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Tech Industry

FTC's new strategy: Kick 'em when they're down

Given the existing range of litigation against Intel, it's hard to see how the agency's suit could help protect consumers, argues Stanford Law Fellow Larry Downes.

Editors' note: This is a guest column. See Larry Downes' bio below.

Wednesday's announcement that the Federal Trade Commission had filed a complaint against chipmaker Intel came as quite a surprise.

Not because of the allegations themselves, which focus on illegal tactics the company allegedly uses to maintain its dominance in the market for PC and server CPUs. Nearly all of them have already been cited in regulatory actions in the United States and abroad.

Earlier this year, the European Union fined Intel nearly $1.5 billion for conduct similar to that alleged in the FTC complaint (an appeal is pending). New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, likewise, filed an antitrust case against the company in November. Private antitrust suits, notably by competitor Advanced Micro Devices, have been ongoing since 2005. Japan and South Korea have already concluded their own actions against the company.

Rather, what is surprising about the FTC complaint is its timing. Given the range of both public and private litigation against Intel, it's hard to see what the FTC hopes to achieve by jumping in so late in the game. Indeed, the commission had been investigating the chipmaker since June 2008, before the EU reached its decision and before a landmark settlement between Intel and AMD was reached in the private lawsuit just last month, in which Intel agreed to pay AMD $1.25 billion and cross-license various patents.

According to Intel's statement Wednesday morning, the company and the commission had been close to a settlement "of all outstanding issues with the FTC" when the commission instead decided to issue its complaint.

The real deal
So what's going on here? Let's start by looking at a few key differences between the FTC action and those brought by other litigants. First, the FTC complaint broadens the charges against Intel. In early December, sources reported that the FTC had widened its investigation beyond CPUs to include anticompetitive behavior in graphics processing units, in which Intel is alleged to control about half the market.

Nvidia, one of Intel's main competitors for GPUs and itself a party in still another lawsuit, confirmed that the FTC had contacted the company about its investigation. (In a Wednesday statement, Intel argued that the GPU claims have not been fully investigated by the commission and are therefore premature. It appears that the addition of these new issues derailed the settlement talks, leading to Wednesday's action.)

The FTC's proposed remedies are much broader than those sought in any of the other litigation. Rather than seeking fines, penalties, or money damages, the commission intends to enforce wide-ranging changes to how Intel operates.

Second, the FTC's complaint alleges multiple violations of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which only the commission has the authority to enforce. Under section 5 of the act, the commission may use its power to remedy practices that have not yet reached the threshold of harm necessary under either the Sherman Act or the Clayton Act, the more general antitrust statutes. As the U.S. Supreme Court put it in a 1953 case, the commission quotes from in the first sentence of its complaint, section 5 gives the FTC power to "stop in their incipiency acts and practices which, when full blown, would violate" the Sherman or Clayton acts.

Third, and perhaps most disturbing, the FTC's proposed remedies are much broader than those sought in any of the other litigation. Rather than seeking fines, penalties, or money damages, the commission intends to enforce wide-ranging changes to how Intel operates.

For starters, the FTC wants to limit Intel's use of bundled prices, quantity discounts, minimum purchase guarantees from original equipment manufacturers, pricing products below cost and other long-standing industry practices. Moreover, the commission intends to require Intel to license its technology to "others" on terms and conditions "as the commission may order" and to require Intel to preclear any future acquisitions, including purchases of intellectual property such as patents and copyrights.

These and many other restrictions on Intel's conduct would be overseen by an independent monitor appointed by the FTC. Intel would also be required to submit "periodic compliance reports" with the commission.

In short, if the FTC goes forward with its complaint, and Intel is ultimately found to have violated the FTCA, the company would find itself closely regulated for an undetermined period of time by the commission and its outside monitors. Even advertising and promotional materials would need to be reviewable on demand by the government.

Notable timing
None of these differences, however, add up to a justification for the FTC's decision to insert itself into a complicated matrix of ongoing litigation, just as the other actions are or are close to reaching resolution.

For starters, if the GPU claims are as strong as the commission says they are, then they could easily have formed the basis of a separate complaint, filed once the FTC had had a full opportunity to investigate them.

As for the FTCA, the FTC undermines its own argument that the special powers of section 5 are necessary to repair the semiconductor market. The commission notes throughout the complaint that Intel's monopolies and the behaviors it is seeking to remedy, with the exception of the GPU-related violations, have been ongoing since 1999--the year in which Intel and the commission settled an earlier section 5 complaint. Given that so many other lawsuits are already years in progress, it's unlikely that any "incipient" behavior is involved here; whatever Intel has done, it has done for years.

While the FTC complaint duly invokes "harm to consumers" 31 times in its complaint, evidence of any real damage will be hard to come by.

The FTCA is a red herring, in any case. As leading antitrust scholar Richard A. Posner noted in 2005, expansion of the Sherman and Clayton Acts over the years has left no real difference between the more general antitrust laws and the FTC's special powers under section 5. Private enforcement or lawsuits brought by the Department of Justice or state attorneys general now cover all the behavior that may have been subject only to what was once the broader powers of the agency.

The FTC's belated decision to pursue Intel brings Posner's longstanding critique of the commission into sharp focus. Posner, who has questioned the effectiveness of the commission since 1969, concluded in 2005 that the agency's continued existence might be justified, not for its enforcement of antitrust laws, but rather on the basis of its unique role in protecting consumers against fraud. The Department of Justice is a "powerful and highly regarded" federal agency tasked with enforcing antitrust law, Posner wrote, "but there is no counterpart federal agency that tries to protect consumers against fraud and oppression--unless it is the Federal Trade Commission."

And while the FTC complaint duly invokes "harm to consumers" 31 times in its complaint, evidence of any real damage will be hard to come by. Thanks to Moore's Law--Intel founder Gordon Moore's promise that semiconductors will continue to get faster, smaller, and cheaper every 12 to 18 months--the price of raw computing power has fallen dramatically and consistently since Intel was founded. Consumers are not being tricked or misled into buying computers with Intel processors.

Protecting consumers?
The commission can blow all the smoke it wants to about ensuring "freedom of choice" for consumers, but for better or worse, this litigation and all the rest of it is being brought for the benefit of Intel's competitors. Which is not to say that Intel hasn't violated anticompetition laws and that those violations, if left unremedied, "will have an adverse effect on competition and hence consumers," as the FTC delicately puts it.

Perhaps they will. But there is another, greater danger here, and that is the harm to the entire semiconductor industry that will result from regulators stepping in to resolve what are, in essence, private fights between Intel, its competitors, and some of its biggest customers.

The commission, along with its counterparts abroad and judges fashioning remedies in the public and private antitrust cases, might somehow get it right and fix the semiconductor market--or at least make it more efficient than it is under Intel's dominance. On the other hand, they might make things much worse.

The worst-case scenario seems increasingly likely. The FTC, in any event, is weighing in far too late on Intel's battles with AMD, and too soon in its fight with Nvidia and other GPU manufacturers. The remedies it intends to visit are breathtaking in their expansiveness and would leave Intel unable to compete, let alone compete fairly. The only beneficiaries of this latest chapter in the antitrust saga would be Intel's competitors, not consumers.

As Posner noted with characteristic understatement, an FTC untethered from its role of protecting consumers is little more than a tool for unhappy competitors. "If the competitor files a lawsuit, he must bear the expense of the suit," Posner wrote, "but if he can get the FTC to proceed against the seller, he incurs no cost. This opens up the possibility of using the FTC as a weapon against competition."

Even worse, it's a weapon that has the unfortunate habit of regularly backfiring on those who employ it.