Hell or High Water for Nidec

The phrase “come hell or high water” is said to have originated in the late 1800s in reference to the conditions cattle herders encountered when they trekked from Texas to the Midwest across large prairies in the summer heat and through deep rivers. In the merger context, a hell or high water (HOHW) clause requires a buyer to take all action necessary, including divestitures, to secure approval from competition authorities. On March 8, 2019 Whirlpool Corp. sued Nidec Corp. in the Southern District of New York alleging that Nidec breached its obligations under their Share Purchase Agreement (SPA) to take all actions required to secure antitrust approvals. The case highlights the importance of antitrust risk sharing provisions in merger agreements and how courts interpret HOHW provisions.

The Whirlpool Complaint

On April 24, 2018 Nidec and Whirlpool entered into the SPA for Nidec’s $1.1 billion purchase of Whirlpool’s Embraco compressor business unit. Whirlpool manufactures home appliances and related products. Whirlpool’s Embraco business unit manufactures refrigeration compressors for kitchen refrigerators and freezers and for light commercial uses such as beverage coolers. Nidec manufactures electric motors and related products. Nidec’s Secop business unit is an Embraco competitor that also manufactures refrigeration compressors.

Given the competitive overlap in refrigeration compressors, the parties anticipated the transaction would encounter significant antitrust issues. The SPA contained several provisions that allocated the antitrust risk to Nidec:

  • Conditions to Closing: Nidec agreed to obtain approvals from competition authorities, including approval from the European Commission (EC).
  • HOHW Provision: Nidec agreed to “take any and all actions and do all things necessary, proper or advisable” to obtain all competition approvals. If any competition authority raised objections, Nidec agreed “to hold separate or to divest, license or otherwise dispose of any of the businesses or properties or assets of [Nidec], and of its Affiliates, or [Embraco].”
  • Closing Date: Nidec agreed to secure all antitrust approvals in time for closing on April 24, 2019.

The EC can approve a transaction during a Phase I investigative period if the parties offer remedies sufficient to address any competitive concern. Whirlpool alleges that Nidec prolonged and hindered the EC’s Phase I review of the transaction. Specifically, Whirlpool alleges that Nidec:

  • Failed to make timely submissions to the EC;
  • Wasted valuable time making futile arguments that no remedy should be required; and
  • Submitted a series of five remedies that failed to address the EC’s competitive concerns.

According to Whirlpool, the obvious remedy was to divest all of Secop, a clear-cut remedy that would have addressed all of the EC’s concerns. Nidec, however, refused to offer this remedy, and on November 28, 2018 the EC opened an in-depth, or Phase II, investigation of the transaction. The EC’s press release announcing the in-depth investigation noted that it tested various commitments submitted by Nidec and found that they were insufficient to address the EC’s competitive concerns.

Although Nidec ultimately agreed to divest all of Secop, it continued to prolong and hinder remedy discussions during the Phase II investigation. For example, Nidec (1) delayed responding to the EC’s request for an upfront buyer, (2) failed to effectively market Secop and (3) failed to offer attractive terms to potential buyers.

As of March 8, 2019, the date Whirlpool filed its complaint, Nidec had not reached a deal with a buyer acceptable to the EC. With the April 24, 2019 closing date fast approaching, Whirlpool seeks an order requiring Nidec to meet its HOHW obligations and immediately divest Secop at no minimum price and at whatever terms required to effect an immediate sale. In the alternative, if Nidec fails to sell Secop, Whirlpool seeks the appointment of a trustee fully empowered to immediately sell Secop.

Takeaways

HOHW provisions are not commonly used in merger agreements because they signal to the competition agencies that the parties believe the transaction raises competitive concerns and can provide the agencies significant leverage to extract a remedy. Here, Whirlpool clearly anticipated significant antitrust problems and successfully shifted all risk to Nidec by obtaining a pure HOHW provision that placed no cap on the assets that could be subject to divestiture. It appears from the complaint that rather than honor its HOHW commitment, Nidec took steps to avoid making all necessary divestitures for EC clearance of the transaction.

Whirlpool argues for a strict interpretation of the HOHW provision. Whirlpool would require a buyer to promptly propose a divestiture remedy that no reasonable competition agency could reject. Nidec will likely argue for a more flexible interpretation. It is reasonable to argue no remedy is necessary before offering remedies, and it is reasonable to offer alternative divestiture packages to test a competition agency’s bottom line. There is very little case law on a party’s obligations under a HOHW provision. If Whirlpool and Nidec are unable to settle this dispute before the April 24, 2019 closing date, we may get greater clarity on what constitutes a breach of HOHW provision.

 

More Affordable and Innovative Medicines and Treatments in Europe – Has the Competition Enforcement Met the 2009 Objective?

A decade ago, the European Commission conducted a thorough sectoral inquiry into the European pharmaceutical sector that identified antitrust shortcomings impeding access to more affordable and innovative medicines and treatments. Concluding this inquiry by setting priority actions for the years to come, former Competition Commissioner Kroes called for “… more competition and less red tape …” (sic).

Since this statement, there has been intense enforcement activity in the sector not only by the European Commission itself, but also by the European Union Member States’ antitrust authorities.

In its report on “Competition enforcement in the pharmaceutical sector,”  issued on January 28, 2019, the European Commission takes stock of their actions in this space.

The past enforcement record (2009-2017): intense activity, hard stance towards pharmaceutical companies with the use of novel or less known theories of harm

Between 2009 and 2017, no less than 29 infringement decisions were issued by European antitrust authorities, leading to fines totaling over €1 billion, while the European Commission asked for structural remedies for 25% of the reportable mergers in the sector.

Antitrust enforcement

In total, European antitrust authorities investigated over a hundred cases during the 2009-2017 period. Their investigations related to a wide range of medicines and many of the actors involved in the pharmaceutical sector: manufacturers, wholesalers and retail distributors.

Applying Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) (or its national equivalent), which prohibits anticompetitive agreements and cartels, European antitrust authorities condemned, for the first time, certain pay-for-delay agreements, whereby a generic company agrees to restrict or delay its independent entry onto the market in exchange for benefits transferred from the originator. They also condemned practices of collusion in tenders, price fixing, conduct aimed at excluding competitors or limiting their ability to compete, and other types of coordination between competitors.

Besides, European antitrust authorities found that the misuse of the regulatory framework, whereby a dominant company misleads public authorities and misuses the regulatory procedures, can infringe Article 102 TFEU (or its national equivalent). Similarly, disparagement and other practices curbing demand for generics were found to infringe Article 102 TFEU. Reviving the neglected notion of exploitative abuse, European antitrust authorities found that under certain circumstances, a dominant pharmaceutical firm may infringe Article 102 TFEU if it imposes unfair terms and conditions or excessive pricing. In these cases, the reward for innovation seemed to have weighed little in the balance against the alleged harm caused to patients.

Merger control

19 of the 80 mergers reviewed by the Commission over the 2009-2017 period were subject to structural remedies, namely divestitures, offered by the merging firms. Antitrust concerns in those cases related to the risks of (i) price increases for some medicines in one or several Member States, (ii) depriving patients and national healthcare systems of some medicinal products, and (iii) diminishing innovation in relation to certain treatments developed at the EU or even global level.

