With growing consumer demand for environmentally friendly products and services, businesses are ramping up their “green” advertising endeavors to showcase eco-friendly credentials like carbon emissions reductions, renewable energy and recycled materials. In light of this surge in “going green” marketing, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has proposed revisions to its Guides for Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (Green Guides). The aim is to furnish companies with supplementary guidance on the types of environmental claims that can be made and the necessary substantiation required to steer clear of legal disputes, penalties or unfavorable public perception. These revisions could significantly impact advertisers that make “green” claims by requiring more specificity and more substantiation than before.
Negative Option Offers: How the FTC’s Proposed Rule Could Affect Your Business
In March 2023, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) proposed tightened requirements of the Negative Option Rule. This is an effort to combat unfair or deceptive practices, such as charging customers for recurring products or services that they don’t want and can’t cancel easily. Negative options refer to features like automatic renewals, prenotification plans, free-to-pay and fee-to-pay conversions, and continuity programs.
The FTC seeks to increase the requirements for negative options to prevent marketers from deceiving or making it difficult for consumers to cancel or opt out of subscriptions, notifications or similar programs. The proposed regulations aim to avoid any hindrance or deception to consumers who want to opt out or cancel.
Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q1 2023
Topics covered in this edition:
- Christine Wilson Resigns as FTC Commissioner
- FTC/Department of Justice Horizontal Merger Guidelines Delayed
- Agencies Maintain Focus on Private Equity, Especially in Healthcare
- Continuing a Trend: FTC Loses Challenge to Meta’s Acquisition of Within
- Agencies Continue to Challenge Transactions Outright Rather than Negotiate Settlements
- New Regulatory Burden: The EU Foreign Subsidies Regulation Enters into Force
- A New Route for Complainants: ECJ Towercast Ruling Confirms Non-Notifiable Acquisition Can Be Abuse of Dominant Position
- CMA’s New Leadership Team Focuses on Digitalisation and Supply Chain Issues Impacting Consumers
Heard at the 2023 Spring Meeting: Part 2
The American Bar Association’s Antitrust Law Section held its annual Spring Meeting in Washington, DC, on March 29–31, 2023. The Spring Meeting sessions featured updates from federal, state, and international antitrust enforcers and thought-invoking discussions on leading antitrust issues facing the business community today. Following Part 1, this post summarizes key takeaways from the second portion of the Spring Meeting, including updates regarding premerger notification filings, labor markets, state antitrust enforcement, compliance programs, national security, consumer protection, interlocking directorates, and remedies.
FTC Zeros in on Missing Material in HSR Filings
- Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Bureau of Competition Director Holly Vedova underscored the consequences of failing to submit Item 4 material in HSR filings. She noted the FTC will bounce filings found to have missing Item 4 documents. If the waiting period has not expired and newly surfaced documents change the scope of the request, the FTC may issue a Second Request. If the waiting period has expired when consequential missing material is realized, the FTC will require a corrective filing for the original transaction and may impose “significant” civil penalties.
- Vedova also reminded practitioners that changes in a merger agreement can require an additional HSR filing. If material changes are made before the waiting period expires, parties should proactively reach out to the FTC to inquire as to whether further action is needed. Parties may need to amend their original filing or submit a new one entirely.
Labor Markets Remain High Priority
- The antitrust enforcement agencies have promised continued, fervent action in labor markets. In keeping with this promise, this January, the FTC issued a proposed rule that would make it illegal to enter into or maintain noncompete agreements with employees or independent contractors.
- FTC Chair Lina Khan emphasized that noncompetes impede business dynamism, innovation, and entry, and eliminating noncompetes is estimated to return $300 billion back into the pockets of American workers.
- FTC Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter pointed to California as an innovator in labor market enforcement, citing its prohibition on noncompetes. FTC enforcers encouraged the continued submission of public comments on the proposed rule. The comment period is set to close on April 19, 2023.
- Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Gwendolyn Cooley also noted that enforcing noncompetes has been a hallmark of state enforcement, especially in New York and Washington, and additional states are considering legislation that would ban noncompetes.
