Antitrust Lawyer Blog Commentary on Current Developments

Articles Posted in Civil Non-Merger Highlights

On March 23, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced that it reached a settlement that will prohibit DIRECTV Group Holdings, LLC (“DirecTV”) and its parent corporation, AT&T Inc. (“AT&T”), from illegally sharing confidential, forward-looking information with competitors.

On November 2, 2016, the DOJ’s Antitrust Division filed suit alleging that DirecTV was the ringleader of a series of unlawful information exchanges between DirecTV and three of its competitors – namely, Cox Communications Inc. (“Cox”), Charter Communications Inc. (“Charter”) and AT&T (before it acquired DirecTV) – during the companies’ negotiations to carry the SportsNet LA “Dodgers Channel.”

SportsNet LA holds the exclusive rights to telecast almost all live Dodgers games in the Los Angeles area.  According to the complaint, DirecTV’s Chief Content Officer, Daniel York, unlawfully exchanged competitively-sensitive information with his counter-parts at Cox, Charter and AT&T while they were each negotiating with SportsNet LA for the right to telecast the Dodgers Channel.  Specifically, the complaint alleges that DirecTV and each of these competitors agreed to and exchanged non-public information about their companies’ ongoing negotiations to telecast the Dodgers Channel, as well as their companies’ future plans to carry – or not carry – the channel. The complaint also alleges that the companies engaged in this conduct in order to unlawfully obtain bargaining leverage and to reduce the risk that they would lose subscribers if they decided not to carry the channel but a competitor chose to do so. The complaint further alleges that the information learned through these unlawful agreements was a material factor in the companies’ decisions not to carry the Dodgers Channel. The Dodgers Channel is still not carried by DirecTV, Cox or AT&T. The DOJ allegations make out a buyer conspiracy case that violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act.  The DOJ further claims that the illegal information sharing corrupted the competitive bargaining process and likely contributed to the lengthy blackout.

On Monday, October 26, 2015, in a joint statement, the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice urged the state of Virginia to reform or repeal its certificate-of-need (CON) law.

CON laws typically require hospitals to obtain government approval before undergoing expansion projects or purchasing major assets, including hospital equipment.  Virginia is known to have one of the most restrictive CON laws in the country, and the antitrust enforcement agencies recently have addressed the possible negative effects such laws have on competition, stating that CON laws may impede on healthcare providers’ abilities to provide efficient and effective services for consumers and may hinder competition by creating barriers to entry, limiting consumer choice, and stifling innovation.

In the joint statement, the enforcement agencies cited several studies that show that CON laws have not been effective at controlling costs or improving quality for consumers and indicated that more targeted measures might better address such goals.  While Virginia has an established working group tasked with addressing the issues surrounding CON laws, no final decisions have been made on the status of the state’s current CON law.

On Monday, October 26, 2015, U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) Chairwoman, Edith Ramirez, requesting that the FTC investigate possible illegal collusion by saline solution manufacturers.

In their letter, the senators noted that there has been a shortage of saline solution in the United States since 2013 and that the three companies that provide all the saline solution for the United States, Baxter, Hospira, and B. Braun, have failed to end the shortage.  The senators further claim that such activity may be the result of collusive behavior by the manufacturing companies to exploit the shortage of saline solution to increase their own profits and that this activity has resulted in higher costs to hospitals, patients, and the overall healthcare system.  The letter also states that hospitals have reported that Baxter, Hospira, and B. Braun have each imposed greater price increases (200-300%) since the shortage began.  The senators also state that the manufacturers on saline solution customers who do not also purchase additional non-saline products, effectively claiming that the manufacturers may be illegally tying the products.

Given the rising costs of healthcare, the FTC should ensure that anticompetitive conduct does not further increase those costs.  Therefore, the senators urge the FTC to investigate the troubling allegations to determine whether the saline suppliers’ apparent anticompetitive conduct is harming consumers and running afoul of the antitrust laws.

On November 10, 2014, President Obama forcefully stated his position on net neutrality.  While acknowledging that the FCC is the agency that has the authority to create new rules protecting net neutrality, President Obama stated that the FCC should create “the strongest possible rules” to stop “paid prioritization” and other actions that favor the transmission of certain content.  President Obama believes all content providers should be treated equally.  Therefore, he is not in favor of the deals that Netflix cut with Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner Cable earlier this year.  Indeed, President Obama does not believe that the cable company or phone company should act as a gatekeeper.