All in all, the Commission takes a positive view: it considers that active competition enforcement throughout the European Union has fostered innovation, choice and affordability by intervening where companies, unilaterally or jointly, relax competitive pressures that force them to innovate further or prevent others from innovating or illegitimately exploiting their market power.

What’s next?

After this positive assessment, the question that finally arises is whether pharmaceutical companies remain in the spotlight in Europe and should expect the same level of attention from the European antitrust authorities.

The response is, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on the standpoint), yes, definitely.

The now numerous precedents and case law have undoubtedly helped the sector to put some order into the practices implemented in the past. However, the critical challenges facing pharmaceutical companies for years (succession of blockbusters, very high cost and remuneration of innovation, very lengthy development process, etc.) weaken them and may still lead them to adopt either defensive or aggressive strategies at risk from an antitrust perspective. The European Commission remains fully aware of such risk and ultimately recommends that: “Authorities … remain vigilant and pro-active in investigating potentially anti-competitive situations, including where new practices used by companies or new trends in the industry are concerned, such as the growing relevance of biosimilars.”

So, it is most likely not the end of the story …

2019 Antitrust Writing Awards Nominees

Two articles authored (or co-authored) by Orrick attorneys have been nominated for a 2019 Antitrust Writing Award from Concurrences, published by The Institute of Competition Law. Concurrences picks its Antitrust Writing Award winners in part by popular vote. You can view the articles and cast your vote(s) here:

Voting closes on March 26, 2019.

EU: Parent Companies Are Liable for Cartel Damages Caused By Their Liquidated Subsidiaries

In a landmark judgment (Case C‑724/17, Vantaa vs. Skanska Industrial Solutions and others), the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decided on March 14, 2019 that companies cannot use corporate restructuring to escape their liability for cartel damages.

Background

The Skanska case concerned a cartel in the asphalt market in Finland. Seven companies were ultimately fined for their participation in the cartel. After the cartel became public, the municipality of Vantaa, which had bought asphalt during the cartel period, requested compensation from the cartelists. However, several companies had already been dissolved in “voluntary liquidation procedures.” Their sole shareholders (among them Skanska) had then acquired the dissolved companies’ assets and continued their economic activity.

The liquidation of the companies involved in the cartel did not prevent the Finnish authorities from imposing fines on their parent companies. They applied the “principle of economic continuity,” which is well established in the law on fines for EU competition law infringements. However, Skanska disputed that this principle should also apply in civil damages matters. It argued that it could not be held liable because it was not personally involved in the cartel.

The Decision of the European Court of Justice

The ECJ did not follow the arguments of Skanska and the other defendants and found that the defendants could be held liable for the harm caused by their former subsidiaries.

According to the ECJ, the EU prohibition of cartels will be effective, punitive and deterrent only if the associated right to seek private damages is also effective. The identification of the liable entity for a damage claim is governed by EU law and must be based on the same interpretation of the “concept of undertaking” as for the imposition of fines. This means, in particular, that companies cannot circumvent the right of victims to claim damages by dissolving the legal entity which participated in the cartel.

Practical Implications

The Skanska judgment is the latest of a series of judgments in the EU that have strengthened the rights of claimants in antitrust damages actions. It has closed the door for defendants to use corporate restructurings to escape their responsibilities. While Skanska concerns a very specific situation of legal succession, the ECJ’s reasoning implies that the entire case law on the “concept of undertaking” may be applied in private damages cases. As a consequence, corporate parents may be held liable for infringements of group companies to a far greater extent than previously thought.

The Skanska judgment will also have implications for M&A transactions. Since the “concept of undertaking” attaches liability to assets rather than to a particular legal entity, the buyer of a business in an asset deal needs to consider the possibility of being held financially accountable for antitrust infringements of the seller. This aspect should be part of any due diligence.

CMA Orders Parties to Unwind Integration During Ongoing Investigation

For  the first time, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has flexed its regulatory muscles by ordering the unwinding – during the course of its ongoing investigation – of a completed acquisition. In a demonstration of its willingness to use all of the tools at its disposal – regardless of deal size or complexity – the CMA ordered Tobii AB (Tobii) to reverse any integration that had taken place as a result of its completed acquisition of Smartbox Assistive Technology Limited and Sensory International Ltd (Smartbox).

 

Background

Tobii announced its acquisition of Smartbox for £11 million in cash through a debt-financed deal in August 2018. Both are relatively small tech companies that provide specialist “augmentative and assistive communication” (AAC) for those with speech disabilities through hardware and software solutions, including eye-gaze cameras.

Following completion of the transaction, Tobii took various steps to integrate the Smartbox business, including entering into an agreement (Reseller Agreement) whereby Smartbox would act as reseller of Tobii products in the UK and Ireland, the discontinuation of certain Smartbox R&D projects, and the withdrawal of certain Smartbox products from the market.

CMA Investigation

In September 2018, the CMA opened an investigation into the completed transaction and subsequently found that it would lead to less choice, higher prices and reduced innovation for customers. The CMA gave the parties one week to submit undertakings to address these concerns, or the CMA would proceed to an in-depth, Phase 2 investigation.

Despite the parties offering various undertakings designed to alleviate the CMA’s concerns, these were not deemed sufficient and, on February 8, 2019, the CMA referred the transaction for Phase 2 investigation, simultaneously imposing an interim order preventing preemptive action.

Unwinding Order

Following further investigation during the Phase 2 process, the CMA issued – for the first time – an unwinding order. The order requires the parties to reverse integration and restore the parties to the positions in which they would have been had the integration not taken place. The parties are required to fulfil any open orders pursuant to the Reseller Agreement, but terminate it once these are fulfilled. Moreover, the unwinding order requires Smartbox to supply certain products which had been discontinued. Smartbox is also required to reinstate all R&D projects, including investment and staff allocations, which were discontinued due to the acquisition.

In imposing the unwinding order, the CMA concluded that the integration actions taken by the parties might prejudice the Phase 2 reference or impede the taking of any action by the CMA to rectify competitive harm caused by the transaction.

The CMA is scheduled to make its final decision on the transaction by July 25, 2019.

Practical Implications

The imposition of an order to unwind integration in a small tech deal could be seen as the CMA wielding a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but the Tobii/Smartbox case reflects several of the CMA’s priorities for 2019, including an increased focus on tech deals and the protection of vulnerable consumers.

The willingness of the CMA to use the full range of merger control tools at its disposal impacts not only tech deals, but deals in all industry sectors, regardless of size and complexity. Parties in completed transactions, which might affect competition in the UK, but which are not notified to the CMA, should consider carefully what steps to take in terms of integration, and whether and how those steps could be reversed if required to do so by a CMA unwinding order.

The CMA’s approach in this case also highlights the perils of not notifying transactions prior to completion. While the UK merger control regime is voluntary in theory, the consequences of not notifying are such that, in practice, the regime requires parties to carry out a careful pre-transaction assessment of the impact on competition in the UK and the risk of the CMA’s launching an investigation, instead of simply concluding that filing is not required because the UK regime is voluntary.

