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A reader of this blog sent me this morning the link to a post we wrote more than 2 years ago titled The post of a summer day , reproduced below.
A re-read of those lines shows that things have changed little in the course of that period:
Just like two summers ago, it’s unusually hot in Brussels, DG Comp’s officials have stampeded out of the city to conduct on-site beach inspections (not before sending a few requests for information), and, two years later, the Commission is still pondering what to do with Google.
Silly posts never get old.
Today is not only busy but also extremely hot in Brussels (no kidding). An ideal day for a fresh summer story.
Italian beach owners have called a lockout on 3 August to protest against the obligation imposed by the Services Directive to open up beach concessions to competition (for more, see here). Actually, it seems that the application of this Directive to beaches has been the source of some concern at the European Parliament (see here).
The reader who has sent us this information adds that the current lack of competition is evident to anyone visiting private beaches this summer. We have been provided with evidence that shows that the prices applied in Knokke (Belgium) are supra-competitive, and it seems that this is the case throughout the EU [which is why you should all spend yor holidays in Spain, where beaches are great and public ;) ].
A week ago another friend/reader from DG Comp wrote to us complaining about the every day cartels that he had identified in beaches, including the renting of hammocks, pedal boats and drinks.
All these reports have generated widespread concern at DG Comp. We are told that many officials have volunteered to conduct in-depth on-site investigations. Hords of DG Comp’s staff are leaving Brussels these days in order to conduct extenuating beach inspections which, in some cases, may last for over a month. They can be spotted at airports flying to almost every beach destination in Europe.
I had lunch at the Commission’s canteen today and was told by insiders that during August the Commission will be giving absolute priority to this sector investigation. In fact, and this is an exclusive from Chillin’Competition: we are told that Commissioner Almunia has decided to settle the investigation on Google in order to free resources for this programmed massive beach inspections. One of the officials heading an inspection team has sent us the pic that illustrates this post and that proves the Commission’s zealousness.
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.
A look at my recent posts shows that I have developed a taste for pending issues, whether it is rulings of the ECJ or Commission decisions. Rather than doing something new, I thought I would repeat the trick (I tell myself that the number of comments received in previous posts justifies the non-move). Some will have thought ‘Post Danmark II’ when reading the title. True, there is a second Post Danmark case pending before the ECJ. The little information available on the Court website, suggests that it may be another milestone in Article 102 TFEU case law.
But Post Danmark II has long been old news for most if not all of us (not to mention that discussing this case would involve writing yet another post about rebates). Due to the limited supply of Article 102 TFEU cases, it makes (economic) sense to cherish and discuss every single judgment, even prior to their adoption. Thus from the list of pending preliminary references in competition law, I thought I would repeat the trick by doing something else instead, and rather mention briefly (and invite your comments on) the following:
- Eventech concerns the use of bus lanes by taxis in London. The question is more precisely about the application of Article 107(1) TFEU to regulations that exclude private hire cars (minicabs) from such lanes. The key issue relates to whether such regulations involve the use of State resources. The information that is publicly available suggests that the answer is a clear ‘no’. But given that the Court mentioned in Gibraltar that what matters for the purposes of Article 107(1) TFEU is not the ‘regulatory technique’ but the effects of a measure, one is no longer 100% sure about these things.
- A colleague who is interested in EU law but not in competition law asked me a few weeks ago about the FNV Kunsten Informatie en Media case. This one is about the application of competition law to collective labour agreements. The agreement in question is interesting in that it dealt with the working conditions of self-employed workers who were not subject to it. In spite of the obvious distortions it entails this looks, again, like a straightforward case. What makes it worthy of mention, from my perspective, is that the mechanism used in the agreement to fix wages is not fundamentally different from that underlying the so-called Spanish Google tax. You may remember from my post on the question that the Spanish government seeks to ensure that Google News and other aggregators compensate newspapers for the use of ‘non-significant excerpts’ (I know I repeat myself, but this is a concept that never fails to amaze me) by making it impossible for the latter to relinquish their right (that is, by preventing negotiations between individual newspapers and aggregators).
