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WhatsApp, Facebook?

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A few hours ago Facebook announced its purchase of WhatsApp, which has been -more or less- valued at over 13 billion euros, one of the most expensive tech aquisitions ever.

As any well-informed competition lawyer may have learnt from recent case-law, this may seem like a risky investment: WhatsApp operates in a dynamic market, in which barriers to entry are said to be almost inexistent, in which there are no technical or economic obstacles to switching to a competing provider (particularly for small groups of people), in which services are mostly provided for free, and in which, despite the lack interconnection, having the largest network with hundreds of millions of users does not give rise to network effects providing a competitive advantage….

If such reasoning were right, it’d be hard to see why anyone would invest over $40 per user of a 55 employees company.

Bitter ironies aside, this deal raises another interesting question: given WhatsApp’s limited turnover I guess it’s likely that the deal will fall outside EU merger notification thresholds. Now, should it? I don’t have a stance on this, but now that there are so many ongoing discussions about the reform of the scope of the Merger Control Regulation, it could perhaps be useful to reflect on whether turnover thresholds are well-suited to reach mergers in the era of free services, in which turnover may not always be good proxy to competitive significance. Think of the possibility that depending on market definition, these transactions could only have to be notified in jurisdictions contemplating market share thresholds (which I’ve always criticized but that remain in place in Spain and Portugal); does that make sense? To be sure, I’m not saying this merger raises any substantive competition concerns; my point is a more general one unrelated to the specificities of any particular case.

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Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

21 February 2014 at 3:31 pm

A high-level football (soccer) quarrel

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On December 17 Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly stated that there could be an appearance of “conflict of interest” on the fact that the European Commission had taken too long to open a State aid investigation affecting, among others, Athletic de Bilbao, the team apparently supported by Vice-President Almunia.

No kidding, look:

The Commission has failed to act on this complaint for more than four years. Not only is this bad administration, but to the European public it can look like a conflict of interest given the Commissioner’s strong links to one of the football clubs in question. In my inquiry, I have not looked into the merits of the allegations concerning the breach of State Aid rules. I trust, however, that the Commission will decide to open an investigation tomorrow in order to investigate the facts and dispel any suspicions.” (see here)

The day following this a bit absurd unusual reproach, the Commission did open an investigation which, by the way, had the effect of suddenly and exponentially multiplying the number of State aid experts in my home-country.

And last week we learnt –thanks to Lewis Crofts and MLex- that the Commissioner –who by now must be, understandably, fed up of being spied upon and even of having Spanish press report on personal matters- immediately responded to Ms. O’Reilly, explaining that:

I am also a Spanish citizen, a member of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, a keen opera-goer, I enjoy cinema and I use the Internet every day (…). These elements are however irrelevant when it comes to the commission adopting decisions on State aid regarding Spanish cases, or granted by center-left governments, or benefiting cinema or culture in general, or to tackling antitrust issues with Microsoft and Google”.

It is certainly quite unusual in the EU context to point out at “apparent biases” in the way Ms. O’Reilly did, and it makes it more striking that the bias in this case consisted in supporting a given football club.

For instance, we’d absolutely never dare to suggest or imply that it may be relevant to the investigation that Ms. O’Relly is Irish and that Irish football teams haven’t fared well against Spanish teams  (with the last Irish defeat occurring in the course of the procedure before the Ombudswoman’s office!)   :)

By the way, an “interesting” fact for competition geeks: Ms. O Reilly previously worked at Magill and RTE, two of the parties to the well-known Magill case.

P.S.  For the record, we predicted this State aid to football clubs mess almost 4 years ago (see here).

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

19 February 2014 at 1:55 pm

Breaking news: European Commission will accept Google’s commitments

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Vice-President Almunia has just made it clear that the Commission will accept the third version of Google’s proposed commitments. In his words,  “the new proposal obtained from Google after long and difficult talks can now address the Commission’s concerns. Without preventing Google from improving its own services, it provides users with real choice between competing services presented in a comparable way; it is then up to them to choose the best alternative. This way, both Google and its rivals will be able and encouraged to innovate and improve their offerings. Turning this proposal into a legally binding obligation for Google would ensure that competitive conditions are both restored quickly and maintained over the next years.”

The Commission’s press release is available here.