For more information, contact Douglas Lahnborg ([email protected]) or Matthew Rose ([email protected]).

 

New EU Rules on Foreign Investments: All You Need to Know About the New Screening Mechanism

The Council of the European Union (EU) has adopted a new regulation “establishing a framework for the screening of foreign direct investments into the Union” (the Regulation). This is the first time the EU is equipping itself with a comprehensive framework to monitor investments into EU businesses by investors from outside the EU.

The new rules create a cooperation mechanism where EU member states and the European Commission are able to exchange information and raise concerns. The Commission will have the possibility to issue opinions in cases concerning several member states, or where an investment could affect a project or program of interest to the whole EU. However, EU member states remain in charge of reviewing, and potentially blocking, foreign investments on grounds of security or public order. The decision to set up and maintain national screening mechanisms also continues to be in the hands of individual member states.

In the following, we give an overview of the main features of the Regulation.

The New Regulation

Until recently, there were no measures at the level of the EU on the review and control of foreign direct investments. At the national level, such measures have existed in several member states – and amid growing concerns about the impact that certain foreign investments may have on national interests, some member states have made their review procedures significantly more stringent in recent years. However, the decentralized and fragmented nature of the national review procedures raised questions about their effectiveness in addressing adequately the potential (cross-border) impact of foreign investments in sensitive sectors.

To respond to such concerns, the European Commission proposed the Regulation in 2017.

The objective of the Regulation is not to harmonize the formal foreign investment mechanisms used in EU member states, or to replace them with a single EU mechanism. Rather, it provides a mechanism for EU-wide cooperation and information sharing to allow member states to make informed decisions taking into account all relevant risks and protect pan-European interests. The decision on whether to set up a review mechanism or to review a particular foreign investment remains the sole responsibility of the member states.

The EU Council adopted the Commission’s proposal on March 5, 2019. The Regulation will enter into effect after a transitional period of 18 months following its publication in the Official Journal, expected to take place on March 21, 2019.

Under the Regulation, the competent authorities of the EU member states remain in charge of screening foreign direct investments under the applicable national laws. The role of the European Commission is to facilitate coordination and to advise member states where it considers that an investment would likely affect security or public order in one or more member states.

Transactions Subject to Review

The Regulation does not put in place a review requirement for foreign investments; rather, it sets up a procedural framework for screening mechanisms created by the EU member states. The rules of the Regulation apply to any national “procedure allowing to assess, investigate, authorize, condition, prohibit or unwind foreign direct investments.”

The definition of “foreign direct investments” is broad and does not require an investment above a defined threshold of shareholder rights or the acquisition of control in the target company. Any investment “aiming to establish or to maintain lasting and direct links” with a business in “in order to carry on an economic activity” in an EU member state is sufficient. The investment must be made by a “foreign investor,” defined as “a natural person of a third country or an undertaking of a third country.” Third countries are countries outside the EU. Therefore, the Regulation does not apply to the screening of cross-border investments inside the EU.

 

Procedure

The aim of the Regulation is to enhance cooperation and increase transparency between EU member states and the European Commission. To this end, it creates a “cooperation mechanism” that requires member states to inform each other and the Commission of incoming foreign direct investments affecting security and public order (→ EU Cooperation Mechanism for the Screening of Foreign Direct Investments):

  • Where a member state screens a foreign direct investment, it is obliged to notify the other member states and the Commission by providing, “as soon as possible,” certain information on the investment (→ Information Requirements). The other member states can then comment and the Commission can issue a (nonbinding) opinion within certain time limits, normally within 35 calendar days following the notification (this period is extended if other member states or the Commission request additional information).
  • Where a foreign direct investment in a member state is not undergoing screening and other member states or the Commission considers that the investment is likely to affect security or public order, the latter may request from the former certain information on the investment (→ Information Requirements). The other member states and the Commission may then provide comments or a (nonbinding) opinion, respectively, to the member state receiving the foreign direct investment. The time limit for comments and opinions is 35 calendar days following the receipt of information on the investment, although extensions are possible.

Although the final screening decision is the sole responsibility of the member state receiving the foreign investment, it is required to give “due consideration” to the comments of the other member states and the opinion of the Commission. Moreover, in cases where the Commission believes that the foreign direct investment may affect projects or programs of “Union interest,” the member state receiving the investment is required to take “utmost account” of the Commission’s opinion and provide an explanation if the opinion is not followed. Project and programs of “Union interest” are defined in the Annex of the Regulation. They currently include:

  • European GNSS programs (Galileo & EGNOS);
  • Copernicus;
  • Horizon 2020;
  • Trans-European Networks for Transport (TEN-T);
  • Trans-European Networks for Energy (TEN-E);
  • Trans-European Networks for Telecommunications;
  • European Defence Industrial Development Programme; and
  • Permanent structured cooperation (PESCO).

In addition to creating the cooperation mechanism, the Regulation also imposes certain minimum standards for the national screening mechanisms of EU member states. These include:

  • National rules and procedures must be transparent and not discriminate between third countries.
  • Member states must set out the circumstances triggering a screening, the grounds for screening and the applicable detailed procedural rules.
  • Member States must apply timeframes that allow them to take into account the comments of other member states and the opinions of the Commission under the coordination mechanism.
  • Confidential information must be protected.
  • Foreign investors and the undertakings concerned must have the possibility to seek recourse against screening decisions of the national authorities.
  • National screening mechanism must include measures necessary to identify and prevent circumvention.

Substantive Assessment

The Regulation does not attempt to harmonize national rules on foreign investments in the EU member states. However, it does provide a list of factors that the member states and the European Commission may take into consideration when conducting their assessment. This includes potential effects on the following:

  • critical infrastructure (incl. energy, transport, water, health, communications, media, data processing, finance);
  • critical technologies and dual use items (incl. artificial intelligence, robotics, semiconductors, cybersecurity, aerospace, defense, energy storage, quantum, nuclear, nano- or biotechnologies);
  • supply of critical inputs (incl. energy, raw materials, food);
  • access to sensitive information (incl. personal data); or
  • freedom and pluralism of the media.

 

M&A HSR Premerger Notification Thresholds Increase in 2019

Takeaways

  • The new minimum HSR threshold is $90 million and applies to transactions closing on or after April 3, 2019.
  • The current threshold of $84.4 million is in effect for all transactions that will close through April 2, 2019.
  • Failure to file may result in a fine of up to $42,530 per day of non-compliance.
  • The HSR Act casts a wide net, catching mergers and acquisitions, minority stock positions (including compensation equity and financing rounds), asset acquisitions, joint venture formations, and grants of exclusive licenses, among others.

The Federal Trade Commission has announced new HSR thresholds for 2019. The thresholds are adjusted annually, and were delayed this year by the government shutdown. Transactions closing on or after April 3, 2019 that are valued in excess of $90 million potentially require an HSR premerger notification filing to the U.S. antitrust agencies. The HSR Act and Rules require that parties to certain transactions submit an HSR filing and wait up to 30 days (or more, if additional information is formally requested) before closing, which gives the government time to review the transaction for potential antitrust concerns. The HSR Act applies to a wide variety of transactions, including those outside the usual M&A context. Potentially reportable transactions include mergers and acquisitions, minority stock positions (including compensation equity and financing rounds), asset acquisitions, joint venture formations, and grants of exclusive licenses, among others.

