Monopolization/Dominant Firm Conduct

German Competition Authority Investigates Amazon

The German Federal Cartel Office (FCO) has opened abuse proceedings against Amazon for practices related to the German marketplace amazon.de. This move comes not long after the European Commission initiated a preliminary investigation into Amazon’s use of transaction data.

In both the German and the EU case, the competition concerns appear to be linked to Amazon being not only the largest online retailer but also the largest online marketplace for competing retailers. There are, however, important differences between the two investigations: While the Commission is looking at “exclusionary abuse,” i.e. conduct hindering the competitive opportunities of its rivals, the FCO investigates potential “exploitative abuse,” i.e. imposing conditions that are significantly more onerous for retailers using the marketplace than they would be in a competitive environment (see the FCO’s press release).

The approach of the FCO is based on special features of German competition law, which facilitate proceedings against abuses of market power:

First, regarding the issue of market power, the German prohibition on abusive market conduct applies not only to companies with a dominant market position (as under EU law) but also to companies with “relative market power,” which is a less demanding standard. A company has relative market power if small or medium-sized customers or suppliers are dependent on it and cannot reasonably switch to other companies for the supply or the sale of a particular type of goods or services. The FCO believes that Amazon may be dominant or may have relative market power because it functions as a “gatekeeper.” In fact, Amazon has become so powerful in Germany that many retailers and manufacturers depend on the reach of its marketplace for their online sales.

Second, regarding the existence of abuse, the FCO suspects that Amazon is abusing its market position to the detriment of sellers active on its marketplace by imposing unfair terms and conditions. Here, the FCO relies on the case law of the German Supreme Court, which has decided that the use of unfair terms and conditions by a dominant firm can constitute an abuse – provided it is because of its dominance or relative market power that the firm is able to impose such terms and conditions. In other words: there must be a causal link between the firm’s market power or dominance and the unfair terms and conditions. It is not yet clear how the FCO will establish such a link.

Regarding the terms and practices that will be scrutinized, the FCO has listed the following provisions as being potentially illegal:

  • liability provisions
  • choice of law and jurisdiction clauses
  • rules on product reviews
  • the non-transparent termination and blocking of sellers’ accounts
  • withholding or delaying payment
  • clauses assigning rights to use the information material that a seller has to provide with regard to the products offered
  • terms of business on pan-European dispatch

The FCO’s Amazon investigation shows some similarities to its ongoing proceedings against Facebook (see our previous Blog post). Both cases are focused on the use of unfair terms and conditions. The FCO has said that it will issue its Facebook decision in early 2019. We expect that decision to set the direction for the Amazon investigation.

 

Is Amazon the Next Big Case? – GAFA Under Antitrust Scrutiny

Margrethe Vestager, head of the European Union’s Directorate-General for Competition (“DG Comp”), recently announced that the EU was once again investigating actions of a high-profile tech company – Amazon.

During a press conference held in Brussels in September, Commissioner Vestager affirmed that DG Comp had already sent questionnaires to market participants and started looking into Amazon’s potential abuse of dominance. However, DG Comp has not yet opened a formal case. As the Commissioner stated, “[t]hese are very early days and we haven’t formally opened a case. We are trying to make sure that we get the full picture.”

This investigation comes only a year after Amazon was found to have received illegal state aid through tax rulings of the State of Luxembourg, which was then ordered to recover more than €250 million.

The Issue at Stake

It is no secret that Amazon wields significant influence in retail e-commerce. The tremendous visibility of Amazon’s platform around the world attracts many third-party sellers and enables the company to act as both seller and host.

The recurrent concerns on the market relate to the dual nature of the Seattle-based company. The issue put forward by Commissioner Vestager concerns the use of third-party sellers’ data by Amazon as a host to increase the efficiency of Amazon as a seller.

How? Easy as pie. When a product sells well, Amazon is immediately informed through the data it collects, and the company then simply needs to adjust its own offerings and lower the price of its similar house-made products.