What happens now is that the Commission will send complainants a letter (pursuant to Article 7(1) of Regulation 773/2004 informing them that the Commission has obtained what it considers adequate commitments and that in its view there are no longer grounds to pursue the case. They will then have a chance to complain again. The Commission will then adopt a number of decisions: one under Art. 9 of Regulation 1/2003 in order to make those commitments binding, and a number of decisions rejecting all complaints received. I suppose that Google’s very active and well funded rivals will want to appeal those decisions before the General Court (with, I believe, arguable chances of success after the Court’s recent ruling in Microsoft/Skype, which was extremely favorable to Google for reasons that I might explain in a later post). This is, by the way, the outcome we always predicted.

In my personal opinion, this is a wise move on the part of the European Commission. However, it’s unlikely that the Institution will receive much praise: some will say that it demanded too much from Google (particularly given the US precedent), many others will say it’s been too lenient, some will say the investigation took too long, others will claim that it was incomplete. The fact that they will be criticized from both sides may actually suggest that perhaps the Commission has done something right.

As you know, I was never a big fan of the case (see here, here or here among others), but I always saw the proposed commitments (even in their first version) as a balanced attempt at putting and end to it getting the Commission what it wanted without introding too much in Google’s innovative business model. For my analysis of those commitments (as forecasted, despite some improvements the essence doesn’t appear to have varied since then) see here and here.

It will be interesting to discuss this development in the course of the upcoming AIJA conference on antitrust and technology in Bruges this weekend.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

5 February 2014 at 3:00 pm

Follow-on thoughts on (and beyond) Microsoft/Nokia (by Luis Ortiz Blanco)

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[Note by Alfonso: A few weeks ago I wrote a brief post regarding one particular aspect of the Commission’s press release about the Microsoft/Nokia decision that caught my attention. Before posting it, I discussed the matter with two of my bosses’ colleagues: Luis Ortiz Blanco and Marcos Araujo, both with significantly more merger experience than myself, and both of whom initially agreed with the point I was trying to make. A few days ago this question came up again, and I managed to extract from Luis the commitment that he would write his views on a guest post here (all previous attempts to get him to do that and a Friday Slot interview were unsuccessful…). Luis needs no introduction; he’s an exceptional person, professor, lawyer, and was even also one of the best men at my wedding... He’s also the reason why I work in competition law, but that's a long story. I leave you with him].

Readers of this blog may by now be familiarized with Alfonso’s and Nicolas’ well-known “persistence”. I admit to be and old-school guy, more prone to do my writings with time, pen and paper rather than swiftly and informally on blogs, but this time they caught me off guard and suggested an interesting topic, so here I am, giving blogging a try.

Despite the title of this blog entry, my intention is not to comment on the Microsoft/Nokia decision specifically, not the least because the decision is not yet available and I have not directly or indirectly worked on the case. My intention is to discuss an interesting theoretical point that appears to have arisen in that case and that prompts very relevant legal question for practitioners, academics and competition authorities which go beyond the facts of a given matter: do or should merger control rules and remedies apply also to impediments to competition that a transaction may generate on the seller’s side?

Alfonso already touched on this issue in a previous post. In my view, he rightly identified what I also see as an erred reasoning in the European Commission’s press release, according to which:

  • The Commission considers that any possible competition concerns, which might arise from the conduct of Nokia, following the transaction, in the licensing of the patent portfolio for smart mobile devices which it has retained falls outside the scope of the EU Merger Regulation. The Commission cannot take account of such concerns in the assessment of the current transaction. Indeed, Nokia is the seller whereas the Commission’s investigation relates to the merged entity.

Now, do really merger control rules really relate only to the merged entity, to the exclusion of the seller?

Prior to providing you with my answer to this question, I would remark that, in my experience, it is most unusual to see the European Commission (or any other competition authority for that matter) self-limiting its own powers. Competition enforcers often tend to do the contrary, that is, to explore the powers they have, even if at the risk of perhaps going beyond them at times.