Determining reportability: Does the transaction meet the Size of Transaction test?

The potential need for an HSR filing requires determining whether the acquiring person will hold an aggregate amount of voting securities, non-corporate interests, and/or assets valued in excess of the HSR “Size of Transaction” threshold that is in place at the time of closing. Calculating the Size of Transaction may require aggregating voting securities, non-corporate interests, and assets previously acquired, with what will be acquired in the contemplated transaction. It may also include more than the purchase price, such as earnouts and liabilities. Talk to your HSR counsel to determine what must be included in determining your Size of Transaction.

If the transaction will close before April 3, 2019, the $84.4 million threshold still applies; closings as of April 3, 2019 will be subject to the new $90 million threshold.

Determining reportability: Do the parties to the transaction have to meet the Size of Person test?

Transactions that satisfy the Size of Transaction threshold may also have to satisfy the “Size of Person” thresholds to be HSR-reportable. These new thresholds are also effective for all closings on or after April 3, 2019. Talk to your HSR counsel to determine which entity’s sales and assets must be evaluated.

Filing Fee

For all HSR filings, one filing fee is required per transaction. The amount of the filing fee is based on the Size of Transaction.

Failure to File Penalty

Failing to submit an HSR filing can carry a significant financial penalty for each day of non-compliance.

Always consult with HSR counsel to determine if your transaction is HSR-reportable. Even if the Size of Transaction and Size of Person tests are met, the transaction may be exempt from the filing requirements.

Agree to Disagree: Competition Authorities Differ on Approach to Digital Platforms

Tech giants have captured the attention of competition agencies around the world. As we have previously shared, the FTC is in the midst of a series of hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century, including sessions on Big Data, Privacy, and Competition and the Antitrust Framework for Evaluating Acquisitions of Potential or Nascent Competitors in Digital Marketplaces. Multiple European regulators (the EU, Germany and now Austria) recently launched investigations into Amazon. Technology platforms are a priority for many other enforcers as well, from China to Australia to the UK.

With different competition authorities weighing in on how to assess tech competition, there is the potential for divergence in intensity of enforcement as well as whether existing competition doctrine suffices. Disparities are borne out by recent statements emanating from U.S., Australian, and UK competition agencies and officials.

Fresh remarks from the U.S. DOJ Antitrust Division indicate the agency does not support a regulatory approach to platforms and the digital economy. In a speech last week, agency head Makan Delrahim addressed Antitrust Enforcement in the Zero-Price Economy, noting that while zero-price strategies have “exploded” with the rise of digital platforms, “the strategy of selling a product or service at zero price is not new, nor is it unique to the digital economy.” Mr. Delrahim acknowledged the divergent views of how antitrust enforcement should treat such products and services, which range from exemption from antitrust scrutiny entirely to the creation of new, specially crafted rules and standards. Rejecting both of these “extreme views” as “misplaced,” he emphasized the ability of current antitrust doctrine – including the consumer welfare standard – to tackle the issue, stating: “[W]e do not need a wholesale revision of the antitrust laws to address competitive concerns in these contexts. . . . [O]ur antitrust laws and principles are flexible enough to adapt to the challenges of the digital economy.” Mr. Delrahim called for “careful case-by-case analysis” in enforcement. He touted the innovation and benefits that zero-price strategies have brought to consumers, crediting the country’s “pro-market economic and legal structures” and cautioning against “distortions of our antitrust standards” to address issues like privacy and data protection if they do not impede the functioning of the free market.

His speech echoes a view Mr. Delrahim and others at the Antitrust Division have expressed previously regarding the need (or lack thereof) for new rules to address the antitrust implications of “big data.” In an October 2018 speech regarding startups, innovation, and antitrust policy, Mr. Delrahim remarked that “accumulation of data drives innovation and benefits consumers” in many ways (including by enabling zero-price offerings), and that forced sharing risks undermining innovation by reducing incentives for both incumbents and new entrants. Invoking Trinko,[1] he stated that “free and competitive markets” – not antitrust agencies or courts – are best equipped to determine “how much data should be shared, with whom, and at what price.” Deputy Assistant Attorney General Bernard Nigro, Jr. has taken a similar position, stating that “forced sharing of critical assets reduces the incentive to invest in innovation” and that “where benefits to sharing exist, they can be best captured by the parties negotiating in a free and competitive market, not by government regulation.”

By contrast, other jurisdictions and industry observers considering the competitive implications of digital platforms have questioned the status quo. In their view, control of valuable data provides a competitive advantage and raises entry barriers that may entrench a platform’s dominant position and lead to competitive or consumer harm. At a higher level, France and Germany just announced an effort to overhaul competition rules to enable European companies to better develop technologies that compete on the global stage.

For example, last week the Australian Productivity Commission and the New Zealand Productivity Commission released a joint report that reviews how most effectively to address the challenges and harness the opportunities the digital economy creates (particularly for small- to medium-sized enterprises). In a section titled “Existing competition regulation may not be adequate for digital markets,” the report addressed the challenges of applying existing laws to the digital economy, including (among others) that zero-price goods and services complicate the analysis of market definition and market power, and that data “is an increasingly important business input and may be a source of market power” but is not adequately captured in traditional competition policy. Although the report acknowledged that in some cases technological developments might obviate the need for regulation (and in others the mere threat of regulation may be enough), it posited that new regulation might be necessary to maintain competitive markets: “[I]f ‘winner-take-most’ markets do end up prevailing, competition regulators may need to consider extending tools such as essential service access regimes to digital services.” An essential service (or “essential facilities”) regime would treat a digital platform’s data as an input essential to competition and require the platform to provide its competitors with reasonable access to it. In contrast to the Productivity Commissions’ suggestion, U.S. competition enforcers to date have been loath to treat digital platforms as essential facilities.

The Productivity Commissions’ report comes on the heels of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) Digital Platforms Inquiry preliminary findings released in December. The ACCC expressed similar concerns about the rise of digital platforms and the threat they pose to consumers and the competitive process. Addressing what it found to be Google’s and Facebook’s market power in a number of markets,[2] the report encouraged governments to be “responsive, and indeed proactive, in reacting to and anticipating challenges and problems” posed by digital platforms. It offered eleven preliminary recommendations to address these concerns, including: amending merger law to expressly consider potential competition and the data at issue in the transaction, requiring advance notice of any acquisition by a large digital platform of a business with activities in Australia, and tasking a regulatory authority with monitoring the conduct of vertically integrated digital platforms. The report also proposed areas for further analysis, such as: a digital platforms ombudsman, the monitoring of intermediary pricing and opt-in targeted advertising. As such, indications from Australia suggest calls for more competition intervention have some teeth.

