section 5) for “unfair or deceptive” business practices, and why the FTC accordingly is separated into its two principal divisions: the Bureau of Competition and the Bureau of Consumer Protection. Likewise, the Lanham Act specifically prohibits false advertising and provides a damages remedy for injured companies. Thus, false representations around a firm’s own, or it’s competitor’s, products can be legally actionable, as the Supreme Court again ruled this year in a case about beverage labeling (Pom Wonderful v. Coca-Cola). They’re just not an antitrust violation in the United States.

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There’s been much press coverage of the travails of the AmLaw 100 — America’s largest law firms. Clients are aggressively pushing back against ever-increasing hourly rates and significant inefficiencies. Storied firms have been foldingmerging and laying off staff and even attorneys at unprecedented levels. Electronic discovery specialists and legal outsourcing are compressing margins for the litigation work that historically fueled big firm profits. Non-traditional legal providers are hardly faring better. Clearspire, a much-heralded pioneer of the virtual law firm concept, closed shop in June.

Yet at the same time — and perhaps as a consequence — the market for legal startups is booming. VentureBeat commented that the profession’s ongoing transition is “fueling innovation throughout the entire industry.” In 2009, just 15 legal services startups were listed on AngelList. There are now more than 400 startups and almost 1,000 investors. A whopping $458 million was invested into legal startups last year, a remarkable increase from the $66 million that went into the space in 2012. Legal entrepreneurs are focused on two different objectives: helping lawyers do their work better, faster and cheaper, and making the law more accessible, sometimes eliminating the need for lawyers altogether.

Law

It is the second, consumer-facing portion of this trend that portends a fundamental change in the legal market. By giving both individual and corporate consumers the resources to do it yourself, today’s crop of disruptive legal startups is laying the groundwork for an era in which software tools, social sharing and document comparison-assembly programs are positioned to replace attorneys’ stock in trade, namely reuse of contracts and other legal “forms.”

A century ago the bar protected itself with arcane Latin phrases and obscure judicial reporters. Two decades ago, it used the expense of private legal research databases like LexisNexis, an information barrier that is increasingly archaic in today’s era of Web-enabled courts and Google Scholar. With the present challenge to the largest traditional domain of legal practice — creation, revision and execution of legally binding documents — technology is breaking down walls that made have legal U.S. services unaffordable, and thus essentially unavailable, to many except the wealthy those at the opposite end of the economic spectrum who qualify for free and pro bono legal services.

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The French have a wonderful saying, la plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, which roughly translates to “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” That’s an apt description of current, high-profile wrangling in the United States about music licensing under federal copyright law. Despite all the jarring changes to the recording industry over the past decade — remember Tower Records? — it’s the same issues and (mostly) the same players as always, arguing over a Rube Goldberg-like system of arcane complexity.

Tomorrow the House of Representatives (specifically the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet) will hold a second round of hearings on music licensing. This inquiry coincides with a recent announcement by the Justice Department that it will review — and solicit public feedback on — the 73-year-old antitrust decrees that govern ASCAP and BMI, two groups which act as licensing clearinghouses for a range of outlets that use music, including radio stations, websites and even restaurants and doctors’ offices. As the New York Times has observed, “billions of dollars in royalties are at stake, and the lobbying fight that is very likely to unfold would pit Silicon Valley giants like Pandora and Google against music companies and songwriter groups.” MORE »

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There’s a famous old political adage — “where you stand is where sit” (also known as Miles’ Law) — meaning basically that government policy positions are dictated more by agency imperative and institutional memory than objective consideration of the public interest. A related concept is “regulatory capture,” where administrative agencies over time become defenders of the status quo and pursue objectives more for regulated firms as their constituency than consumers. Capture theory is closely related to the “rent-seeking” and “political failure” theories developed by the public choice school of economics. Or as Harold Demsetz put it well in his influential 1968 article, Why Regulate Utilities?, “in utility industries, regulation has often been sought because of the inconvenience of competition.”

That’s no longer limited to electricity companies and other public utilities these days. With the advent of rapid, low-cost entry into previously sheltered markets, powered by technology and the sharing economy, today’s incumbent industries are taking regulatory capture and politics as rent seeking to new heights. At DisCo we’ve written extensively about Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Tesla and many other disruptive new start-ups that are facing a backlash from established industries (taxis, hotels and auto dealers, respectively) which use consumer protection as a Trojan Horse to disguise preventing or delaying competition on price, features and service. Politicians in locales as diverse as New York, New Jersey, San Antonio and Seattle (believe it or not!) have, wittingly it seems, gone along so far.