If among the readers of this blog is the one person that bought my book Market Power in EU Antitrust Law, she or he might recall the criticism I directed (pp. 77-78) at a few cases (ExxonMobil, and particularly at Grupo Villar Mir/EnBW/Hidroelectrica del Cantábrico and EnBW/EDP/Cajastur/Hidrocantábrico in relation to the ‘third-party dominance theory”) in which the Commission had intervened aggressively on the market in order to address effects unrelated to the transaction. In those cases the Commission extended and arguably exceeded its powers because of its will to address what it saw as a competitive problem. In its Microsoft/Nokia press release, however, the Commission does the contrary: it appears to restrain or limit the powers it has in order to justify not evaluating what many saw as a competitive problem.

This stance is all the more surprising if one recalls that in the past the Commission has accepted/required some “soft commitments”  in Oracle/Sun and, in a  more similar setting, on the part of Google at the time it acquired Motorola Mobility. The theory of harm in both the latter case and Microsoft/Nokia related to the alleged possible anticompetitive use of patent portfolios. If anything, Microsoft/Nokia would seem to give rise to increased suspicion [the deal was structured in a way that has resulted in an unusual situation: Microsoft buys Nokia’s mobile device business but not valuable mobile device patents, which it will only license. Nokia, in turn, will be under pressure to assert its patents aggressively, may possibly also act under the influence of Microsoft, and would be immune from possible retaliatory strategies because it will not manufacture smartphones anymore. The move is smart, but, in my personal view, maybe also a bit obvious too].

The sole argument seemingly adduced by the Commission to justify its different treatment of the two deals seems to be the precisely the one we are discussing in this post. But, think for a second, would it make sense to endorse an interpretation of the merger regulation that would enable parties to avoid scrutiny by carefully tailoring the structure of a deal?

Now, and more importantly, why do I say that the Commission must have the power to assess the effects of a merger on the selling party?

First of all, because it makes sense. If a merger does affect the incentives of the players in a given market in such a way that competition may be significantly impeded, there would seem to be no valid reasons for competition authorities not to look at the problem and, where necessary, accept (i.e. demand) commitments The contrary would undermine the effectiveness of the merger control system. Why could not the Commission condition the authorization of a transaction to a commitment from one of the parties to it (the seller)?

Secondly, because as Alfonso pointed out in his previous post, the letter of the Merger Regulation supports this idea. He referred to recital 25 of the Horizontal Merger Guidelines; I would also argue that the references in articles 6(2) and 8(2) to “modifications [of the concentration] by the undertakings concerned” shall logically encompass the parties to the transaction (the only ones that can modify it), which obviously would include the seller.

Thirdly, because the Commission’s practice reveals that in the past remedies have been required from the selling party. Think of cases such as E.ON/MOL, where the commitments accepted by the Commission concerned the seller (interestingly, the commitment was drafted in a way such that E.ON would “undertake to procure MOL to dispose of [certain shares in the transferred companies]’. Think also of Alcatel/Telettra, where assurances by a third-party (Telefonica) were relied on by the Commission in accepting commitments. This is not to mention the cases in which the Commission relied on Member State’s (i.e. third parties) assertions and declarations of intentions in support of certain commitments.

Perhaps the Commission would benefit from a third party appeal (not that these have been successful lately) prompting the Courts to rule that the Institution has more powers than it now purports to have. Once again –just like it happened in Camera Care regarding interim measures (a story that I always like to tell my students about)- the Commission could experience the serendipity of obtaining increased powers without even seeking them.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

17 January 2014 at 1:31 pm

A thought on Microsoft/Nokia

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As you know, a few days ago the European Commission unconditionally authorized the Microsoft/Nokia deal. I’m looking forward to reading the decision, which isn’t yet public. Whereas I expect to see nothing odd in there, a doubt did spring to mind when reading the press release last week.

When explaining its approach to the concern that Nokia could become a troll-like entity, the Commission’s Press Release says the following:

The Commission considers that any possible competition concerns, which might arise from the conduct of Nokia, following the transaction, in the licensing of the patent portfolio for smart mobile devices which it has retained falls outside the scope of the EU Merger Regulation. The Commission cannot take account of such concerns in the assessment of the current transaction. Indeed, Nokia is the seller whereas the Commission’s investigation relates to the merged entity. However, the Commission will remain vigilant and closely monitor Nokia’s post-merger licensing practices under EU antitrust rules, in particular Article 102 (…)”. (Emphasis added).