The UK may have a similar appetite, as indicated by a new Parliament publication addressing “Disinformation and ‘fake news.’” The statement calls for increased oversight and greater transparency into “how the big tech companies work and what happens to our data,” highlighting Facebook’s treatment and monetization of user data as an example of why intervention is needed. In addition to recommending a compulsory Code of Ethics overseen by an independent regulator with “statutory powers to monitor relevant tech companies,” the publication advocated for greater competition law scrutiny of and enforcement against digital platforms, including an investigation of Facebook and a “comprehensive audit” of the social media advertising market. Invoking existing “legislative tools” such as privacy laws, data protection legislation, and antitrust and competition law, the report cautioned: “The big tech companies must not be allowed to expand exponentially, without constraint or proper regulatory oversight.”

Operating under an international patchwork of competition approaches can present a challenge to global enterprises. Technology-focused, data-intensive businesses should consider seeking antitrust counsel to monitor developing competition trends and implications across jurisdictions.

_________________________________

[1] Verizon Communic’ns, Inc. v. Law Offices of Curtis V. Trinko, LLP, 540 U.S. 398, 407-08 (2004).

[2] The preliminary report finds that Google has market power in online search, online search advertising and news media referral services, and that Facebook has market power in social media services, display advertising and news media referral services.

A Boiling Frog? Merger Enforcement of Early-Stage Tech Companies

Fable has it that a frog placed in tepid water slowly brought to a boil will not perceive danger until it is too late to leap. According to some critics, U.S. high tech merger review has a similar problem insofar as it fails to adequately consider and challenge acquisitions of startups that, on their face, appear to constitute incremental changes to competitive dynamics but that over time may suppress competition. Indeed, a U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) official confirmed last week that the agency faces “withering criticism of antitrust” and its enforcement with respect to competitor acquisitions of startup companies.

The comments were made during a conference in San Francisco by Michael Moiseyev, Assistant Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition and a leading enforcer with responsibility for merger and acquisition review. Without identifying particular transactions, he acknowledged that players in the venture capital (VC) space have characterized the U.S. antitrust agencies as “snookered” in permitting certain early-stage companies to be acquired.

Making the case that an existing competitor’s acquisition of a nascent, potential rival poses “a substantial lessening of competition” (Clayton Act, § 7) is a high hurdle for the U.S. agencies to clear. Mr. Moiseyev assessed the state of current case law as both “terrible” and “unforgiving.” The agency’s most recent challenge invoking a potential competition theory resulted in a district court concluding that the FTC had failed to provide evidence the target would have launched a new, competing technology. FTC v. Steris Corp., No. 1:2015cv01080 (N.D. Ohio 2015). In that matter, the FTC had sued and invoked the theory that the target, if it were not acquired, was poised to create “actual potential competition” for the U.S. market leader by importing technology currently offered by just one European facility. The merging parties undermined that theory by demonstrating a dearth of customer commitment to using the would-be-imported technology.

Yet criticism of a perceived lack of U.S. agency challenges in the tech sector continues to mount.

Under this pressure, will the U.S. agencies take a fresh lens to acquisitions of new and innovative competitors? The key analytical question is how to evaluate whether those companies would evolve to constrain actual, current competition. This fall, the FTC’s ongoing policy hearings devoted a day to acquisitions of potential competitors in tech markets. Nearly all participants endorsed studies of the effects of past transactions via merger retrospectives. Several panelists advised that the agencies scrutinize more closely transactions involving dominant platforms and whether the underlying deal removes a nascent competitive threat. Other participants in the hearings emphasized that the competitive analysis should focus on harms to innovation but that an information imbalance at times constrains the agencies’ ability to assess emerging industry developments.

We do not know whether a boiling frog is in our midst. Nevertheless, if you are advising VCs or a company that is considering an acquisition involving an innovative, new or potential competitor, reach out to antitrust counsel to consult on these issues.

Japan Introduces ”Commitment Procedure” for Alleged Antitrust Violations

On December 30, 2018, an amendment to the Japan Antimonopoly Act (the Act) to introduce “Commitment Procedure” became effective. The Commitment Procedure is a new procedure to resolve alleged violations of the Act voluntarily by an agreement between the Japan Fair Trade Commission (JFTC) and a company under investigation. It is similar to an antitrust consent decree under U.S. law.

The Commitment Procedure was introduced in accordance with the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, first signed by 12 countries but then by 11 countries after withdrawal of the United States.

The Commitment Procedure is expected to provide opportunities to JFTC and companies under investigation to remediate alleged violations of the Act at an early stage, as an alternative to issuing cease-and-desist orders and/or imposing surcharge payments. With respect to its scope, according to the Policies Concerning Commitment Procedures, the following conducts will not be subject to the Commitment Procedure, and certain conducts such as Private Monopolization and Unfair Trade Practices (e.g. abuse of superior bargaining position) could be subject to it:

  • When an alleged violation is a so-called hardcore cartel matter such as bid rigging or price fixing;
  • When an investigated company has committed the same violation multiple times within 10 years; or
  • When an alleged violation is malicious and substantial and could result in criminal accusation.

A typical flow of the Commitment Procedure is: (i) JFTC issues notice of an alleged violation of the Act to a company under investigation, (ii) the company under investigation voluntarily composes and submits to JFTC within 60 days a plan to remediate the violation and (iii) JFTC decides whether or not to approve the plan. As a result of JFTC’s approval of and the investigated company’s compliance with the plan, JFTC will not issue a cease-and-desist order and/or surcharge payment order.

In practice, it will be important for an investigated company to closely communicate with JFTC and promptly conduct an internal investigation to seek possible options including taking advantage of the Commitment Procedure and avoiding a possible cease-and-desist order and/or surcharge payment.

The New Madison Approach Goes to Court

On January 11, 2019, the U.S. DOJ Antitrust Division (Division) filed a Notice of Intent to File a Statement of Interest in a lawsuit filed by u-blox against Interdigital in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California to obtain a license consistent with Interdigital’s voluntary commitment to license its 2G, 3G and 4G telephony Standard Essential Patents (SEPs) on fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) terms. Simultaneous with the filing of its Complaint, u-blox filed a Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction to prevent Interdigital from further interfering with u-blox’s customer relationships. The Division argued that the Court would benefit from hearing its views on granting a TRO based on u-blox’s claim that Interdigital monopolized the 2G, 3G and 4G cellular technology markets. Intervening in a District Court case is highly unusual and is yet another clear signal that the Division has reversed the Obama Antitrust Division’s antitrust treatment of FRAND violations, despite the disparity between the Division’s current position and numerous well-reasoned U.S. court decisions that have carefully considered these issues and come to precisely the opposite conclusions.

Retro-Jefferson Approach[1]

By way of background, standard setting involves competitors and potential competitors, operating under the auspices of Standard Setting Organizations (SSOs), agreeing on a common standard and incorporating patented technology. Patents that are incorporated into a standard become much more valuable once a standard becomes established and commercially deployed on a widespread level, and it becomes impossible for companies manufacturing devices that incorporate standardized technology to switch to alternative technologies. In these circumstances, patent holders may gain market power and the ability to extract higher royalties than would have been possible before the standard was set. This type of opportunistic conduct is referred to as “patent hold-up.” To address the risk of patent hold-up, many SSOs require patent holders to commit to license their SEPs on FRAND terms. FRAND commitments reduce the risk that SEP holders will exercise market power by extracting exorbitant licensing fees or imposing other more onerous licensing terms. One way to address patent hold-up is through breach of contract and antitrust suits against holders of FRAND-encumbered SEPs.

