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In brief

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- I watched life –rather heard while working- the European Parliament hearings on the new Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager. She did so well that I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps she should have been given a more politically decisive portfolio (it also made me compare her with many politicians in my home country, but that’s another story).

- It’s been a while since our last quiz. I offer to pay lunch to whoever is able to tell us what was the new and special method for calculating fines that the General Court says to have used in this case (see in para. 5 the mysterious reference to “the Court’s choice of a methodology that diverges on purpose from the methodology laid down in the 2006 Guidelines”).

- Last Friday the Commission approved the acquisition of Whatsapp by Facebook (on which we had commented here). I’m looking forward to reading the decision, but from the press release I gather that the Commission has significantly refined the approach taken in Microsoft/Skype (e.g. no trace of the “inner circle” argument). Don’t know why that would have been necessary considering that, according to the General Court’s Judgment, that decision was irreproachable…

- Remember our discussion on the Groupe Gascogne Judgments (see here and here)? It has now been published on the Official Journal that Gascogne has introduced a damages action before the General Court…against the General Court: see here.

- If you have a minute (which I guess you do if you are reading this) read Kevin Coates’ new post: Gilding Refined Gold and Painting the Lily

- It is still possible to register to the Competition Day conference within the Brussels Technology Days series of events. I’ll be speaking on a panel discussing the Android proto-case together with Trevor Soames, Thomas Vinje and Neil Dryden. For more info, click here.

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Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

7 October 2014 at 6:40 am

In the press this week

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On the tax-related State aid investigations. Many newspapers opened this week with big headlines on the alleged news that the Commission had adopted a “preliminary decision” regarding the State aid probe into Apple (see e.g. here). I’m a bit intrigued by what’s behind this press campaign; the only news is that the Commission has published in the Official Journal decisions that had already been adopted before the summer. This sort of publication is never news, so why the fuss about it now is beyond me.

[It is, by the way, interesting to observe how some developments are “sold” twice, whilst others –including the closure of infringement proceedings against luxury watch manufacturers- go under the radar (disclaimer/advertising: my firm represented one of the main companies subject to that investigation)].

Given that I’ve lately been working on loads of tax-related State aid cases before the General Court I’ve developed a particular interesting in these matters. We might comment more in-depth on them in the future; for the moment, I’ll simply point out that by questioning not national taxation systems or tax rulings in general but rather APAs (advance price agreements) the Commission might be opening Pandora’s box (how many multinationals –including many EU ones- have similar arrangements?; could all of those now be challenged under State aid rules? ) For my previous comments on these issues, see here.

On the Google search investigation. The Google case has been on the news again, which, paradoxically, is no news. It’s been a while since we last commented on this investigation (partly because there wasn’t anything substantial on which to comment, and partly because the susceptibility around these issues is quite acute). One of the main contributors to this blog –Pablo Ibañez Colomo- gave his views to Global Competition Review a few days ago; Pablo explained that “[i]t is very controversial to argue that, as a rule, article 102 [prohibiting abuse of dominant position] requires all dominant companies to give access to their facilities – including operating systems or search engines – on non-discriminatory terms and conditions (…) I do not believe there is case law supporting this understanding of the provision.” According to Pablo, “there is the expectation that remedies are justified even if it is not clear why Google’s conduct is illegal”.

Last time I wrote about the case I made some comments on the politicization of competition law enforcement (see here). Since then, Vice-President Almunia has explained that politics are being left aside of the case (here, ehem). So, politics aside, let me focus on a purely legal point without discussing who’s right or wrong:

The complainant’s interesting main legal argument now seems to be that Google’s proposed commitments do not address the concerns set out in the Commission’s preliminary assessment (see, e.g. here). This a most interesting claim, and one on which many –including myself- can’t really comment because we haven’t read the preliminary assessment. In fact, no one other than Google was supposed to have seen it (according to the Manual of Procedure, “the complainant has no right to a hearing or to receive a (non-confidential) copy of the Preliminary Assessment or to have access to information”). In this case, however, the Hearing Officer granted a request for access on the part of some of the complainants (see the previous hyperlink for a source).

