On December 5, 2018, the French Competition Authority (FCA) fined six large household appliance manufacturers a total of €189 million for agreeing on price increases charged to end-consumers and commercial terms applicable to their kitchen installers. This is the tenth highest fine imposed for cartel activities by the FCA since 2000. Members of our EU, Competition & Regulatory team summarize the case in our recent client alert.
On November 13–14, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) held hearings on “Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century.” The panelists, an assembly of industry leaders, academics and enforcers, discussed consumer protection and antitrust issues that arise from harvesting data through AI, the role of industry in mitigating potential harms and whether government agencies can effectively prevent AI misuse within existing legal frameworks. Our client alert describes what measures companies and agencies can take to protect consumers and competition in this next frontier of antitrust enforcement. Visit reedsmith.com to learn more.
Over a spirited dissent, and in a 3–1 decision issued on November 14, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioners held that 1-800 Contacts violated Section 5 of the FTC Action by entering into settlement agreements with competitors that (1) harmed consumers in the online sale of contact lenses and (2) harmed search engines by artificially reducing the prices paid for online advertisements.
The settlement agreements at issue resolved allegations by 1-800 Contacts that its competitors were infringing upon its trademark by bidding on paid search advertising with 1-800 Contacts’ trademark as keywords. Search engines hold auctions for ads placed as results of certain search terms, and the settlement agreements prohibited competitors from bidding on keywords containing 1-800 Contacts’ trademark and also required competitors, when applicable, to employ 1-800 Contacts’ trademark as a “negative keyword” (which prevents competitors’ ads from populating the results of a keyword search for 1-800 Contacts’ trademark). From 2004 to 2013, 1-800 Contacts entered into 13 such agreements with competitors, and the FTC challenged this practice, reasoning that the agreements were inhibiting competition in a “very important” channel of advertising that “effectively eliminat[ed] an entire channel of competitive advertising at the key moment when the consumer is considering a purchase.”
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) recently provided issuers with a reminder of the potential for enforcement for insufficient cybersecurity. The SEC continues to emphasize the importance of measures such as up-to-date compliance and incident response programs in order to maintain the integrity of the capital market system, and a recent Report of Investigation reflects that cybersecurity remains an enforcement priority. To learn more about the Report and the SEC’s recent enforcement actions, visit our Technology Law Dispatch blog.
On November 5, the United States reimposed the final tranche of sanctions on Iran, which had been lifted pursuant to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) in 2016. The vast majority of these sanctions are “secondary sanctions,” being those which target non-U.S. persons and companies even where there is no U.S. nexus (e.g. the use of USD; U.S.-persons; or U.S. goods). The secondary sanctions cover a variety of goods and services, as well as prohibitions on dealings with certain individual persons and entities. While exceptions for humanitarian goods, agricultural products, medicine and medical devices remain in place, entities may find doing even this kind of business in Iran more challenging due to restrictions on the Iranian banking industry. When taking decisions about whether to enter into or continue Iran-related trade, EU companies must also weigh the risk of circumventing the EU’s so-called “blocking” statute. To read our summary of the reimposed sanctions, visit reedsmith.com.
As a lawyer who regularly defends qui tam suits brought against government contractors under the False Claims Act (FCA), a recent decision from the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in The Tolliver Grp. Inc. v. United States, Fed. Cl., No. 17-1763C (J. Lettow 10/26/18) prompted me to remind federal government contractors defending civil qui tam lawsuits under the FCA, that the majority of their legal fees spent successfully defending a relator’s whistleblower suit may be reimbursable by the government. Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) 31.205-47 provides that up to 80 percent of a contractor’s legal costs incurred in connection with successfully defending an FCA action may be allowable to the extent such costs are reasonable and not otherwise unallowable or recovered. See FAR 31.205-47(b), (e).1
On 8 May 2018, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In conjunction with that announcement, the President issued a National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM) directing the re-imposition of certain secondary sanctions, being those that apply to non-U.S. persons even where there is no U.S. nexus (e.g. no U.S. persons, no U.S.-origin goods, or U.S. dollar payments). As discussed in our earlier blog post, the first batch of sanctions was reimposed on 6 August and the second batch will become effective 5 November.
Increasingly, the antitrust agencies have been challenging unreported transactions post-closing under the Clayton Act, seeking an unwinding of the transactions or at least divestitures of some of the assets purchased. Until recently, however, the threat that a private plaintiff would obtain a court order requiring an unwinding or divestiture once the deal has closed has been more theoretical than real. The threat may now be more real than theoretical. In what is the first decision of its kind, a federal district court has ordered a defendant in a private action brought, in part, under Clayton Act Section 16 to divest assets approximately six years after they were purchased. In that case, the defendant, a door manufacturer and door component supplier, had acquired a competitor in 2012 in a transaction that was reviewed without a challenge by the Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division. Yet on October 5, the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ordered the defendant, in a case brought by a competitor/customer that had previously been awarded $175 million in damages, to sell key door component manufacturing assets that the defendant had acquired as part of the 2012 transaction. If allowed to stand, the decision could mean that, going forward, acquirers can be less confident about the finality of their acquisitions post-closure. Read more here.
Last week in a hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights, Assistant Attorney General (AAG) Makan Delrahim announced that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is pursuing criminal charges against competitors who allegedly engaged in a price-fixing scheme facilitated by the use of search algorithms. While he did not reveal further details about the case, AAG Delrahim announced that he expected the investigation to conclude soon.
Algorithms are a series of instructions, frequently iterative, that when followed may solve a problem, and they are commonly written into software to process vast amounts of data and quickly arrive at a solution. Algorithms are frequently used in pricing, where a company may create a process that incorporates data on costs, competitors’ prices, and other significant factors to determine pricing. Algorithms are largely used in a procompetitive manner, for example, by enabling a competitor to efficiently process huge quantities of data to aid in reacting to a competitor’s prices in real time.
Earlier this year, the Indian parliament made significant amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act (the “PCA”). The PCA is the primary Indian law that addresses corruption in government agencies and public sector businesses in India. These updates to the Act impact how companies with operations in India manage corrupt activity. Read our summary of the key amendments here.