One could argue that these practices could put third-party vendors at a disadvantage and potentially amount to anti-competitive abuse of a dominant position under article 102 of the TFEU.

Amazon’s Strategy – A Fertile Ground for Global Competition Issues

Because Amazon is active in many different markets – as retailer, book publisher, marketing platform, host of cloud server space and in the television industry – its global strategy is to expand its integration across many business lines, exploiting the data it collects and being aggressive on pricing. The company appears to encourage growth over profits.

Those practices have been questioned over the past years. For instance, Lina M. Khan recently published an article in The Yale Law Journal discussing the alleged predatory pricing behavior of Amazon and related vertical relationship issues. For Ms. Khan, there is an ambient underappreciation of the risk to competition posed by the company, due, maybe, to an outdated vison of market power.

After Commissioner Vestager’s conference, it seems that the EU has taken preliminary steps to assess these risks.

Big Tech Companies – Sources of New Antitrust Challenges

DG Comp has only one toolbox: the EU treaties. Commission Vestager, however, proved to the world that there are many, many tools in this box.

Under Commissioner Vestager’s mandate, Google has been fined (twice) a total of almost $8 billion for abuse of dominance, Apple has been asked to reimburse the Irish State more than $14 billion in illegal State Aid and Facebook was sanctioned €110 million for providing misleading information about the WhatsApp takeover.

In reality, these cases point out the viability of EU competition instruments. The EU State Aid regime is precise and strong enough to catch hidden favorable tax schemes while venerable Article 102 is still able to catch unfair market practices, even those put in place in a new, digital economy.

Last but not least, it seems that EU Commissioner Vestager has found an impromptu ally in the war for fair competition: President Donald J. Trump himself, who recently argued in favor of antitrust actions against Amazon as part of an effort to exert more control over powerful multinationals.

This may be the first time when U.S. and EU antitrust agencies align their views toward a tech giant. That may not be not the kind of first-time attention Amazon would like.

FTC Kicks Off Hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century

Antitrust policy, once relegated to wonk status, has taken center stage in recent years: it seems as if each day there is a new debate over the need – or lack thereof – for more robust competition enforcement in today’s economy. In the past few weeks alone, competition law and big tech have been in the spotlight in both a call to reopen a Federal Trade Commission (“FTC” or “Commission”) investigation into Google and a forthcoming meeting among Attorney General Jeff Sessions, state Attorneys General investigating social media companies and a representative from the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (“DOJ”).

The FTC jumped into the fray on September 13, 2018 when it kicked off its hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century, which had been announced earlier this year. The purpose of the hearings is to utilize the agency’s Section 6 authority “to consider whether broad-based changes in the economy, evolving business practices, new technologies, or international developments might require adjustments to competition and consumer protection law, enforcement priorities, and policy.” Among the announced topics are issues that have dominated the news lately, including: competition in technology markets, particularly those featuring two-sided “platform” businesses (ones that cannot make a sale to one side of the market without simultaneously making a sale to the other); the intersection of privacy, data and competition; evaluating the competitive effects of vertical mergers (those that join firms at different levels of the supply chain, e.g., the AT&T-Time Warner deal challenged unsuccessfully by DOJ); and the consumer welfare standard, which has served as the economic principle guiding antitrust enforcement since the 1980s. The FTC has accepted more than 500 public comments on 20 announced topics and continues to invite public comment in advance of specific hearing sessions.

Commission Chairman Joe Simons set the stage for the opening session by highlighting the combination of increased economic concentration and decreased antitrust enforcement that has generated calls to reassess the very nature of antitrust policy, noting that he is approaching the discussions “with a very open mind.”