The Obama Antitrust Division advocated the position that, under appropriate circumstances, the antitrust laws may reach violations of FRAND commitments. This position was, and remains, consistent with applicable legal precedent. For example, in 2007 the Third Circuit recognized in Broadcom v. Qualcomm, 501 F.3d 297, that a SEP-holder’s breach of a FRAND commitment can constitute a violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act where the SEP-holder makes a false FRAND promise to induce an SSO to include its patents in the standard and later, after companies making devices that incorporate the standard are locked in, demands exorbitant royalties in violation of the FRAND commitment. Numerous other cases similarly stand for the proposition that it is appropriate to apply competition law to the realm of FRAND-encumbered SEPs. See, e.g., Research in Motion v. Motorola, 644 F. Supp. 2d 788 (N.D. Tex. 2008); Microsoft Mobile v. Interdigital, 2016 WL 1464545 (D. Del. Apr. 13, 2016).

The Obama Antitrust Division also took the position that in most cases it is inappropriate to seek injunctive relief in a judicial proceeding or an exclusion order in the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) as a remedy for the alleged infringement of a FRAND-encumbered SEP. Injunctions and exclusion orders (or the threat of one) are generally incompatible with a FRAND commitment and unfairly shift bargaining power to the patent holders. In the Obama Antitrust Division’s view, money damages, rather than injunctive or exclusionary relief, are generally the more appropriate remedy. Again, the Obama Antitrust Division’s policy reflected case law recognizing the same principles. See, e.g., Apple v. Motorola, 757 F.3d 1286 (Fed. Cir. 2014).

The Obama Antitrust Division articulated its views on the use of exclusion orders against the infringing use of SEPs in a joint statement issued by the Department of Justice and the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office on January 8, 2013 entitled “Policy Statement on Remedies for Standards-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/RAND Commitments” (Joint Policy Statement). The Joint Policy Statement urged the ITC to consider that “the public interest may preclude issuance of an exclusion order in cases where the infringer is acting within the scope of the patent holder’s F/RAND commitment and is able, and has not refused, to license on F/RAND terms.”

New Madison Approach

The Division is now of the view that the Obama Antitrust Division’s focus on patent implementers and its concerns with hold-up were misplaced, even though many courts and other regulatory bodies around the world have noted the significance of the hold-up problem. The Division currently does not believe that hold-up is an antitrust problem. According to the Division, the more serious risk to competition and innovation is the “hold-out” problem. The hold-out problem arises when companies making products that innovate upon and incorporate the standard threaten to under-invest in the implementation of a standard, or threaten not to take a license at all, until their royalty demands are met. The Division further has questioned the role of antitrust law in regulating the FRAND commitment, even though the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – and numerous other competition agencies around the world – has engaged in enforcement efforts to curb allegedly anticompetitive SEP licensing practices, many of which are directed at Qualcomm (which is the subject of an ongoing trial between the FTC and Qualcomm in Federal District Court in California).

Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim coined the term the “New Madison Approach” to describe his approach to the application of antitrust law to patent rights.[2] The four premises of the New Madison Approach are:

  • The antitrust laws should not be used as a tool to police FRAND commitments that patent holders make to SSOs.
  • To ensure maximum incentives to innovate, SSOs should focus on implementer hold-out, rather than focus on patent hold-up.
  • SSOs and courts should not restrict the right of a patent holder to seek or obtain an injunction or exclusion order.
  • A unilateral and unconditional refusal to license a patent should be considered per se legal.

The Division has taken at least three concrete steps to implement the New Madison Approach. First, it has opened several investigations of potential anticompetitive conduct in SSOs by implementers, for example to exclude alternative technologies. Second, in a December 7, 2018 speech in Palo Alto, California, AAG Delrahim announced that DOJ was withdrawing its support of the Joint Policy Statement. According to AAG Delrahim, the Joint Policy Statement created confusion to the extent it suggests a FRAND commitment creates a compulsory licensing scheme and suggests exclusion orders may not be appropriate in cases of FRAND-encumbered patents. AAG Delrahim noted he would engage with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office to draft a new statement. Finally, the Division intervened in the u-blox case.

u-blox v. Interdigital

u-blox presents a fact pattern that commonly arises in FRAND cases. Since 2011, u-blox has licensed Interdigital patents that had been declared essential to the 2G, 3G and 4G standards. U-blox relied on Interdigital’s FRAND commitments, and its devices are now allegedly locked into 2G, 3G and 4G cellular technology. u-blox alleges that in its most recent round of negotiations, Interdigital is demanding supra-competitive royalty rates. Among its various claims, u-blox alleges Interdigital breached its contractual obligation to offer its SEPs on FRAND terms and has monopolized the 2G, 3G and 4G technology markets in violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act. u-blox also alleges that Interdigital threatened its customers to force u-blox to pay excessive, non-FRAND royalties. u-box has asked the court to set a FRAND rate and filed a TRO to prevent Interdigital from interfering with its contractual relationships.

On January 11, 2019, the Division filed its Notice of Intent to explain its views concerning u-blox’s monopolization cause of action. The Division further explained that due to the partial government shutdown, it was unable to submit a brief before the TRO hearing scheduled for January 31, 2019, and asked that the TRO hearing be delayed until after DOJ appropriations have been restored, or in the alternative, to order DOJ to respond. Although not stated in the Notice of Intent, the Division can be expected to argue that it would be improper to grant a TRO based on a claim of monopolization because the antitrust laws should play no role in policing Interdigital’s FRAND commitment where contract or common law remedies are adequate. On January 14, 2019, u-blox responded that it would withdraw reliance on its monopolization claim to support its request for a TRO and instead rely on its breach of contract and other claims.

Implications of the Division’s Intervention in the u-blox Case

The Division’s filing of a Notice of Interest in the u-blox case is highly unusual. The Division rarely intervenes in district court cases, and it may be unprecedented for the Division to intervene at the TRO stage. It is also difficult to explain why the Division chose to intervene on this motion. While u-blox was relying on its antitrust claim, among several other claims, to support its TRO request, u-blox was only seeking an order to prevent Interdigital from interfering with its customer relationships while the court adjudicated its request for a FRAND rate. It is also notable that the Division put its thumb on the scale in the aid of Interdigital, a company that often finds itself in FRAND litigation.

The Division appears to be attempting to aggressively implement the New Madison Approach that the antitrust laws should protect innovators. The Division’s decision to withdraw its assent to the Joint Policy Statement appears to have been a clear signal to the ITC that it is free to grant an exclusion order in SEP cases. The Division’s intervention in the u-blox case is a clear signal that it is willing to intervene at the district court level to advance its view that the antitrust laws are not an appropriate vehicle to enforce FRAND commitments where there are adequate remedies sounding in contract or other common law theories.

To date, the Division has used speeches to make policy arguments that the antitrust laws should not be used to enforce FRAND commitments. If the Division ever gets the opportunity to present its views to a district court, watch to see what legal arguments it can marshal to support its policy position. Also watch to see whether the Division attempts to participate in other FRAND cases.