- There are also some pending cases in Luxembourg featuring Alfonso. But it is probably better to let him comment on those.
I gather from the comments to my last post that there is still at least one reader interested in discussing the issues raised by AG Wahl in Groupement de Cartes Bancaires. I could not think of a better excuse to write yet another post about some ongoing developments where the object/effect divide in Article 101(1) TFEU is relevant. This time, which will most probably leave all readers exhausted (more on exhaustion below), I will address some of the open questions raised by the investigation into pay-TV services launched by the Commission back in January.
AG Wahl emphasised in his opinion the importance of considering the context in which an agreement is concluded when determining whether it is restrictive of competition by object within the meaning of Article 101(1) TFEU. It follows from this principle that an agreement that would in principle violate the said provision by its very nature may not do so – and may even fall outside its scope altogether – in some circumstances.
The licensing of TV rights to broadcasters is a perfect example of an instance in which the context surrounding the agreement makes a real difference. It is well-established since Consten-Grundig that agreements giving ‘absolute territorial protection’ to a distributor are restrictive of competition by object. In Coditel II, however, the ECJ held that an exclusive territorial licence in favour of a broadcaster is not in itself contrary to Article 101(1) TFEU, even though it may amount to absolute territorial protection. Why? As the ECJ lucidly explained, what is true for physical goods is not necessarily true for intangible property. In this case, territorial exclusivity came within the scope of the intellectual property right (communication to the public) that was being licensed. The ‘exclusive right to authorise or prohibit any communication to the public’ (to use the wording of Directive 2001/29) can only be meaningfully exercised if the licensee is entitled to prevent others from broadcasting the work in the area subject to the agreement. In other words, and by reference to the expression used by the ECJ in Coditel II, this is an instance in which territorial exclusivity allows the copyright to perform its ‘essential function’ (that in fact is the very ‘object’ of the agreement). If the existence of the intellectual property right is not disputed, then it would be simply illogical to find that the licence is contrary to Article 101 TFEU by its very nature.
Coditel II, which makes perfect legal and economic sense (and which is yet another excellent example showing that the notion of restriction by object has never been interpreted or applied in a categorical or mechanical way by the ECJ), is now seemingly questioned by the Commission in the pay-TV investigation. Commissioner Almunia’s statement raises concerns about ‘provisions [that] ensure that the films licensed by the US studios are shown exclusively in the Member State where each broadcaster operates via satellite and the internet’. This sentence suggests that, in the Commission’s view, agreements that come within the scope of the right of communication to the public are contrary to Article 101(1) TFEU. This position seems to involve a departure from Coditel II and would as such amount to an expansion of the reach and scope of EU competition law, which has long remained deferential to intellectual property regimes and their internal trade-offs. It would also be based on an expansive reading of the notion of restriction by object.
Because the statement is very ambiguous, however, this is not entirely clear. The Commission, on the one hand, claims that some of these agreements give ‘absolute territorial protection’ to pay-TV operators (which would in turn mean that they are restrictive by object). The Commission, on the other hand, says that it is not ‘calling into question the possibility to grant licenses on a territorial basis, or trying to oblige studios to sell rights on a pan-European basis’. I guess we will have to wait and see how the case unfolds in the coming months. Ideally, the Commission would explain whether it takes the view that an exclusive licensing agreement that allows the copyright to perform its ‘essential function’ is restrictive by object simply because it prevents licensees in other territories from offering the same content.
It should be noted that in Premier League (the case without which this investigation cannot be understood) the ECJ was very careful not to question Coditel II. It made it clear beyond doubt that the ruling only concerned the circulation of physical goods (the decoding devices), as opposed to intangible property. It also pointed out that the general principle whereby an agreement granting absolute territorial protection is restrictive by object does not apply where ‘other circumstances falling within its economic and legal context justify the finding that such an agreement is not liable to impair competition’ (and went on to note that the FA Premier League had not put forward any arguments in this sense). This fundamental qualification is not mentioned in Commissioner Almunia’s statement. The fact that the boundaries of the ruling were so carefully defined by the ECJ suggests, in my view (and this irrespective of what we think of the outcome), that it sought to limit as much as possible its implications for exclusive territorial licensing (there is in fact a very marked difference between AG Kokott’s opinion and the judgment, which would go to confirm this reading).