Now, consider the future implications of this move: in the past the Commission could overdo a bit its concerns in its preliminary assessments because, after all, they are not subject to the same requirements as the SO, would not be subject to any rebuttal on the part of its addressee, unlike SOs do not need the approval of the Commission’s President and, at most, could give the Commission a stronger hand in commitment negotiations (which, regardless of what Alrosa says, obviously exist). Now that the Commission is aware of the fact that preliminary assessments will/could be accessed by complainants, will it have to show more self-restraint? Will this have an impact on future commitment negotiations? Would these problems be avoided if the Commission was required to adopt a proper SO prior to entering into commitment negotiations?

On Android. I also saw some headlines this week anticipating, once more, the initiation of a formal investigation into Android. As frequent readers will recall, I’ve already written quite extensively about this (see here). On October 15th (the same day in which, by the way, the Commission will be making public an avalanche of decisions…) I’ll be speaking about it at a conference in Brussels, so in case anyone has thoughts about the case feel free to send them my way.

On the Euribor probe and the role of the Ombudsman. Last week, the fact that Crédit Agricole had resorted to the Ombudsman to complain about a possible bias on the part of the Commission also hit the news. CA’s claim has to do with the Commission having adopted a settlement decision finding a cartel infringement in relation to the Euribor prior to concluding the infringement proceedings against those who chose not to settle (see Gaspard Sebag’s piece for Bloomberg here). This obviously raises most interesting procedural questions, which I’d nevertheless tend to think pertain more to the realm of judicial review than to the Ombudsman. The piece includes a quote of mine which is a candidate for the prize of ‘dullest comment of the year in the press’: “It’s always uncomfortable to have to deal with the Ombudsman”. A deep thought that is… ;)

 

Of Politics and Competition Law (and on the Google cases too)

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In a recent post on the diluted legality of competition law I voiced out the view that our discipline could partly be losing its last name, a development for which I blamed a number of factors. However, some developments in the past few weeks have led me to think that perhaps I missed a critical feature: the increasing involvement of politics in the application of the competition rules.

To be sure, since its inception and all along its development, antitrust law –as a public policy tool at the core of the economic Constitution of any State- has had as much of a tight link with politics as it has with economics. But whereas economics not only provides a justification for the existence of the rules but also plays an important role in the development of legal rules and in individual cases, politics had traditionally exerted its influence in the exercise of enforcement discretion, and arguably not so much in the development of the rules and the outcome of cases.

The link between politics and competition enforcement might have been more obvious at the national level, where national competition authorities often are attached (organically or otherwise) to the Government at issue, which often appoints its members in the light of political considerations. It’s against this backdrop that one has to interpret the European Commission’s recurrent calls for independence of national competition authorities (most recently on a Staff working paper issued last Wednesday).

I think it’s fair to say that the influence of politics on the European Commission’s application of the competition rules has been more tenuous. For the most part, EU competition law has developed under the auspices of a firm political view on the advantages of competition in a system of social market economy, but in isolation from short-sighted political interests/small politics. This is largely explained by the theoretical legal status of the Commission as a body independent from Member States, and by the practical status DG Comp as a quasi-specialized agency within the Commission that one was not to second-guess. However, there are signs that this might be changing. In recent times national politicians have increasingly given their views on how competition law should be applied (here is one very recent example), and so have members of the European Parliament and a number of EU Commissioners. Moreover, they are doing so not only when their national interests are at stake (political solutions have been and are all the more common in State aid cases and in some high-stakes mergers), but also concerning investigations of potential infringements.

There are several examples of this evolution. Most recently we have seen politicians –mainly Chancellor Merkel- vouching for the approval of the Telefónica/E-Plus deal (see here). But perhaps the best illustration of the trend can be found in the Google case, on which we have written extensively on this blog.