FTC Building

This is where what antitrust lawyers dub competition advocacy comes into play. Most antitrust policy in the U.S. is made in federal court as a result of merger, monopolization and horizontal collusion prosecutions launched by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). But due to our federal-state system and a judge-made doctrine allowing states to exempt some markets from competition despite federal antitrust demands (government action, and private conduct to obtain such action, is challengeable in only relative narrow circumstances), much of the battle takes place in the legislative and regulatory arenas. Accordingly, competition advocacy is the primary tool available to antitrust enforcers in the U.S. to oppose state and local regulations favoring established firms over start-ups and parochially sheltering in-state companies from out-of-state competitors. The result is that for three decades the federal antitrust agencies have engaged in affirmative outreach to state and local legislators and regulators in the form of comments, letters and occasional lawsuits that seek to drive home the basic truths that competition outperforms regulation and the law should not pick winners and losers when it comes to evolving markets. (State attorneys general also undertake competition advocacy, principally through amicus briefs, as well.) MORE »

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Three high-level staffers at the Federal Trade Commission (Andy Gavil, Debbie Feinstein and Marty Gaynorare) are backing Tesla Motors Inc. in its ongoing fight to sell electric cars directly to consumers. As we’ve observed, Tesla forgoes traditional auto dealers in favor of its own retail showrooms. But that business model was recently banned by the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission — and is under fire in many other states as well — as a measure supposedly to protect consumers.

The ubiquitous state laws in question were originally put into place to prevent big automakers from establishing distribution monopolies that crowd out dealerships, which tend to be locally owned and family run. They were intended to promote market competition, in other words. But the FTC officials say they worry (as have we at DisCo) that the laws have instead become protectionist, walling off new innovation. “FTC staff have commented on similar efforts to bar new rivals and new business models in industries as varied as wine sales, taxis, and health care,” the officials write in their post. “How manufacturers choose to supply their products and services to consumers is just as much a function of competition as what they sell — and competition ultimately provides the best protections for consumers and the best chances for new businesses to develop and succeed. Our point has not been that new methods of sale are necessarily superior to the traditional methods — just that the determination should be made through the competitive process.”

As Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk noted earlier this year, “the auto dealer franchise laws were originally put in place for a just cause and are now being twisted to an unjust purpose.” Yes, indeed. It is pure rent seeking by obsolescent firms. State and local regulators have eliminated the direct purchasing option by taking steps to shelter existing middlemen from new competition. That’s not at all consumer protection, it is instead economic protectionism for a politically powerful constituency. Thanks to the FTC staff, some brave state legislators may now be emboldened to resist the temptation to decide how consumers should be permitted to buy cars.

Unfortunately, the issue is not limited to automobiles. I wrote recently about how in New York City, officials want to ban Airbnb because its apartment rental sharing service is not in compliance with hotel safety (and taxation) rules. The New York Times last Wednesday editorialized in support of that approach, arguing that Airbnb is reducing the supply of apartments and increasing rents. They’re wrong, of course, because short-term visits obviously do not substitute for years-long apartment leases. But the more important issue is that one economic problem does not justify reducing competition in a separate market. If New York actually has an apartment rent price problem, banning competition for hotels is no more a solution than prohibiting direct-to-consumer auto sales.

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Tuesday was a big day in the world of tech-powered disruptive innovation. What the news of April 22nd shows, however, is expanding use of the legal process by incumbent industries to thwart change — and the unfortunately all too frequent concurrence of regulators and courts with that ancient mantra of obsolescent businesses, namely “consumer protection.” Old, entrenched industries frequently lean on their political connections and get the government to come up with some new justification (or recycle an old one) for shutting down upstart rivals or, at the very least, undermining their competitive advantages.

Tuesday witnessed two potentially landmark events, ones that may in time change this familiar paradigm. The first was the morning hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court in ABC v. Aereo, the broadcast networks’ copyright law challenge to the now well-known streaming IPTV start-up. The second, just slightly later in the day, were oral arguments at a New York state court in Albany over whether Airbnb will be permitted to offer its peer-to-peer apartment rental services in New York City, where a 2010 measure meant to curb unregulated hotels prohibits renting out an apartment for less than a month.

Tech Tuesday

At DisCo we’ve devoted a series of posts to the Aereo case. Like a Sony Betamax for the 21st century, the Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether moving technology that is lawful for an individual to use on his or her own becomes a copyright violation if offered over the Internet. But the major broadcast networks (like the movie studios who opposed VCR recording in the 1980s) are convinced their entire business model will collapse if Aereo is sanctioned, threatening the nuclear option of stopping over-the-air transmission in favor of all-cable distribution should Aereo prevail.

Airbnb, in contrast, is fighting an effort by New York regulators to collect the names of Airbnb hosts who are breaking the law by renting out multiple properties for short periods. The company, which is now estimated to be worth $10 billion, is framing the dispute as a case of government scooping up more data than it needs for purposes that are vague. What the tussle is really about, of course, is whether the renting public actually needs protection from “unregulated hotels” and, even if true, why Airbnb’s efforts to make a market for DIY rentals is at all harmful. MORE »

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The strangely named Rockstar Consortium has been in the news again, in part because some of its members just formed a new lobbying group, the Partnership for American Innovation, aimed at preventing the current political furor over patent trolls from bleeding into a general overhaul of the U.S. patent system. Yet Rockstar is perhaps the most aggressive patent troll out there today. Hence the mounting pressure in Washington, DC for the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division — which signed off on the initial formation of Rockstar two years ago — to open up a formal probe into the consortium’s patent assertion activities directed against rival tech firms, principally Google, Samsung and other Android device manufacturers.