In the past days a Commission official who ranks among my preferred legal minds expressed her/his though that our discipline may not be as legal as we often think. The thought, formulated on the fly (don’t click, very bad joke) (I told you..) , was triggered by the observation that whereas the law and legal reasoning should be cuasi cartesian, logic, certain, it’s nevertheless very often impossible to predict the outcome of a given case. [This may remind some of a Holmes' quote: "prophecies of what the courts will do in fact, and nothing more pretentious, are what I mean by the law”].
Then on Monday a lawyer in the audience (not me, really) made a similar remark (this time at a conference in London regarding a certain case I discussed on my previous post, coincidentally published that day). The idea expressed there was that the Commission could have taken exactly the opposite conclusion it took in the face on the very same facts at issue, and it would very presumably also have been endorsed by the Court.
And a few minutes ago a colleague sent me an email discussing the spill-over effects that Alrosa has had in competition enforcement.
As much as I don’t like to admit it, all those are right and share a common theme. I guess Competition Law may indeed be partly losing its last name. I suppose an element of this could be found in other areas of law, but my feeling is that the issue is more acute in our field:
Is it because of the simplicity and vagueness of our main working provisions and the terms they use? (as I observed here, the Court itself recently acknowledged that “Article 101 or 102 TFEU are drawn up using imprecise legal concepts, such as distortion of competition or ‘abuse’ of a dominant position” ).
Is it because of the transformation of the discipline by the incorporation of economic analysis to the assessmente of legallity of market practices? (on that, you know my views). It has become popular to bash ordoliberals, but they crucially emphasised the need to preserve the competitive process through law-making, as opposed to unconstrained policy choices, and this is a lesson we may be forgetting.
Is it because of the Court’s inclination to show deference to (what they see as, and often are) specialized agencies?
Is it because of developments like Alrosa, that enable a disconnect between the problem and the solution and, in a way, may legitimize the abuse of an institutional dominant position?
Is it because of the number of the unavoidable yet more-or-less-reliable proxies (market definition, market shares, cost-assessments, object short-cuts, etc..) we use and the little certain tools we have?
Is it because law and policy-making are inextricably intertwined in our field? (in the sense that policy choices are often expressed through the choice of cases).
As with anything else, the answer is very likely cumulative and complex, but the fact is that competition law may have become a discipline where the authority’s self restraint, negotiations in the shadow of the law, disclaimers in lawyers’ risk assessments, administrative/judicial discretion, and therefore uncertainty, play a larger role than perhaps they should.
The fact that the law needs to be interpreted, or even the fact that legal reasoning can be played with has upsided (allowing me to earn a living or making the profession interesting are just two examples), but I can’t help feeling that there is something not right about it.
P.D. These are, as always, thoughts in progress. If you don’t agree with them, remember our disclaimer.
On 15 February 2012, Cisco Systems and Messagenet appealed the Commission’s decision authorizing the purchase of Skype by Microsoft. On 11 December 2013, the General Court rendered its Judgment dismissing the application for annulment.
As many readers of this blog will know, I was one of the lawyers representing the applicants, and was personally very involved in the judicial phase of the case, which I very much enjoyed. For the past 5 months I’ve read some succinct comments about and I think that there are many genuinely interesting things about it that might so far have been overlooked.
Whereas I –biased as I am- have issues with most of what’s in the Judgment (and particularly with what isn’t there), I’ve decided to try to get rid of any bitterness (some irony will be inevitable, I’m afraid) and approach it in a hopefully constructive way, leaving a myriad factual case-specific issues aside, and focusing only on selected matters of general relevance to any competition lawyer.