- The Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division’s Acting Director of Criminal Enforcement Emma Burnham and the Chief of DOJ’s Criminal II Section James Fredericks noted practitioners should expect an uptick in criminal cases in the labor and employment space. DOJ Antitrust Division’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter stressed that antitrust crimes focused on workers are just as important as those focused on consumers.
- New York’s antitrust chief, Elinor Hoffman, indicated that New York is focused on labor issues, including no-poach agreements and noncompete clauses that may arise during merger reviews. [...]
Heard at the 2023 Spring Meeting: Part 1
The American Bar Association’s Antitrust Law Section recently held its annual Spring Meeting in Washington, DC, featuring updates from federal, state, and international antitrust enforcers and in-depth commentary on leading antitrust issues facing the business community today. This post recaps key takeaways from the first portion of the Spring Meeting.
CIVIL ENFORCEMENT AND MERGER REVIEW: US DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE (DOJ) PRIORITIES
- Aggressive Enforcement by Any Other Name: DOJ Antitrust Division Deputy Assistant Attorney General Hetal Doshi characterized DOJ’s enforcement posture as “not aggressive enforcement, just enforcement,” but nevertheless opined that the Department’s past practice of erring on the side of under-enforcement has “ill-served” the public.
- Whole-of-Government Means Whole-of-Government: The Division’s Deputy Assistant Attorneys General Maggie Goodlander and Michael Kades highlighted that various federal statutes other than the antitrust laws confer the power to act to preserve competition. They emphasized DOJ’s intent to pursue sweeping enforcement priorities to execute President Biden’s recent executive order calling for a whole-of-government approach to protecting competition, including by working in conjunction with other federal agencies like the Departments of Defense, Transportation, and Agriculture.
- Enforcement Priorities Include Technical Violations of HSR Act, Spoliation, Gun-Jumping: Deputy Assistant Attorney General Goodlander emphasized DOJ’s intent to pursue vigorously violations of the HSR Act, including failures to make required premerger notification filings, failures to provide all Item 4 documents, and “gun-jumping” caused by concerted action prior to the satisfaction of the HSR Act’s waiting period. Goodlander also commented on DOJ’s intent to scrutinize merging parties’ conduct during the due diligence phase to investigate whether parties are using due diligence to conceal and accomplish anticompetitive conduct. Other DOJ officials further emphasized that DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are working to ensure that the agencies’ investigations are not harmed by the use of third-party ephemeral communication platforms and to penalize spoliation of evidence contained in such messaging applications.
- Hostility Toward Freely Granted Divestitures in Merger Investigations: Deputy Assistant Attorneys General Doshi and Andrew Forman conveyed the high bar merging parties face when they offer structural or behavioral remedies, including divestitures, to resolve or head off a DOJ challenge to a merger or acquisition. Doshi and Forman pointed to instances where divestitures and/or carveouts offered in merger transactions have failed and “the American people bear the risk” of anticompetitive harms and asserted that “the idea that a divestiture can cure the feared antitrust issues can’t rest on our hopes of what might happen in the future after the deal and divestiture closes.”
- Consent Decrees Face Much Stricter Scrutiny: Deputy Assistant Attorneys General Forman, Goodlander, and Kades emphasized the “exacting standard” that must be applied when DOJ is considering entering into a consent decree to resolve a merger challenge. According to the Department officials, the antitrust laws prohibit mergers that may substantially lessen competition, which means that for a consent decree to resolve antitrust concerns, it must eliminate the possibility that a merger could cause harm—an “extremely high bar.”
- Updated Merger Guidelines to Focus on Relevant [...]
Customer Reviews: Five-Star Enforcement and the Expanding Regulations
Does your company sell to consumers or businesses that can leave reviews or rate your products? Whether your customers can leave reviews on your website or another public-facing review platform, companies should be aware of new developments in the consumer review enforcement space that may impact how you publicize and conduct your product rating and review system. If you are not aware of the expanding consumer review regulations, it could cost your company millions or even land you in jail.