The panel discussions that followed the opening session focused on the current landscape of competition and consumer protection law and policy, concentration and competitiveness in the U.S. economy, and the regulation of consumer data. Key takeaways so far include:

  • The Commission is eager to set competition enforcement priorities. Tech companies appear to be in the crosshairs.
  • Although there is growing concern about increased concentration in the economy, there is no consensus that big equates to bad. While some panelists cited data linking concentration to income inequality and reduced innovation, others cautioned that protecting less efficient businesses in the name of competition is misguided.
  • Effective privacy and data breach enforcement likely require new, modern tools both for detection and regulation. The FTC’s consumer protection mission likely will need to account for changes in federal legislation and/or voluntary rules established by the tech industry.

Videos of past hearing sessions are available online, along with public comments and additional information.

The FTC’s end goal is to produce one or more policy papers, patterned after the fruits of the 1995 hearings hosted by then-FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky. Those hearings, which focused on global competition and innovation, led to two staff reports on competition and consumer protection policy “in the new high-tech, global marketplace” and helped pave the way for U.S. agency actions blocking mergers primarily based on harms to innovation. The Commission once again is revisiting its approach.

In the interim, stay tuned for additional updates as the hearings continue.

Potential Antitrust Issues Lurking in Blockchain Technology

Blockchain technology has burst onto the scene and into the public consciousness over the last few years. While the securities and privacy law questions surrounding blockchain technology have received much attention, perhaps less obvious are the potential antitrust issues raised by the technology.

Although these issues are nascent, they are not wholly theoretical. For example, on March 16 the FTC announced that it is creating a Blockchain Working Group to look at, inter alia, competition policy. “Cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies could disrupt existing industries. In disruptive scenarios, incumbent companies may sometimes seek to hobble potential competitors through regulatory burdens. The FTC’s competition advocacy work could help ensure that competition, not regulation, determines what products will be available in the marketplace” (FTC Blog Post). And in January of this year, the Japan Fair Trade Commission also indicated that it may look into the competition policy issues involving blockchain-based cryptocurrencies.

This blog post briefly discusses some of the potential antitrust issues associated with blockchain technology. READ MORE

Intellectual Ventures Wins Summary Judgment to Defeat Capital One’s Antitrust Counterclaims

Patent License agreement on a table Intellectual Ventures Wins Summary Judgment to Defeat Capital One’s Antitrust Counterclaims

Antitrust partner David Goldstein recently wrote an article for the Antitrust, UCL and Privacy section of the State Bar of California regarding Intellectual Venture’s recent summary judgment win to defeat Capital One’s antitrust counterclaims asserted in response to IV’s patent infringement claims. The decision addresses recurring issues involving patent assertion entities, including the definition of the relevant market, the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, and collateral estoppel. The article can be accessed here.

The Chips Are Down: Intel’s Victory in the European Court of Justice Has Implications on How Anticompetitive Conduct Is Analysed in EU Antitrust Cases

 

On 6 September 2017, the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) handed down its long-awaited ruling in Intel v Commission (the “Ruling”).[1] The Ruling, which sets aside the appealed judgment of the EU General Court and orders the case to be re-examined for failing to consider the effects of anticompetitive conduct on competition, has potentially broad implications for how the European Commission (“Commission”) conducts its analysis and reasons its decisions in ongoing and future EU antitrust investigations.

Key Takeaways

  • The Ruling signals a return of “effects-based” analysis in EU antitrust cases and a move away from a “form-based” approach where certain conduct is deemed per se illegal.
  • The Ruling not only clarifies how the General Court should assess appeals of Commission decisions, but is likely to have implications for how the Commission approaches its analysis and reasons its decisions in EU antitrust cases going forward. In particular, the burden of proving that specific conduct or practices have anticompetitive effects is placed firmly with the Commission.
  • Intel’s victory may embolden other entities facing similar allegations to defend their corners more aggressively.
  • This is not the end of the road. It cannot be ruled out that the General Court, when it re-examines the case and applies the appropriate analysis, comes to the same ultimate conclusions and upholds the Commission’s original fine.

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Antitrust Issues on Collection and Use of Big Data in Japan

On June 6, 2017, a committee within Japan’s Fair Trade Commission published a report on competition policy and big data. The report is based on a concern that dominance of big data by certain major technology companies could impede competition and innovation, and addresses how Japan’s Antitrust Act (Act) could be applied in this context.