So instead of re-arguing the case –which would be of little use at this time- my intention is to shed light on some aspects of the Judgment which otherwise not attract the attention they deserve. I’ll touch on 6 selected issues, and will offer some personal views as a conclusion.
Needless to say, my opinions are, aside from non-objective, exclusively attributable to myself, not to anyone else, notably clients and colleagues, and neither Cisco nor Messagenet have anything to do with this post.
1) The Court ruled that the standards of proof and review applicable to Phase I (Art.6) decisions are identical to those applicable to Phase II (Art. 8) decisions
Whereas we argued that the merger should be annulled regardless of how the Court interpreted the applicable standards of proof and review, we also claimed that the standard of proof must necessarily be higher in the case of Phase I decisions because the Commission has to prove that the case couldn’t objectively give rise to “serious doubts” (which is the applicable legal test according to Art 6 of Regulation 139).
This interpretation, now held wrong, was fairly uncontroverted in academia (see e.g. the contributions EUI’s 2009 workshop on standard of proof in competition law), and had been formulated previous cases. In her Opinion in Impala AG Kokott went even further and explained that a “beyond reasonable doubt” standard applied to Phase I decisions “to compensate for the fact that at that stage the investigation of a concentration is merely a summary one” (…) “[a]t that stage, serious doubts as to the compatibility of a concentration with the common market will only prevented its being cleared to quickly and force the Commission to make a more extensive investigation in a formal procedure”. A test of absence of doubts also governs the initiation of in-depth reviews in the State aid domain, and the Court has established in that context that this test requires a review that “will, by nature, go beyond simple consideration of whether or not there has been a manifest error of assessment” on the Commission’s part (for more on this see, e.g. cases T-73/98, para 47 and T-119/02, para 77).
The Judgment in this case nonetheless states that “the standard of proof is no higher for decisions adopted under Article 6 of Regulation 139/2004 than those adopted under Article 8 of that regulation” (para 46). The Court then goes on to explain that even if we correctly argued that the Commission has no discretion as regards the initiation of Phase II whenever it has serious doubts, the Institution “enjoys a certain margin of discretion” to carry out the “complex economic assessments” required in merger cases (para. 49), and that therefore the standard of review for both Phase I and Phase II is the same: that applied to complex economic assessments (limited judicial review).
What the Court is effectively saying in paras 46 to 49 is that even if the notion of serious doubts is an objective one, the Commission has discretion to have doubts or not. In my mind, this would mean that the alleged objectivity of the concept is meaningless, but perhaps there’s a different reading, which I don’t yet grasp. Even if the standard of review is the same for Phase I and Phase II decisions, it seemed intuitive to me that what has to be proved in one case (no serious doubts) and the other (compatibility or incompatibility with the internal market) is different. By rejecting this previously uncontroversial interpretation I think the Court has importantly -rightly or wrongly- expanded the Commission’s margin of discretion in merger cases.
2) Unless I’m missing something in para. 67 the Court explains that competitive assessments in most Phase I decisions are not to be taken seriously because they do not assess the “real” relevant market.
“The applicants therefore base their complaint relating to market power held by the new entity on an incorrect assumption, in so far as the Commission did not define the existence of a specific market for consumer video communications on Windows based PCs. The Commission did not therefore establish in the contested decision that operators present on the narrow market could act independently of the competitive pressure from other means of consumer communications, such as services offered on other platforms or other operating systems. In addition, the applicants did not themselves submit any evidence or study to support the conclusion of the existence of such a narrow market. By contrast, they merely criticised the factors put forward in the contested decision in order to qualify the significance of market shares”.
What this paragraph says isthat the fact that the Commission chose to assess the market for video communications on Windows based PCs was irrelevant, and that we could only have challenged this assessment if we proved that the market was the real one (!). This is quite astonishing may perhaps be a bit surprising to some, because what we were challenging was precisely the conclusion that “the proposed transaction does not give rise to any competition concerns even on the narrowest possible definition of the relevant product market”. The market might have been hypothetical, but its assessment was the only one contained in the decision and therefore the only one that could be appealed.