CUSTOMER REVIEWS AND PROPOSED REVISIONS
Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act (the Act) prohibits unfair and deceptive acts and practices. Specifically, as the Act relates to customer reviews: negative customer reviews and ratings cannot be suppressed or hidden; any incentives for reviews must be disclosed; material connections between a reviewer and the reviewed product must be disclosed; and review gating is prohibited. The FTC has heightened its focus on consumer reviews as of late and proposed revisions to the Endorsement Guides for advertisers that would tighten enforcement against posting false positive reviews or manipulating consumer perception by suppressing negative reviews, among other things. The proposed guideline revisions would state that “in procuring, suppressing, boosting, organizing, or editing consumer reviews of their products, advertisers should not take actions that have the effect of distorting or otherwise misrepresenting what consumers think of their products.” See Federal Register, Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, Section IV (C) (July 26, 2022), https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2022/07/26/2022-12327/guides-concerning-the-use-of-endorsements-and-testimonials-in-advertising. In addition to broadening its Endorsement Guides, the FTC has already demonstrated a significant increase in consumer review enforcement—including pursuing increased penalties and new priorities like review hijacking.
CONSULTANT RECEIVES PRISON SENTENCE FOR BRIBED REMOVAL OF NEGATIVE REVIEWS
In February 2023, Hadis Nuhanovic, a merchant consultant, was sentenced to 20 months in prison for taking part in a global scheme in which he bribed employees of a technology platform to remove negative online reviews on his clients’ products and reinstate suspended accounts, among other illegal activities such as stealing sensitive company information related to product-review rankings and targeting his clients’ competitors on the platform. Nuhanovic, together with a co-defendant, reached out to platform employees in India and bribed them to obtain unfair advantages for his own business’ gain. For example, Nuhanovic admitted that he paid a platform employee to remove negative reviews and further admitted that he operated multiple sham accounts—created using false information—to purchase products from merchants and submit negative reviews about them, with the intention of deceiving consumers and harming the targeted accounts. Additionally, Nuhanovic used his sham accounts to leave positive reviews for his preferred accounts, further deceiving consumers and improving the placement of certain favored products in searches.
In addition to the review bribes, Nuhanovic was investigated for other related crimes to which he ultimately pled guilty. He was sentenced to three years of supervised release on top of the 20 months in prison and forced to forfeit $100,000 and pay $160,000 in unreported taxes.
COMPANY FORCED TO PAY FOR “REVIEW HIJACKING”[...]
Merger Notification Thresholds and Filing Fees to Increase
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced on January 23, 2023, the implementation of increased thresholds for merger notifications under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (HSR Act) as well as increased filing fees for reportable transactions.
Notification Threshold Increases
Pursuant to the HSR Act, all transactions which meet or exceed the jurisdictional thresholds, and which do not satisfy an exemption, must be notified to the FTC and US Department of Justice (DOJ) through an HSR filing. The newly announced thresholds will apply to all transactions that close on or after the effective date. The effective date is 30 days after the notice is published in the Federal Register; the notice is currently scheduled to be published on January 26, 2023, making the effective date February 27, 2023.
The threshold changes are tied to changes in the gross national product (GNP).
- The base statutory size-of-transaction threshold, the lowest threshold requiring notification, will increase to $111.4 million.
- The upper statutory size-of-transaction test, encompassing all transactions valued above a certain size (regardless of the size-of-person test being met), will increase to $445.5 million.
- The statutory size-of-person lower and upper thresholds (which apply to deals valued above $111.4 million but not above $445.5) will increase to $22.3 million and $222.7 million, respectively.
Merger Filing Fee Increases
The passage of the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act on December 29, 2022, altered the filing fee thresholds as well as significantly increased the fees imposed on transacting parties when making an HSR filing in excess of $1 billion. Like the notification threshold increase, these filing fee adjustments will also take effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, meaning the increased fees will also go into effect on February 27, 2023.
The new transaction thresholds and accompanying fees are provided in the table below:
As with the notification thresholds, the filing fee thresholds and fee amounts will now be subject to annual adjustment at the start of each year based on GNP for thresholds and consumer price index (CPI) for fee amounts.
Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q4 2022
Topics covered in this edition:
• DOJ Sees First Merger Win After String of Losses
• FTC Brings Suit Against Microsoft/Activision
• Updated Merger Guidelines Expected Soon
• Merger Fees Changing
• The EC Launches a Consultation on Its Draft Revised Market Definition Notice
• UK Orders a Chinese Firm to Divest Its 83% Controlling Stake in a Welsh Semiconductor Wafer Factory Based on National Security Concerns
McDermott Will & Emery Juriste Nabil Lakhal contributed to this newsletter.
2023 Regulatory Forecast: Antitrust & Competition
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) pursued aggressive antitrust and competition enforcement agendas this past year and show no signs of slowing down in 2023. Prepare for the year ahead by reviewing our 2023 Regulatory Forecast for the antitrust and competition space.
Click the links below to download a one-pager of takeaways for each area.
Antitrust & Competition | Merger Control: The Biden administration prioritized aggressive antitrust merger enforcement in 2022, especially in the healthcare, labor, consumer and technology sectors. Learn how this trend will continue in 2023 as the FTC and DOJ expand their toolbox to challenge transactions.
Antitrust Litigation: In 2022, the DOJ and FTC took boundary-shifting antitrust enforcement positions and proved they are not afraid to pursue novel legal theories. The DOJ alone has more open grand jury investigations and charged more cases in 2022 than it has in decades. The DOJ and the FTC also requested historic budget increases to support their aggressive agendas. Additional resources mean more regulators are available to investigate and litigate alleged anticompetitive conduct. Find out more about the aggressive enforcement by the antitrust agencies and private plaintiffs that is expected to continue in 2023.
Consumer Protection: Enforcement by the FTC, among other consumer protection regulators, was particularly vigorous in 2022 and the trend is expected to continue in 2023. In light of the increased regulatory focus on social media, marketing and advertising, businesses should be aware of the ever-evolving guidance in this realm. Read about the proposed rulemaking and revisions on the horizon this year.
FTC Proposes Rule Banning Noncompete Agreements
On January 5, 2023, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a proposed rule that would prohibit employers from using noncompete agreements with their employees or independent contractors. This proposal arises from a preliminary finding by the FTC that noncompetes constitute an unfair method of competition in violation of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act). It comes on the heels of the FTC’s November policy statement asserting its intention to rigorously enforce and expand the scope of Section 5 of the FTC Act’s ban on unfair methods of competition.
If adopted, this rule would make it illegal for an employer to enter into a noncompete agreement with a worker, maintain a noncompete with a worker or represent to a worker that the worker is subject to a noncompete. Employers would also be required to rescind existing noncompetes and inform workers that they are no longer enforceable.
The proposed rule would apply to noncompetes with either employees or independent contractors. Other restrictive covenants such as non-disclosure agreements would not be affected by the FTC’s proposed rule unless they are so broad in scope that they essentially function as a noncompete agreement.
The FTC is inviting public comment on its proposed rule. The full text of the proposed rule and information on the public comment period is available here. In particular, the FTC seeks comment on whether senior executives or franchisees should be covered by the rule, as well as whether low- and high-wage workers should be treated differently under the rule. Comments are due 60 days after the Federal Register publishes this proposed rule, after which the FTC is likely to issue a final rule. Should the rule become final, companies should be prepared for it to go into effect 180 days after the date of publication.
The proposed rule arrives with the FTC’s concurrent announcement of settlements in complaints it issued against three employers’ use of noncompetes. These settlements ban those employers from enforcing, threatening to enforce or imposing noncompetes against specified groups of employees and require that the companies notify all affected employees.
Historically, noncompetes were a matter of state law. With this new involvement from the FTC attempting to set a national ban on noncompetes, employers need to be aware of this latest attempt to regulate the use of noncompete agreements and restrictive covenants.
Whether the FTC will succeed remains an open question. Republican Commissioner Christine S. Wilson, in a dissenting statement, cautioned that the proposed rule is open to meritorious challenges that (1) the Commission lacks authority to engage in “unfair methods of competition” rulemaking and (2) the Supreme Court of the United States’ “major questions” doctrine suggests that the federal courts may preclude the FTC from venturing into this novel area of regulation absent legislative amendments to its enabling statute. Plus, interested parties may persuade the FTC to scale back its proposed regulation.
Entities interested in submitting such [...]