Posts Tagged Comcast

The FTC’s Decision to Reject the Search Antitrust Case against Google

In light of recent stories hinting that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will not pursue antitrust claims that Google discriminates in its search results, advocates for rival websites are sounding the alarms.  One attorney who represents several websites that have complained about Google’s alleged favoritism in search decried: “If a settlement were to be proposed that didn’t include search, the institutional integrity of the FTC would be at issue.” Ironically, the opposite is true: By reportedly dropping search discrimination from its case, the FTC has bolstered its integrity.

This is not to say that discrimination against rival websites is a good thing. Rather, discrimination of the kind allegedly practiced by Google is generally not recognized as an antitrust violation. With the exception of extreme cases, such as when a monopolist refuses to sell a product or service to a competitor that it makes available to others for discriminatory reasons, a firm does not expose itself to antitrust liability by merely refusing to deal with a competitor. (By contrast, a firm may expose itself to antitrust liability by refusing to deal with customers or suppliers so long as they deal with the firm’s rival.) Because Google is not refusing to sell a product or service to a rival website that it makes available to others, but instead places its specialized search results—such as maps, image, shopping or local results—at the top of the page when it believes they will be useful to consumers, Google arguably has no “duty to deal” under the antitrust laws.

To make a discrimination square peg fit into an antitrust round hole, the FTC would have needed to invoke an unorthodox section of the FTC Act (Section 5), thereby stretching the agency’s authority. By recognizing the incongruence between the conduct that the antitrust laws are meant to stop and the consumer-centric justifications for Google’s behavior, the FTC appears to have spared itself a tough slog. For example, one element of a duty-to-deal claim under the Sherman Act is proving that Google’s treatment of rival websites harms consumers; even the cleverest economist would be stumped with that assignment.

Google’s rivals are now seeking a do-over at the Justice Department (DOJ). They analogize the Google case to the FTC’s Microsoft investigation, where the DOJ picked up that case shortly after the FTC commissioners deadlocked in 1993. But the FTC does not appear to be deadlocked here; the agency is likely rejecting the Google case because the antitrust law does not support the complainants’ arguments.

Although regulatory relief at the FTC appears to be fleeting (and the DOJ is not the proper forum), website rivals could seek protection against search discrimination from Congress. The blueprint is already established: In 1992, Congress amended the Cable Act to protect independent cable networks against discrimination by vertically integrated cable operators. Section 616(a)(3) of the Act directs the Federal Communications Commission to establish rules governing program carriage agreements that “prevent [a cable operator] from engaging in conduct the effect of which is to unreasonably restrain the ability of an unaffiliated video programming vendor to compete fairly by discriminating in video programming distribution on the basis of affiliation or nonaffiliation of vendors in the selection, terms, or conditions for carriage of video programming provided by such vendors.”

This explains why, for example, the NFL Network brought a discrimination cases against Comcast—a vertically integrated cable operator that owns a national sports network—under the Cable Act and not under the Sherman Act. Had the NFL Network pursued its discrimination claims in an antitrust court, it likely would have failed. By styling its case as a program-carriage complaint, however, the NFL Network took advantage of cognizable harms under the Cable Act such as preserving independent voices that, for better or worse, are not appreciated by the antitrust laws.

If independent websites such as Nextag want relief, then they should lobby Congress to write the analogous non-discrimination provisions covering search engines. Once an agency is designated with the authority to police Google and other vertically integrated search engines (Bing included), website rivals could pursue individual discrimination claims just like the NFL. Importantly, website rivals would have to fund these battles, not with taxpayer money (of which millions were likely spent by the FTC in its antitrust investigation of Google), but with their own resources. Self-funding ensures that only the strongest discrimination cases would come forward; when someone else is footing the bill, all bets are off.

Admittedly, the relief contemplated here would not come quickly. It took years for independent cable networks to convince Congress of their plight. But the impatience of Google’s rivals is no reason for the FTC to bend the antitrust laws. Better to keep the powder dry—and the FTC’s integrity intact—and go after a monopolist that is more blatantly violating the antitrust laws on another day.

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Program Access Reform at the FCC: Are Exclusive Programming Deals a Good Thing?