Unless I’m wrong (again, let me know if you see it differently) what this means that from now onwards any party wishing to appeal a Phase I merger decision should not challenge the assessment actually carried out by the Commission, but will need to prove that the assessment of the “narrowest possible market” corresponds to a real market, which will almost never be the case! In other words, from now onwards the Commission could get immunity from Court review by carrying out assessments of markets whose definition is left open.
3) On the irrelevance of market shares in dynamic markets
The few paragraphs that have so far received public attention are the ones concerning the irrelevance of high market shares. In para 69 the Judgment states that “the consumer communications sector is a recent and fast‑growing sector which is characterised by short innovation cycles in which large market shares may turn out to be ephemeral. In such a dynamic context, high market shares are not necessarily indicative of market power”.
In fact, I agree with this statement. Market shares in these markets are “not necessarily indicative of market power”; they provide an indication which may be disproved by other factors. My problem with this is they do provide an indication, and even if it can be disproved by looking at countervailing factors, I still struggle to see those here.
In any event, there are a few paras in this section (mainly paras 79 to 84) that that are potentially quite troublesome for enforcement, particularly in technology and communication markets. No wonder these will from now onwards be cited by any company with large market shares.
4) On the irrelevance of network effects in a non-interoperable communications market
Paragraph 76 also marks –in my view- a change in the way network effects are assessed in EU competition law by stating that “the existence of network effects does not necessarily procure a competitive advantage for the new entity”.
This may seem at odds with all past Commission precedents, mainstream economics, regulation of other communication markets, the Commission’s soft law on market definition, 102 and mergers, as well as with Skype’s own repeated statements in official public submissions claiming that “the scale, global distribution and growth of our user base provide us with powerful network effects, whereby Skype becomes more valuable as more people use it, thereby creating an incentive for existing users to encourage new users to join. We believe that these network effects help us attract new users and provide significant competitive advantages”.
You may recall that the Decision’s argument to rebut the role of network effects was that users “make the majority of their voice and video calls to the small number of family and friends that make up their so called “inner cicle” (4-6 people) and that “it is not difficult for these groups to move between communication services”. This peculiar argument was endorsed by the Court. As I’ve repeatedly said over the past two years, I may well Skype the most with my wife, girlfriend (J), mother and best friend, but I would assume that my best friend has in turn a different mother, girlfriend and wife (or so I’d like to think…); in other words, groups of people are interconnected and do not communicate in movable autarkic nodules. On this point, the Judgment simply repeats (thereby endorsing) the Commission’s argument at the end of para 52 (“the network effects to which the concentration might give rise would be diluted by the fact that users tend to communicate in small restricted circles and use a range of operators. Those factors demonstrate the ease with which user groups switch to other communications services”). [On multi-homing, note that the “range of operators” meant the two merging parties –otherwise they couldn’t have a 90% market share- as openly acknowledged in footnote 52 of the decision].
4) On the identification of competitive constraints.
A paragraph that could also prove important for various markets where companies rely on others’ technology (and for private label products) is para. 72, which dismisses the claim that Facebook (the second largest player with an overwhelming 10% of the market, whose video call service runs on Skype, which has Microsoft as a shareholder and which interoperates with Skype) would not be an effective competitor with this reasoning.
“The only factor that they put forward in support of that argument is that Facebook is a licensee and strategic ally of Skype, which cannot use Skype’s software to offer services in competition with the paid services of Skype, called SkypeOut, which make it possible to, inter alia, call fixed or mobile telephone numbers and to conduct video calls involving more than two persons. However, they do not submit that that agreement prevents Facebook from offering its video communications services to consumers who might decide to switch away from the new entity if it decided to exert any market power.
So, being a “strategic ally”, using the same technology and the existence of a non-compete agreement do not indicate mitigated competitive vigor. Note taken.
5) On switching, statement of reasons and the comparison with the Microsoft (and Google) abuse cases
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