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[1] Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim coined the phrase in his March 16, 2018 speech at the University of Pennsylvania entitled “The ‘New Madison’ Approach to Antitrust and Intellectual Property Law” based on the initial understanding of patent rights held by Thomas Jefferson, the first patent examiner of the U.S. (and a former president and principal author of the Declaration of Independence). AAG Delrahim describes the retro-Jefferson view of patents as conferring too much power on patent holders at the expense of patent implementers and that such power should be constrained by the antitrust laws or Standard Setting Organizations.

[2] The term “New Madison Approach” is based on the understanding of intellectual property rights held by James Madison, the principal drafter of the U.S. Constitution. Madison believed strong IP protections were necessary to encourage innovation and technological progress.

FTC v. Qualcomm: Trial and Possible Implications

Orrick partner Jay Jurata has published an article in Competition Policy International weighing in on the important issues raised in the closely-watched trial now under way in FTC v. Qualcomm. This article analyzes important developments in the case as it has proceeded – including the significant motion to dismiss and partial summary judgment rulings – and offers thoughts on the just commenced trial. To read the full article, please visit here.

Courts Question FTC Enforcement Method

The FTC has long asserted it has the authority to bring actions in federal court to obtain injunctive relief and equitable monetary remedies (e.g. disgorgement, consumer redress) for unfair and deceptive practices. This view of the agency’s scope of authority has stood for years without much question or challenge. But two recent district court decisions may change all that by limiting the agency’s ability to petition a federal court to those situations in which it can demonstrate a defendant is “about to violate” the law. On December 11, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Court heard oral argument in one of the district court cases – FTC v. Shire ViroPharma, Inc. – with a decision expected in the first half of 2019. If the Third Circuit upholds the district court’s ruling, it will complicate FTC enforcement efforts and push more cases into the agency’s administrative process.

The FTC’s Enforcement Powers

The FTC can initiate an enforcement action if it has “reason to believe” that the consumer protection or antitrust laws are being violated. Before 1973, the FTC could exercise its enforcement powers only through administrative adjudications, which do not allow for financial relief or an immediate prohibition on future wrongdoing.[1] While the FTC has the power to seek financial remedies through its administrative process, the penalties are limited by a three-year statute of limitations, and the FTC must demonstrate that the conduct was clearly “dishonest or fraudulent.”[2]

In 1973, Congress amended the FTC Act to add Section 13(b) and give the FTC the authority to (1) seek injunctive relief in federal court pending the completion of the FTC administrative proceeding when the FTC “has reason to believe” that a person or entity “is violating, or is about to violate” any law enforced by the FTC, and (2) seek a permanent injunction “in proper cases.” Following the enactment of Section 13(b), the FTC adopted an expansive view of its power to bring federal court enforcement actions, and started bringing cases in federal court seeking monetary relief under equitable doctrines such as restitution, disgorgement, and rescission of contracts. The FTC also asserted that its statutory power to seek a “permanent injunction” was a standalone grant of authority that entitled the FTC to bring a federal court action irrespective of whether a defendant “is violating, or is about to violate” the law. By tying its theories to these doctrines, the FTC took much of its enforcement activity outside otherwise applicable requirements, including the three-year statute of limitations and proof of a defendant’s dishonesty or fraud. Until this year, courts universally accepted the FTC’s expansive view of its authority under Section 13(b). As a result, it is the FTC’s policy that “[a] suit under Section 13(b) is preferable to the adjudicatory process because, in such a suit, the court may award both prohibitory and monetary equitable relief in one step.”[3]

Recent Decisions

Two recent court decisions have raised questions about the FTC’s view of its authority to sue in federal court solely over a defendant’s prior conduct. In FTC v. Shire ViroPharma, Inc., the FTC sued the defendant in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, alleging that between 2006 and 2012 ViroPharma had engaged in an anticompetitive campaign of repetitive and meritless filings with the FDA to delay generic competition and therefore maintain its monopoly on its branded drug. ViroPharma moved to dismiss the FTC’s complaint, arguing that the FTC had exceeded its authority under Section 13(b). Specifically, ViroPharma asserted that Section 13(b) does not provide the FTC with independent authority to seek a permanent injunction under Section 13(b), but rather limits permanent injunction actions to those cases where the FTC can show that a defendant “is violating or is about to violate” the law. On March 20, 2018, Judge Richard Andrews granted ViroPharma’s motion to dismiss, and rejected the FTC’s long-held assertion that Section 13(b) provides it with the independent authority to seek permanent injunctive relief in federal court, including relief for past violations of the FTC Act and regulations.[4] Judge Andrews held that the FTC’s authority to seek permanent injunctive relief is dependent on the FTC alleging facts that plausibly suggest a defendant is either (1) currently violating a law enforced by the FTC or (2) is about to violate such a law. Because the FTC’s complaint against ViroPharma was based on conduct that occurred five years before the filing of the complaint, the court found that the FTC failed to plead facts that demonstrate that ViroPharma was either violating or “about to” violate the law.

Subsequently, on October 15, 2018, Judge Timothy Batten, in the Northern District of Georgia, cited the ViroPharma decision in finding that the FTC’s permanent injunction authority under 13(b) authority is limited to situations where a defendant is “about to” violate the law. In FTC v. Hornbeam the FTC brought a federal court enforcement action alleging that the defendants were marketing memberships in online discount clubs to consumers seeking payday, cash advance or installment loans, in ways that violated the FTC Act, the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act. The court rejected the FTC’s argument that courts must defer to the FTC’s determination that it has “reason to believe” that the defendants were about to violate the law.[5] Rather, the court – citing the decision in ViroPharma – held that when the FTC exercises its Section 13(b) authority it must meet federal court pleading standards and set forth sufficient facts that each defendant is “about to” violate the law.

Takeaways

If followed, the ViroPharma and Hornbeam decisions could significantly limit the FTC’s ability and willingness to pursue claims in federal court, and shift enforcement actions to the FTC’s administrative process. It is unclear how such a shift to administrative enforcement will impact how the FTC approaches enforcement actions and negotiates consent orders to resolve its investigations. On the one hand, companies may be hesitant to go through the FTC’s administrative process given that it is a notoriously slow process over which the FTC Commissioners exercise the final decision-making authority. On other hand, the FTC’s limited ability to seek financial remedies through the administrative process may provide companies greater leverage in negotiating consent decrees.

The FTC is acutely aware of the potential threat posed by these decisions, as evidenced by its decision to forgo filing an amended complaint in favor of immediately appealing the court’s ruling in ViroPharma to the Third Circuit. In its appeal to the Third Circuit, the FTC stated that if the ViroPharma holding had been applied in past cases it “would likely have doomed hundreds of other Section 13(b) actions that the FTC has filed over the years – cases that collectively have recovered many billions of dollars for victimized American consumers.”[6]

On December 11, 2018, the Third Circuit heard oral argument in ViroPharma. During oral argument the three-judge panel expressed skepticism at the FTC’s argument that Judge Andrews applied the wrong pleading standard by requiring that the FTC plead sufficient facts to show that a violation of federal law was “imminent.” A decision by the Third Circuit is expected in the first half of 2019. The Hornbeam case is still pending in the Northern District of Georgia as the FTC decided to amend its complaint following the court’s ruling on the motion to dismiss.