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that a wrong/arguable over-simplification? (although, to be sure, it wouldn’t be a crime for a press release to over-simplify). Does merger control really relate solely to the merged entity to the exclusion of other actors in the market? Isn’t it rather about the effect that the transaction may have on the structure of the market? I mean, can’t the Commission assess the effects that a concentration would cause on the market power of parties to the transaction as well as on that of third parties? Perhaps the press release only intended to refer to the Commission’s remedial powers, and not to its assessment powers, but even assuming that, the short explanation may be incorrect. Although infrequent, third party post-merger conduct may be potentially relevant in deciding a case.

Look, for instance, at recital 25 of the horizontal merger guidelines “under certain circumstances, concentrations involving the elimination of important competitive constraints that the merging parties had exerted upon each other, as well as a reduction of competitive pressure on the remaining competitors, may even in the absence of a likelihood of coordination (…) result in a significant impediment to effective competition”.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not challenging the outcome of the Decision (it seems prima facie reasonable for the theory of harm at issue in that case to be monitored ex post), but, in my view, the explanation would have had to do with “causality” (à la Tetra Laval or GE/Honeywell), not with the scope of merger control. Perhaps this would seem to make no practical difference in principle (as we’ve learnt recently, in real life ends justify means, and reasonings aren’t really worth paying attention to), but inconsistencies in the formulation of policy positions might eventually come at a cost.

P.S. Following the advice of some of you, last night I created a Twitter account: @LamadridAlfonso; it’d now be nice to know how to use it and what for!

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Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

17 December 2013 at 5:03 pm

Television Rights, Matches – pun intended – and Bad Competition Law

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[Guest post by Pablo Ibañez Colomo]

It would seem that the Spanish super-quango is more active than one would have assumed (in particular given what is currently going on within the tax authority of the country). The newly-created CNMC has fined four football teams (including Real Madrid and Barcelona) and the broadcaster Mediapro EUR 15 million for concluding exclusive licensing agreements for a period exceeding three years. Such terms contravened a previous decision adopted by the – then – CNC in 2010.

The case is interesting, first, because the Spanish government passed (in 2010, at pretty much the same time that the original decision was adopted) legislation that set a four-year term for exclusive licensing agreements between teams and broadcasters. One could claim that, insofar as the contentious agreements complied with the relevant sector-specific legislation, they were concluded in good faith. Accordingly, the fine would be unjustified. In light (pun intended) of Consorzio Industrie Fiammiferi (pun intended, I’m on fire!), it is clear, however, that this is not a valid defence. Legislation did not preclude undertakings from concluding agreements for a shorter period and thus from complying with Article 101 TFEU (which was clearly applicable in this case).

A second reason why the case is interesting is because it shows that the three-year limit for exclusive licensing agreements is now set in stone. There is no reason why this should be the case. A three-year term is not necessarily pro-competitive. It all depends on the context in which the licensing agreement is concluded. If the goal of this bright-line rule is (as I assume) to preserve the contestability of markets for the acquisition of television rights, then it may sometimes be too short. A new entrant (as BSkyB was back in the early 1990s) may need a longer period to reduce uncertainty and recoup its investments. By ruling out any flexibility, a rigid interpretation of Article 101(1) TFEU can very well have the perverse effect of protecting the incumbent. These are the problems of applying competition law as regulation, which I highlighted elsewhere, and of assuming that UEFA Champions League, Bundesliga and Premier League were rightly decided, in spite of the overwhelming evidence suggesting the opposite.

Pablo

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

5 December 2013 at 7:18 pm

The Odds of Microsoft/Nokia

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Here we are: the long awaited concentration between MSFT and Nokia was notified last week to the EU Commission (Microsoft/Nokia (Production of phones and smartphones) (OJ C324, 9 November, 2013, p. 8)).

Willing to take the following poll?

Written by Nicolas Petit

12 November 2013 at 3:10 pm

Google’s revised commitments proposal leaked

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Consumer Watchdog, a US organization traditionally positioned againts Google, has just made available leaked  on its website the (supposedly confidential) new version of Google’s proposed commitments (see here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/googlesettlment102113.pdf ) together with the Commission’s questionnaire to interested third parties (see here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/euquestions102113.pdf).