A main focus of the report is how certain cases of “collection of data” and “use of data” could trigger antitrust issues. READ MORE

U.S. DOJ and FTC Issue Updated Antitrust/IP Guidelines and International Enforcement and Cooperation Guidelines

On January 13, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission issued their updated Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property, first issued in 1995, which explains how the two agencies evaluate licensing and related activities involving patents, copyrights, trade secrets and know-how. Although the agencies have issued a variety of reports since 1995 regarding antitrust and IP issues, this is the first comprehensive update of the Guidelines.  The final updated Guidelines do not differ significantly from the proposed Guidelines released in August 2016, which we analyzed in this blog post.

Also on January 13, 2017, the DOJ and FTC issued their revised Antitrust Guidelines for International Enforcement and Cooperation, first issued in 1995 as the Antitrust Enforcement Guidelines for International Operations. These Guidelines explain the agencies’ current approaches to international enforcement policy and their related investigative tools and cooperation with foreign enforcement agencies.  The revised Guidelines differ from the 1995 Guidelines by adding a chapter on international cooperation, updating the discussion of the application of U.S. antitrust law to conduct involving foreign commerce (e.g., the Foreign Trade Antitrust Improvement Act, foreign sovereign immunity, foreign sovereign compulsion, etc.), and providing examples of issues that commonly arise.

Tenth Circuit Rules That Invocation of IP Rights Is Presumptively Valid Defense to Antitrust Refusal to Deal Claims

Tenth Circuit Rules That Invocation of IP Rights Is Presumptively Valid Defense to Antitrust Refusal to Deal Claims Detail of a pair of aviator sunglasses on a flight planner

In SOLIDFX, LLC v. Jeppesen Sanderson, Inc., Case Nos. 15-1079 and 15-1097 (opinion available here), the Tenth Circuit aligned itself with the First and Federal Circuits to hold that the invocation of intellectual property rights is a presumptively valid business justification sufficient to rebut a Sherman Act Section 2 refusal to deal claim, but left open some questions about when and how the presumption can (if ever) be rebutted.

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China’s and Japan’s Antitrust Enforcement Agencies Warm Up To Each Other

Chinese and Japanese crossed flags increased communication, cooperation and coordination among Chinese and Japanese antitrust enforcement agencies

Although China and Japan have very different histories regarding their antitrust laws, antitrust enforcement officials from the two countries have recently taken steps to open a formal dialogue. This is a welcome development for Chinese and Japanese companies, as well as for foreign companies that do business in China and Japan, and it continues the trend of increased communication, cooperation and coordination among national enforcement agencies. There remains an open question, however, as to how convergence among Asian antitrust enforcement agencies will affect possible convergence with agencies in the United States, the European Union and the rest of the world.

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Third Circuit Jump-starts Class Action, Holding that an Indirect Purchaser Can Bring Federal Antitrust Claims as a Direct Purchaser Based on Assignment of the Claims Even Without Consideration

Antitrust Class Action Truck Transmissions

On September 15, 2016, the Third Circuit jump-started a federal antitrust class action involving truck transmissions, holding that a direct purchaser’s assignment of its federal antitrust claims to an indirect purchaser is valid as long as the assignment was written and express—even if there was no consideration for the assignment. The Third Circuit also held that a proposed class representative’s motion to intervene is presumptively timely if made before class certification.  Wallach, et al. v. Eaton Corp., et al., No. 15-3320 (Sept. 15, 2016).