This is a case in which DG Comp has extracted (arguably using the commitment procedure and its impressive record in judicial review of 102 decisions to stretch the boundaries of current legal standards) a set of significant commitments on the part of Google (see my comments here), going beyond what US authorities did. This could be regretted by people interested in the clarity of the law, but would normally have been seen as a practical enforcement success on the part of the Commission. However, a number of motivated and well-funded complainants –led by some smart lawyers who know how to play with the system and who deserve credit for getting near what I would’ve thought was impossible- now start to seem capable of derailing the commitment procedure by politicizing it. First, the German and French ministers for economics wrote a most unusual joint letter to Vice-President Almunia asking for a tougher stance on Google. And now, a widely extended rumor has it that a few EU Commissioners are being persuaded not to approve any Article 9 decision during Mr. Almunia’s tenure. As you can imagine, not all Commissioners are persuaded with sophisticated legal arguments related to evidence on foreclosure and the such, some being more receptive to political lines alien to antitrust analysis, mainly “don’t let these guys off the hook because they don’t pay taxes in Europe and because the US spies on us”. Obviously, this has nothing to do with the law, or at least with competition law.

It’s difficult to guess how this will turn out. As recently explained in the FT (Alex Barkers’s coverage of EU competition issues is, by the way, excellent) “[s]ome people involved think the pressures make it more likely Mr Almunia will decide to launch a formal probe of Android”. And indeed, the Android investigation may be the second leg of this political game, and once again the Commission might be under enormous pressure to take a hardline. [By the way, if you’re interested in reading about the competition issues involved in the Android investigation, I would very much suggest you read the insightful pieces recommended by Kevin Coates here ;) as well as this interesting brand new piece on the matter (particularly enjoyed footnotes 26 and 127…) (thanks to Jorge Marcos –ULg- for drawing our attention to it)]

Much more could be said about the politicization –and possible transformation- of antitrust and I look forward to your comments, but I’ll close it off now (mainly because the Word Cup final is already on). Some of you will recall my piece on Antitrust and the Political Center, in which I outlined some views on how antitrust embodies a centrist political ideology and can contribute to the expansion of sensible political views internationally. Well, in my view, the same is not true the other way around; infusing minor, short-sighted, political goals into the application of competition law can only contribute to disfigure even more a branch of the law which –let’s not forget- is, on its sanctioning dimension, quasi criminal in nature.

The political agreement in having technical competition rules applied by independent agencies is now an established idea, heralded internationally by the European Commission. And it makes sense because in spite of its unquestionable benefits, competition law’s constituency is diffuse and unable to mobilize politicians in the right direction. If you ask me, competition law can better serve its goals when dissociated from small politics.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

14 July 2014 at 4:58 pm

Wrapping up the week (on SEPs, Uber, Tesla, lawyer moves and legal rankings)

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This week’s blogging inactivity has had a lot to do with a pile of new and old work, the fact that I’m moving houses and have the in-laws here (a painful process; the moving, I meant), the fact that I devoted some time to watching two Spanish teams get to the Champions League’s final (I guess Germans and English will now put increased pressure on the ongoing State aid investigation) and the fact that we had some farewell events for one of my closest friends and colleagues (this guy, who is moving to the Commission).

So, here’s a quick overview of some stuff we couldn’t cover:

- The news of the week was the adoption by the Commission of decisions in two much talked about SEPs cases. The Commission made binding the commitments proposed by Samsung (see here for our initial comment on these) and -as we anticipated last week- adopted a decision declaring an infringement on the part of Motorola, which did not receive a fine. The Commission has sough to introduce some clarity on a matter in which the industry couldn’t agree by providing a safe harbour for standard implementers/willing licensees. We might discuss these more in depth in the coming weeks. For the time being, the Commission’s FAQ’s are available here . The Commission’s decisions might have brought additional clarity to the industry, but they also will have side-effects on conference organizers and on certain academics, lawyers and officials, all of whom will now have to find a new topic to talk about  :) [Btw, WordPress' new smiley faces are much uglier than the older ones..]