This organization had threatened Google with making the proposal public in case Google didn’t do it (see here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/newsrelease/consumer-watchdog-challenges-google-make-eu-antitrust-settlement-offer-public-us-public).  Julian Assange and Edward Snowden would may applaud the move, but I’m not so sure as to DG Comp (the fact that the names, telephone numbers and emails of its case handlers have also been made public as part of the questionnaire might contribute to flooding -even more- their inboxes…).

I’d bet that Consumer Watchdog has received some sort of advice under EU law and learnt that, interestingly, the Commission has no legal basis to act in a situation like this. Isn’t that a significant procedural gap?

You already know my thoughts about the substance of the previous proposal (if not, click here: http://chillingcompetition.com/2013/06/13/preliminary-thoughts-on-googles-proposed-commitments/ ), so not much else to say on that front.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

7 November 2013 at 2:51 pm

The Golden Rule

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poster

 

In the new yesterday: Microsoft and Apple have opened another war front by seeking injunctions against Google and Samsung (and other Android players) in the context of patent infringement proceedings.

Ahem: aren’t those guys meanwhile complaining of abusive injunction seeking by Motorola Google before the Commission?

And in the  news today:  the hedge fund SAC Capital agreed to pay $1.8 billion in fines. You read well: $1.8 billion, or more than a repeat offender like MSFT… Who said stellar antitrust fines have something special…

And there’s more: they also agreed to close their investment advisory business!

With this background, I’d just love to hear more on the welfare losses inflicted by insider trading v. those attributable to cartels.

 

Written by Nicolas Petit

5 November 2013 at 2:18 pm

Samsung offers commitments to appease DG Comp

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The most important (antitrust-related) news last week was the European Commission’s announcement that it will market test a commitment proposal submitted by Samsung regarding the enforcement of its SEPs (Standard Essential Patents) related to mobile communications.

As you know, the Commission considered in its December 2012 Statement of Objections that the seeking of court injunctions by Samsung in relation to SEPs which it had committed to license on FRAND terms, or that third parties (i.e. Apple) were apparently willing to agree to license on FRAND terms, could amount to an abuse of dominance, because “access to patents which are standard-essential is a precondition for any company to sell interoperable products in the market” (press release dixit; we’ll come back to this phrase at the very end of the post). The theory goes that the challenged enforcement of SEPs could allow Samsung to obtain licensing terms that the licensee wouldn’t have agreed to absent the threat, and that this “undue distortion of licensing negotiations” would harm consumers in a number of different ways.

[Query 1: is this an exclusionary abuse? an exploitative one? both?; Query 2: Would an alleged abuse of this sort lend itself to the application of the Guidance paper?; Query 3: If the answer to query 2 is "no", then what are the criteria to undertake a legality assessment of a situation like this? Query 4: How does one assess the likelihood of anticompetitive effects in a situation like this?; Query 5: can you distinguish a willing licensee from a non-willing one without taking a view on what's FRAND? (I guess the proposed solution arguably gives an answer to this 5th question; if someone's willing to accept the proposed framework... ); Query 6: Was Apple -the de facto complainant- a willing licensee in this case?].

Samsung (which just before receiving the SO had unilaterally withdrawn all its European SEP-based injunction claims) has now offered to refrain from seeking injunctions for past, present and future mobile (smatphone and tablet) SEPs for a period of five years againts any company adhering to a given licensing framework. As explained by the Commission itself (and here I’m “scraping” its Press release) “the licensing framework consists of: (i) a negotiation period of up to 12 months and (ii) if no agreement is reached, a third party determination of FRAND terms by either a court or an arbitrator, as agreed by the parties. If the parties cannot agree on either submitting to court or arbitration, the parties will have to submit to arbitration“.

The Commission has also published a Q&A document. The full version of the proposal is available here.

Some well known commentators in the patent blogosphere swiftly commented on the proposal in a critical manner (see “EU Commission market-tests totally insufficient FRAND commitments offered by Samsung“). My preliminary take is that, even if some issues may (inevitably?) be left open, this proposal would shed some welcome light on a much contentious subject.

We’d be happy to host a discussion in Chillin’Competition, and welcome the views that any of you might have with regard to both the case and the commitments proposal.

Let me get the ball rolling:

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

23 October 2013 at 10:19 am

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