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Ninth Circuit Grounds Aftermarket Claims, Refusing to Stretch Antitrust Theories and Reminding Plaintiffs That Allegations Must Be Supported by Evidence of Anti-Competitive Harm

Last week, the Ninth Circuit affirmed a summary judgment disposing of numerous antitrust claims brought by an independent servicer against a manufacturer of systems and parts that also provides service. The court emphasized that “[t]his case serves as a reminder that anecdotal speculation and supposition are not a substitute for evidence, and that evidence decoupled from harm to competition—the bellweather of antitrust—is insufficient to defeat summary judgment.” Aerotec Int’l, Inc. v. Honeywell Int’l, Inc., No. 14-15562 (9th Cir. Sept. 9, 2016).

Auxiliary Power Units (“APUs”) power an airplane’s air conditioning, cabin lights and instrumentation. Aerotec International, Inc. (“Aerotec’), a small servicer of APUs, including those manufactured by Honeywell International, Inc. (“Honeywell”), complained that Honeywell had stalled Aerotec’s sales efforts and prevented it from reaching cruising altitude through a variety of alleged anticompetitive conduct.

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China’s Fair Competition Review System: China Takes Another Significant Step Eight Years After Enacting the Anti-Monopoly Law

Rshutterstock_99699011-2ecognizing concern that the Chinese government intervenes excessively into markets and private economic activities, the China State Council recently released opinions directing the implementation of a fair competition review system (“FCRS”), which is intended to moderate administrative authorities’ issuance of regulations and minimize the government’s interference in China’s economy. Although the CRS has been hailed as “a key step to establish the fundamental status of competition policies,”[1] its success will depend on how it is implemented.

On June 1, 2016, the Opinions of the State Council on Establishing a Fair Competition Review System During the Development of Market-Oriented Systems (“Opinions”) were promulgated and became effective.  The Opinions note that enforcement of current laws sometimes entails “local protectionism, regional blockade, industry barriers, business monopoly, granting preferential policies in violation of the law or illegally prejudicing the interests of market players, and other phenomena contrary to the efforts of building a unified national market and promoting fair competition.”  These so-called “administrative monopolies,” which often are at issue in cases investigated under the Anti-Monopoly Law (“AML”), are at cross purposes to the AML.  In an effort to reduce or eliminate obstacles to economic development, the Opinions call for limiting the government authorities’ administrative powers, establishing the FCRS, preventing new policies and measures that exclude competition, and gradually revising and ultimately abolishing existing provisions that impede fair competition.

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U.S. District Court Denies FTC’s Motion for a Preliminary Injunction Blocking Chicago-area Advocate Health / NorthShore Hospital Merger

On June 14, 2016, U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso, of the Northern District of Illinois, denied a motion for preliminary injunction by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and the Attorney General for the State of Illinois, seeking to block the proposed merger between Advocate Health Care and the NorthShore University Health System (“NorthShore”) in the Chicago metropolitan area.[1]  According to Judge Alonso’s opinion released on June 20, the Plaintiffs failed to prove a relevant geographic market, the lack of which the Court deemed fatal to the Plaintiffs’ case.[2]

This loss could be a blow for the FTC’s health care competition enforcement program.  It is the agency’s second loss in district court this year in a hospital merger challenge.  Additionally, as we noted in our May 13, 2016 blog post concerning the FTC’s earlier loss on the Hershey merger—now on appeal to the Third Circuit—both cases reflect push-back by courts against what to this point have been highly successful FTC market definition and consumer harm arguments in hospital merger cases.

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Supreme Court’s Request for Views of the United States on Cert. Petition in Lamictal “Reverse-Payment” Case Flags Potential Issues for Practitioners

On Monday, June 7, the Supreme Court requested the views of the Solicitor General in connection with a petition for certiorari filed by the U.S. subsidiary of GlaxoSmithKline plc (“GSK”) in SmithKline Beecham Corp. v. King Drug Co. of Florence, No. 15-1055.  The Supreme Court’s request seems less directed to rethinking its seminal ruling in FTC v. Actavis on the lawfulness of “reverse-payment” settlements of Hatch-Waxman cases than to a concern that, in some specific ways, its decision may have created some unintended consequences.

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Health Check for Hospitals in Germany

Are patients receiving the best care in hospitals? The German competition authority – Bundeskartellamt – has now decided to apply a health check to the German hospitals market.