Usually the fatal defect in antitrust claims of horizontal collusion is proving that competing firms acted in parallel fashion from mutual agreement rather than independent business judgment. In the case of Rockstar — a joint venture among nearly all smartphone platform providers except Google — that problem is not present because the entity itself exists only by agreement among its owner firms. The question for U.S. antitrust enforcers is thus the traditional substantive inquiry, under Section 1 of the Sherman Act, whether Rockstar’s conduct is unreasonably restrictive of competition.

Rockstar Consortium logo

Despite its cocky moniker, Rockstar is simply a corporate patent troll hatched by Google’s rivals, who collectively spent $4.5 billion ($2.5 billion from Apple alone) in 2012 to buy a trove of wireless-related patents out of bankruptcy from Nortel, the long-defunct Canadian telecom company. It is engaged in a zero-sum game of gotcha against the Android ecosystem. As Brian Kahin explained presciently on DisCo then, Rockstar is not about making money, it’s about raising costs for rivals — making strategic use of the patent system’s problems for competitive advantage. Creating or collaborating with trolls is a new game known as privateering, which allows big producing companies to do indirectly what they cannot do directly for fear of exposure to expensive counterclaims. Essentially, it’s patent trolling gone corporate. As another pro-patent lobbying group said at the time, Rockstar represents “a perfect example of a ‘patent troll’ − they bought the patents they did not invent and do not practice; and they bought it for litigation.” Predictiv’s Jonathan Low put it quite well in his The Lowdown blog:

The Rockstar consortium, perhaps more appropriately titled “crawled out from under a rock,” is using classic patent troll tactics since their own technologies and marketing strategies have fallen short in the face of the Android emergence as a global power. Those tactics are to buy patents in hopes of finding cause, however flimsy, to charge others for alleged violations of patents bought for this purpose. Rockstar calls this “privateering” in order to distance itself from the stench of patent trolling, but there are no discernible differences.

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Google’s competitors “are locked in hand-to-hand combat with Google around the world and have the mistaken belief that criticizing us will influence the outcome in other jurisdictions.” — (Former) FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, Jan. 2013

The coalition of companies that for years has unsuccessfully been pressing antitrust complaints against Google for search “abuse” — FairSearch.org — insists Google must be restrained for fear the Mountain View company will steer search users to its commercial products, like flight bookings. The group’s most recent publicity event, held at the ABA’s Antitrust Section annual spring meeting last week, repeated those same claims. FairSearch ventured as well into new ground, attacking what it terms Google’s unreasonably restrictive Android licensing practices.

There are four straightforward reasons FairSearch is wrong.

1.  Predictions of Foreclosure Have Proven Totally Baseless.

When Google purchased travel software maker ITA in 2011, FairSearch maintained that Google would exploit its control over the ITA tools that power other online travel agencies, along with many of the airlines’ own sites, to usher competing search services off the stage, then jack up ad rates for travel queries and favor flights from particular airlines. google-eu-antitrust Three years later, nothing like that has happened. In fact, Google Flight Search is not among the top 100 or even the top 200 travel listing sites. Rather, it’s in 244th place, behind Hipmunk, with just .04% of travel queries. Real-world experience, in other words, reveals that the predicted competitive risks on which FairSearch bases its advocacy are both hypothetical and fanciful. MORE »

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Is Bazaarvoice Bizarre?

by Glenn Manishin on January 28, 2014

When is a prediction not worth relying upon? For purposes of analyzing mergers under the Clayton Antitrust Act, a recent decision in favor of the Justice Department indicates that predictions are worth less — perhaps are even worthless — when they are contradicted by the actual facts of the marketplace. The government’s successful legal challenge a couple of weeks ago to the merger of two Internet start-ups ironically shows that the force of predictive judgments remains powerful, even when courts could employ reality as a basis for accurate comparison.

Some background. A 2013 DisCo post authored by the undersigned contrasted “future markets,” where the contours of products and entry do not yet exist and cannot reliably be predicted, with “nascent markets,” in which those features indeed exist but only in their infancy. My thesis was that antitrust enforcement in the latter is preferable because looking back at nascent markets once they have a chance to develop gives the government a more accurate basis on which to assess the actual impact of mergers and concentration than rank projections in which policymakers have no comparative expertise.

Bazaarvoice logo

The case used to illustrate this theme was United States v. Bazaarvoice, Inc., in which the Justice Department sued to unwind a 2012 merger, already completed, between two firms in what it called the online ratings and reviews platform market. I concluded that

by challenging the merger post-consummation, DOJ has avoided basing its enforcement decisions on predictions of future markets and instead the case should rise or fall on the accuracy of its ex post analysis of actual competitive effects.

That’s not at all what happened, though.

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