- I also see that the controversy surrounding Uber continues.  To date I don’t think  anyone has brought up a potentially very interesting EU competition law aspect to the case (other than the cartel accusation launched by Neelie Kroes in her most unusual blog post). It’s always surprised me how little we take advantage of the potential of EU law to challenge public restraints on competition…

- On a sort of related note, I was glad to read that 3 FTC staff directors have decided to intervene (albeit informally by means of a blog post; does everybody do blog-policy these days??) against unjustifiable prohibitions on Tesla to sell directly to final customers (that story would merit an ad hoc post) (btw, some people wrongly blame antitrust law for those restrictions: see here).

- There were recent moves at Covington&Burling, this time on the opposite direction as the most recent ones. The firm has hired one of our Friday Slotters (Johan Ysewyn) as well as re-hired Peter Camesasca, who was working with his own firm at Samsung during the course of the above mentioned investigation on SEPs.

- [Sort of self promotion alert] Chambers& Partners rankings came out last week and for some odd reason I seem to be the only ranked associate for EU Competition Law under a certainly narrow “associates to watch” category. Since some of you have sent emails in private commenting on this, I’ll repeat my response in public: I’m not going to lie saying that it bothers me, but off the top of my head I could think of a good pile of names to include there (I won’t list them here because my list -like any list- would also be subjective, potentially discriminatory and based on very imperfect information). In addition to that, (i) I always said these things are to be taken with many pinches of salt, and I of course maintain that; (ii) being there might have to do with being at a smaller place with a lot of exposure to clients (who moreover were kind enough to seemingly do positive reviews) and perhaps (I don’t know) with the non-merits based visibility given by this blog; and (iii) my firm’s overall positioning in the ranking is not yet where it should.

In any event, I’m not even sure this is something to be proud of: I guess it only means that I’m the poorest guy in the list…

 

Motorola won’t be fined in SEPs case, sources say

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To be frank, I didn’t have anything to post today. I’m halfway writing lengthy posts on the Uber controversy (which I’m a bit hesitant to publish), on AG Wahl’s Opinion in Cartes Bancaires, on the French Nespresso case and on the new Damages Directive, but haven’t found the time to finish any. I also had an idea for a possible lame joke to post, but I think it’s way too lame even for this blog’s standards. On top of that, I’m asked (ordered) to go to IKEA later, and having to take care of the blog is no longer a valid excuse chez moi

Fortunately, Aoife White (Bloomberg) just saved my blogging day:

She tells me that credible sources anticipate that Motorola won’t be fined in the decision that the European Commission will apparently be adopting next Wednesday. Aoife explained that some people find this exceptional, and asked for my views to include a quote in her piece, available here: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-04-25/motorola-mobility-said-likely-to-escape-eu-fine-in-patent-case.html

Here’s the text of the email I’ve just sent Aoife (who has no objection to me recycling it into a post):

 

“If the news were confirmed, I would view this as a very sensible decision on the part of the Commission.

The law on abuse of dominance is often nebulous, even more so in a novel context such as the one involving SEPs, which the Commission has moreover distinguished from precedents on “sham litigation” (ITT/Promedia). In these circumstances, the imposition of substantial fines could have raised issues as to its compatibility with general principles that require certainty in the law if a penalty is to be imposed.

A declaratory decision with no fines would enable the Commission to clarify the law and set a precedent without punishing actions that took place against an unclear legal background.

This would not at all be a first; the Commission has in the past imposed no fines, or only symbolic fines, in cases where at the time when the conduct took place the law wasn’t clear on whether it could constitute an infringement.  In abuse of dominance cases, this has happened, for instance, in relation to the discriminatory sale of tickets for the 1998 Football World Cup case (2000), regarding Deutsche Post’s interception of cross-border mail (2001) and, more recently, in the Clearstream case (2009).

This may be only for geeks, but the explanatory memorandum accompanying the draft of Regulation 1/2003 also explained that the mere clarification in the public interest of new legal questions could justify the adoption of purely declaratory decisions.

Interestingly, however, EU Courts have nevertheless consistently rejected the argument that the novelty of an abuse could be invoked as a ground to seek a reduction of a fine imposed by the Commission (e.g. in Irish Sugar or Deutsche Bahn)”.

 

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

25 April 2014 at 5:19 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

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