On May 31, 2016, the German competition authority announced that it was launching a so-called “sector inquiry” into the hospital services market to examine the degree of competition in that sector of the economy.

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No Easy Answers: Ohlhausen Challenges Notion of “Monopoly Problem” In the US

On June 1, 2016, FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen delivered remarks in Hong Kong, pushing back on recent news reports implying that the United States currently suffers from a “monopoly problem” causing a reduction of competition in the marketplace.  Recent articles and opinion pieces in The Economist and The New York Times suggest that the consolidation of market power, and lack of antitrust enforcement preventing such consolidation, are having a noticeable effect and harming consumers and innovation.  Indeed, the precursor to these reports—an April 14, 2016 report from the Council of Economic Advisers (“CEA”), entitled “Benefits of Competition and Indicators of Market Power,” argues there has been a decline of competition in certain parts of the U.S. economy due the concentration of monopoly power in the hands of a select few players in certain industries (e.g., airlines, cable, networking).  The CEA report suggests U.S. agencies should explore how certain factors—the use of Big Data, increased price transparency, and common stock ownership—affect competition.  As a result of the CEA report, President Obama issued an Executive Order on April 15, 2016, directing antitrust enforcement agencies to use their authority to “promote competition.”

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Third Circuit Rejects Drug Manufacturer’s Single-Product Bundling Claim – But Prescription for the Future Is Unclear

You know what they say: one man’s price is another man’s bundle.  No?  Well maybe they should, after this recent decision out of the Third Circuit in Eisai, Inc. v. Sanofi Aventis U.S., LLC involving allegedly exclusionary discounting.  The court ultimately found Sanofi’s conduct was not unlawful.  But the decision raises questions about how such conduct – a hybrid of price discounts and single-product bundling – will be treated going forward, at least in the Third Circuit.

At issue was Sanofi’s marketing of its anticoagulant drug Lovenox to hospitals through its Lovenox Acute Contract Value Program.  Under the Program, hospitals received price discounts based on the total volume of Lovenox they purchased and the proportion of Lovenox in their overall purchase of anticoagulant drugs.  A hospital that chose Lovenox for less than 75% of its total purchase of anticoagulants received a flat 1% discount regardless of the volume purchased.  But when a hospital’s purchase of Lovenox exceeded that percentage, it would receive an increasingly higher discount based on total volume and percentage share, up to a total of 30% off the wholesale price.  A hospital that did not participate in the Program at all was free to purchase Lovenox “off contract” at the wholesale price.

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FTC Settles Charges of Illegal Exclusive Contracts with Medical Device Input Supplier Invibio

On April 27, 2016, Invibio—a supplier of polyetheretherketone (“PEEK”) used in medical implants—agreed to settle charges asserted by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) that its exclusive supply contracts with medical device manufacturers, including some of the world’s largest, violated Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. § 45.[1]  This consent decree may signal a renewed interest at the agency to scrutinize exclusive contract arrangements. The decree also serves as a reminder that, while exclusive contracts are not per se unlawful, companies that have market power and use exclusive contracts face risks under the antitrust and consumer protection laws.

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U.S. District Court Denies FTC’s Motion for a Preliminary Injunction Blocking Penn State Hershey / PinnacleHealth Hospital Merger

On May 9, 2016, U.S. District Judge John Jones III, of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, rejected a motion for preliminary injunction by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and the Pennsylvania Attorney General to halt the proposed merger between Penn State Hershey Medical Center (“Hershey”) and PinnacleHealth System (“Pinnacle”).  The Court’s decision represents a potential setback for the FTC’s enforcement against hospital consolidation around the country.  The opinion raises further questions about recent analyses endorsed by the agency and other federal courts when reviewing hospital mergers.  The Court has extended the temporary restraining order in effect until May 27, 2016, to allow the FTC and the Attorney General to seek relief from the 3d Circuit.

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