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[1] 15 U.S.C. § 45(b).

[2] 15 U.S.C. § 57b.

[3] https://www.ftc.gov/about-ftc/what-we-do/enforcement-authority.

[4] FTC v. Shire ViroPharma, Inc., No. 17-131-RGA, 2018 WL 1401329 (D. Del. 2018).

[5] FTC v. Hornbeam, No. 1:17-cv-03094-TCB (N.D. Ga. Oct. 15, 2018).

[6] FTC v. Shire ViroPharma, Inc., No. 18-1807, Document No. 003112960825 at 47 (3d Cir. June 19, 2018).

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.

 

Platform Bans: German Competition Authority Critical Despite Coty Judgment

Since last year’s “Coty” judgment of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), it may have seemed settled that authorized dealers in a selective distribution network can be prohibited from selling products via third-party marketplaces, i.e. online platforms operated by third parties such as Amazon.[1] However, in a recent position paper, the German Federal Cartel Office (FCO) has expressed a much more nuanced view.[2]

According to the Coty judgment, EU competition law generally allows the banning of online third-party platforms in selective distribution systems, especially for luxury goods. First, where such a ban is applied without discrimination and in a proportionate manner to the distribution of luxury goods and with the objective of preserving the luxury image of such goods, the ban is not considered a restriction of competition. Second, in all other cases – for example where the goods in question are not “luxury goods” – the ban may be justified by the Vertical Block Exemption Regulation (VBER), provided the market shares of the parties are below 30 percent.[3]

The FCO, however, makes it clear that there are several issues that remain unsolved, even after the Coty ruling.

First, the FCO points out that the Coty judgment deals with “luxury goods” and that it cannot simply be applied one-to-one to other types of products, including high-quality products. Thus platform bans for non-luxury goods may, in fact, infringe competition law, even within selective distribution systems. In the absence of a clear definition separating “luxury goods” from other (high-quality) branded products, accepting outright bans of online platforms will, therefore, be anything but automatic.

Second, the FCO explains the policy that it proposes to apply outside the (limited) scope of the Coty ruling, i.e. to non-luxury goods, including high-quality branded products: it considers that a general prohibition on using third-party online platforms is likely excessive and that less restrictive measures, such as specific quality requirements, will normally suffice to protect a brand image. For example, the FCO explains that dealers could be required to have their own online shop on the marketplace rather than share a product page with other dealers.

Third, the FCO also puts a question mark over the application of the VBER to third-party platform bans. The ECJ decided in its “Pierre Fabre” judgment that manufacturers generally cannot prevent their distributors from using the internet as a sales channel.[4] An outright ban on internet sales is normally an infringement of EU competition law. However, in “Coty,” the ECJ added that a mere ban of third-party platforms does not amount to a prohibition on using the internet – provided distributors are able to run their own online shops and are unrestricted in using the internet for advertising and marketing purposes so that customers can find their online offers via online search engines. The FCO now points out that consumer preferences and the relative importance of different sales channels may vary between EU member states. According to the FCO, marketplaces and price comparison sites are much more significant in Germany than in other EU member states. In Germany, banning the use of marketplaces could reduce a distributor’s visibility to such an extent that the ban becomes equivalent to a complete ban of online sales and, thus, unlawful.

In a nutshell, the FCO is not prepared to generally accept the legality of third-party platform bans and it can be expected that it will continue to challenge such prohibitions if they have restrictive effects on competition.

However, the FCO also recognizes that Amazon Marketplace has become increasingly important for manufacturers and that many manufacturers can no longer afford to exclude this particular sales channel from their distribution system. The rising market power of Amazon Marketplace is of particular concern for the authority because of Amazon’s dual business model. Amazon is a “hybrid platform” that acts both as an intermediary for online dealers and as an authorized dealer for the same products. The FCO highlights the risks that follow from this setup: in particular, independent dealers could be disadvantaged or squeezed out of the market. The FCO is very clear about its intention to keep online markets open and that it will closely monitor Amazon’s growing market power with this in mind.

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[1] EU Court of Justice judgment of December 6, 2017, Coty Germany GmbH vs. Parfümerie Akzente GmbH, C-230/16, EU:C:2017:941.

[2] “Competition and Consumer Protection in the Digital Economy: Competition restraints in online sales after Coty and Asics – what’s next?” published on the FCO website (link).

[3] Commission Regulation (EU) No 330/2010 of April 20, 2010 on the application of Article 101(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union to categories of vertical agreements and concerted practices.

[4] EU Court of Justice judgment of October 13, 2011, Pierre Fabre Dermo-Cosmétique SAS vs. Président de l’Autorité de la concurrence a.o., C-439/09, [2011] ECR I-9447.

Know Your Investors – Their Holdings and Board Seats Can Create Antitrust Risk for Your Company

A recent divesture ordered by the Federal Trade Commission should serve as a reminder that private equity- and venture capital-backed companies need to evaluate the other holdings of their investors and directors to avoid potential antitrust problems.

Background

Red Ventures and Bankrate are marketing companies that connect consumers with providers in various industries. In 2017, Red Ventures entered into an agreement to acquire Bankrate for $1.4 billion. Among other interests, Bankrate operated “Caring.com,” a website used to generate customer leads for providers of senior living facilities. Red Ventures did not offer a competing product in this space, but the FTC nonetheless required the divestiture of Caring.com, citing competitive concerns generated by operations of Red Ventures’ investors and directors.

Specifically, two of the largest shareholders in Red Ventures are private equity firms General Atlantic and Silver Lake Partners, with a combined 34 percent stake, two of seven board seats, and other substantial rights over operations. General Atlantic and Silver Lake separately owned “A Place for Mom” which, like Caring.com, provides an online referral service for providers of senior living facilities. According to the FTC’s complaint, “A Place for Mom” and “Caring.com” were each other’s closest competitors, with the number one and number two positions in the market. Here, the FTC looked behind the actual parties to the transaction to identify potential competitive concerns.

Takeaways

Private equity- and venture capital-backed companies must be aware of the competitive, or potentially competitive, holdings of their investors and directors.

  • As in the Red Ventures/Bankrate acquisition, the separate holdings of significant investors may become a focus of the government’s antitrust review of a transaction.
  • An investor simultaneously holding seats on the boards of two competing companies may violate the statute prohibiting interlocking directorates.[1]
  • Finally, companies should ensure that protections are in place to prevent any scenario – real or implied – where the investor or director could serve as a conduit for the sharing of competitively sensitive information between competing companies.[2]

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[1] See 15 USC § 19.

[2] See 15 USC § 1.

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.

The Antitrust Review of the Americas 2019

As part of Global Competition Review’s The Antitrust Review of the Americas 2019, Orrick attorneys Jay Jurata, Alex Okuliar, and Emily Luken contributed a chapter titled “IP and Antitrust,” examining three important developments this year evolving from recent trends at the intersection of IP and antitrust law.  The chapter is part of GCR’s The Antitrust Review of the Americas 2019, first published in September 2018.

The whole publication can be found here.

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.