Last week, the FCC decided not to extend certain provisions of the “program access” protections of the 1992 Cable Act. Reading the popular press gives one the false impression that the entire program-access regime was taken apart. In reality, the ban on exclusive distribution arrangements between cable operators and cable networks will be lifted, while other protections for rival distributors will remain in force.

Although the FCC’s Sunset Order suggests that lifting the ban will mostly affect cable-affiliated networks, those networks are generally distributed by their affiliated cable owner without a contract. There is no reason to add an exclusivity provision to a contract that does not exist.

Accordingly, permitting exclusive contracts likely will have a greater impact on independent networks (such as Disney Channel), which are distributed pursuant to a contract. Under the old rules, a cable operator could not tell an independent network: “I will carry you only if you agree not to deal with DISH Network, DirecTV, Verizon, and AT&T.” With the ban on exclusive agreements lifted, a cable operator may make such a take-it-or-leave-it offer.

To ensure access to newly exclusive programming, the FCC will rely on a case-by-case review of any complaints brought by distribution rivals. This ex post approach to adjudicating access disputes is similar to the one used by the Commission for “program carriage” complaints, in which an independent cable network must persuade the agency to permit a complaint to be heard by an administrative law judge. In contrast, the case-by-case approach embraced in the Sunset Order is not consistent with the ex ante prohibition against discriminatory contracting by broadband network owners in the Commission’s Open Internet Order of 2010. When it comes to handling discrimination, the Commission is anything but consistent.

In the Sunset Order, the FCC gave special treatment to cable-affiliated sports programming, often carried on regional sports networks (RSNs). In particular, the FCC established a “rebuttable presumption” that an exclusive contract involving a cable-affiliated RSN violates the Cable Act. Because sports programming is one of the few types of “must-have” programming, this exemption implies that the competitive balance among cable operators and their competitors may not be altered significantly. This is not to say that non-sports programming is meaningless—as the FCC recognized in its Comcast-NBCU Order, the refusal to supply a collection of non-sports programming could impair a rival distributor. But exempting sports programming takes much of the bite out of the rule change.

In addition to effectively exempting the most likely basis for a program access dispute, the Sunset Order makes clear that a distribution rival still can bring a complaint under other sections of the Cable Act. For example, a rival can allege “undue influence” under Section 628(c)(2)(A); discrimination under Section 628(c)(2)(B); or a “selective refusal to deal” under Section 628(c)(2)(B). In other words, the FCC removed one of several ways a cable operator can violate the Cable Act. The agency is still watching.

The FCC also pointed out that approximately 30 cable-affiliated, national networks and 14 cable-affiliated RSNs are subject to program-access merger conditions adopted in the Comcast-NBCU Order until January 2018. These conditions require Comcast to make these affiliated networks available to competitors, even after the expiration of the exclusive contract prohibition. Because these networks account for a significant share (about one third) of all cable-affiliated programming, the effect of removing the exclusivity ban will be further diminished.

The choice between an ex ante prohibition of certain conduct and an ex post, case-by-case review of complaints turns on the potential for efficiency justifications. In reaching its decision, the Commission noted one potential procompetitive benefit of permitting exclusive deals—ostensibly, to promote investment in new programming. While promoting investment in new programming is important (notwithstanding the fact that there are literally hundreds of cable networks, many of which sprouted up during the exclusivity ban), so too is promoting investment in rival distribution networks. With 55 percent of all U.S. households beholden to a single, fixed-line provider of broadband access (mostly cable modem service), the Commission should consider how each of its rules affects broadband investment. Alas, the agency disposed of this consideration in a single paragraph in the Sunset Order, arguing that the case-by-case approach was sufficient to protect the investment incentives of broadband operators.

It is no accident that the relaxation of the exclusivity ban was opposed by Google, Verizon, and AT&T—each of whom is deploying broadband networks (of both the fixed and mobile variety) in competition with incumbent cable operators.  If these rival networks cannot secure access to cable programming, then convincing a cable customer to “cut the cord” will be that much harder. And if rivals cannot reach a certain level of penetration, then their investments will not generate positive returns; if that happens, we won’t see as much broadband investment as we hoped for.

To the extent that the Sunset Order is a harbinger of the FCC’s newfound embrace of case-by-case adjudication of discriminatory conduct, then it is a good thing. To ensure that 4G network operators or Google do not lose their appetite to invest in broadband networks, however, the FCC must be vigilant in enforcing the new rules.

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