President Obama lists four bright-line rules:

  • No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player — not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot at your business.

On November 10, 2014, the American Antitrust Institute (“AAI”) announced that Diana Moss will succeed founder Albert Foer as President and CEO of the leading competition advocacy group, effective January 2015.

“I speak for the entire AAI Board of Directors in enthusiastically welcoming Diana as our new President and CEO as of this coming January. She is ideally positioned to build on Bert’s powerful 17-year legacy and to take the AAI in new directions over the years ahead,” said Robert Skitol, Chairman of the AAI Board of Directors.

Dr. Moss was selected from a pool of prestigious candidates after a national search.  “I am honored, and grateful to the AAI Board for the opportunity to lead this really exceptional organization,” said Moss. “We’re moving into the next AAI “generation” with a talented staff and valuable, respected advisors that have helped us promote a unique and successful advocacy, research, and education agenda,” she added.

On September 17, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing — “Why Net Neutrality Matters: Protecting Consumers and Competition Through Meaningful Open Internet Rules.”  The witnesses were:

·            Brad Burnham – Managing Partner, Union Square Ventures

·            Ruth Livier – Writer, Independent Producer, and Actress

On September 10, 2014, the House Judiciary Committee passed legislation to eliminate certain discrepancies between merger reviews conducted by the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice.

The Standard Merger and Acquisition Reviews Through Equal Rules Act (SMARTER Act), H.R. 5402, introduced by Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX), would codify certain recommendations included in a 2007 report by the Antitrust Modernization Commission. Under existing law, the rules for reviewing a merger or acquisition differ depending on whether the FTC or the DOJ reviews the merger. The SMARTER Act would reduce differences in the merger review process.

The proposed legislation would streamline merger reviews and various other antitrust procedures that, under current law, differ between whether the DOJ or FTC is conducting the review.  The legislation would amend the Clayton Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act to provide the antitrust agencies with consistent processes when moving to block a merger.  Officials are looking to extend the same powers held by the DOJ to the FTC.  The bill also eliminates the FTC’s power to initiate an administrative proceeding to challenge a merger; that power would be preserved in other contexts, but in regards to a merger the FTC would need to file a complaint in federal district court to block a deal, the same process currently followed by the DOJ.

In a September 4, 2014 speech, Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) Chairman Tom Wheeler expressed concerns about the lack of broadband competition in the United States.

Chairman Wheeler explained that access to a 25 Mbps connection is becoming essential (or “table stakes”) to consumers with a majority of Americans having access to 100 Mbps or higher connections. However, “just because most Americans have access to next-generation broadband doesn’t mean they have competitive choices.”  Indeed, Chairman Wheeler believes that most Americans really have no competitive choices.  Chairman Wheeler applauded Google and AT&T’s introductions and plans to introduce gigabit broadband to markets around the country, but worried that characterizing competition in many markets as a duopoly “overstates the case” because of the lack of competitive opportunities open to consumers.

To address these concerns, Chairman Wheeler explained the FCC’s Agenda for Broadband Competition, which includes four broad principles: (i) protect existing competition; (ii) encourage greater competition where possible; (ii) create competition where it does not exist in a meaningful way; and (iv) promote broadband deployment where competition cannot be expected to exist.  Through the application of these principles, Chairman Wheeler hopes to improve broadband performance, promote competition, and encourage innovation.

On September 3, 2014, the FCC announced it reached a settlement with Verizon for $7.4 million.

The settlement ending an investigating into Verizon’s alleged misuse of customer information. The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau was investigating Verizon’s alleged failure to notify approximately two million new customers of their privacy rights.  Specifically, Verizon allegedly failed to provide to  new customers instructions for how to opt-out from alleged Verizon’s use of their personal information for marketing purposes.  As part of the settlement, Verizon must inform all new customers of their opt-out rights on every bill for three years.

The $7.4 million settlement is the largest in FCC history for a settlement of an investigation related solely to the privacy of telephone customers’ personal information.

Berkshire Hathaway Agrees to Pay $896,000 Maximum Civil Penalty for HSR Violation

On August 20, 2014, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) announced that Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (“Berkshire”) agreed to pay a civil penalty of $896,000, the maximum civil penalty that could have been imposed, for its alleged violation of the premerger notification and filing requirements of the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (“HSR Act”) in connection with its 2013 acquisition of voting securities of USG Corporation, which was allegedly its second HSR violation after a promise to impose an HSR compliance program.

First HSR Mistake