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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”

[...]

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DOJ Signals Heightened Scrutiny on Information Exchanges and Competitor Collaborations

WHAT HAPPENED

On February 3, 2023, the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division announced the withdrawal of three policy statements related to antitrust enforcement in healthcare. Although the withdrawn statements focus on healthcare, DOJ’s decision to withdraw these statements will have broad impacts across industries.

The three policy statements, issued in 19931996, and 2011, relate to competitor collaboration and information sharing, and established “safety zones” of activities shielded from antitrust scrutiny. The 1996 Statements of Antitrust Enforcement in Health Care (1996 Statements) were revised and expanded upon the 1993 Statements. Though ostensibly related to healthcare, the guidance has been relied upon by all industries and understood to cover all manner of competitively sensitive information. Two of the safety zones most often relied on by companies relate to competitor exchanges of price and cost information, and competitor joint purchasing arrangements.

Information Exchanges

The safety zone on information exchanges (Statement 6 of the 1996 Statements) stated that, in general, the agencies would not challenge an exchange of price or cost information (e.g., employee compensation) if the following three conditions were met:

  1. The exchange is managed by a third party (e.g., a trade association or consultant).
  2. The information is more than three months old.
  3. The exchange has five or more participants contributing data, and no individual participant’s data represents more than 25% of any statistic; and no individual participant’s data can be identified.

Companies have relied on this safety zone in conducting surveys and benchmarking related to pricing, supply costs, and salaries. These surveys have served as critical compliance tools. Organizations exempt from federal income tax often use surveys to demonstrate fair market value compensation to safeguard against claims of private inurement and private benefit. Similarly, healthcare companies routinely use benchmarking studies to demonstrate fair market value compensation for compliance with fraud and abuse laws.

Group Purchasing Organizations

The safety zone on joint purchasing arrangements (Statement 7 of the 1996 Statements) stated that, in general, the agencies would not challenge joint purchasing arrangements (e.g., group purchasing organizations (GPOs)) if the following two conditions were met:

  1. The purchases account for less than 35% of the total sales of the purchased product or service.
  2. The cost of the products or services purchased jointly accounts for less than 20% of the participants’ revenues.

DOJ cited changes in the healthcare landscape as the rationale for withdrawing these policy statements, specifically indicating that the statements were “overly permissive” on information sharing. In a speech the day before DOJ’s announcement, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General (DAAG) Doha Mekki stated that the safety zone factors “do not consider the realities of a transformed industry” and “understate the antitrust risks of competitors sharing competitively sensitive information.” DAAG Mekki explained that:

  • Information exchanges managed by third parties can have the same anticompetitive effects—and the use of a third party enhances anticompetitive effects.
  • New algorithms and AI learning increase the competitive value of historical information (more [...]

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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

Access the full issue.

McDermott Will & Emery Juriste Nabil Lakhal contributed to this newsletter. 




DOJ Publishing Win May Mean More Labor, Salary Challenges

US District Judge Florence Pan’s decision to block Penguin Random House LLC’s planned $2.2 billion acquisition of Simon & Schuster represented the US Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division’s first major merger win following a string of losses this fall. Judge Pan’s decision is significant because she accepted the DOJ’s theory that the merger would lead to lower compensation for best-selling authors. This decision may embolden the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to challenge more transactions based on the impact on labor and salaries rather than the impact on consumer prices.

In this Law360 article, McDermott’s Alexandra Lewis, Glenna Siegel and Joel Grosberg discuss the implications of the ruling and what it might mean for other industries.

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q3 2022

In the United States, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) lost four merger challenges (Illumina/GRAIL, UnitedHealth/Change Healthcare, U.S. Sugar/Imperial Sugar and Booz Allen/EverWatch) in September. The losses demonstrate that parties willing to litigate can have success in court. The absence of “smoking gun” documents and lack of a presumption of anticompetitive effects (based on market shares and concentration) made these cases very difficult for the government. The judges in these cases tended to credit structural and behavioral remedies that the government felt were insufficient and were persuaded by real-world testimony from executives and third parties contradicting the government’s theories of changed economic incentives from the transactions.

In July 2022, the European Parliament published the final text of the European Union’s upcoming instrument to address distortive foreign subsidies, following a provisional political agreement reached between the EU lawmakers in June (Foreign Subsidies Regulation). The Foreign Subsidies Regulation introduces a new mandatory screening mechanism including notification obligations and the European Commission’s right of ex officio investigations, which will have a considerable impact on M&A transactions and procurement procedures.

The Foreign Subsidies Regulation will enter into force once it is formally adopted by EU lawmakers and published in the Official Journal. It will become directly applicable across the European Union six months after entry into force. The notification obligations will start to apply nine months after entry into force. The Commission also is currently drafting procedural rules on how to notify transactions, how to calculate time limits, and the process for preliminary reviews and in-depth probes when there is a suspicion of distortive foreign subsidies.

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DOJ Prosecutes Attempted Collusion among Business Competitors for First Time in Decades

On October 31, 2022, the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division (Division) made good on its intention earlier this year to revitalize efforts surrounding criminal enforcement of Section 2 of the Sherman Act when the president of a paving and asphalt contractor in Montana pleaded guilty to one count of attempting to monopolize the market for certain construction services in Montana and Wyoming. This is the Division’s first criminal prosecution of a Section 2 case in approximately 50 years. While criminal enforcement of antitrust laws has traditionally focused on per se anticompetitive agreements between two or more horizontal competitors, Section 2 primarily focuses on conduct by one firm or company with significant market power. This announcement—and subsequent criminal resolution—marks a significant departure from long-standing DOJ antitrust enforcement of monopolization claims and is a landmark result for the Division’s continued expansion of its criminal enforcement efforts.

Most notably, seemingly unilateral conduct that “attempts” to collude is now subject to criminal prosecution under Section 2, even if such an attempt did not result in any agreement. In contrast, there is no “attempt” component of a Sherman Act Section 1 charge, where the Division has traditionally investigated and prosecuted per se criminal price fixing, bid rigging and market allocation conduct requiring an agreement or “meeting of the minds” between horizontal competitors.

According to court documents, the DOJ alleged that Nathan Nephi Zito attempted to monopolize the markets for highway crack sealing services administered by Montana and Wyoming by proposing that his company and its competitor allocate regional markets. Zito approached a competitor about a “strategic partnership” and proposed that his company would stop competing for projects administered by South Dakota and Nebraska and the competitor would stop competing for projects administered by Montana and Wyoming. Zito allegedly offered a $100,000 payment as additional compensation for lost business in Montana and Wyoming and proposed that they enter into a transaction to “disguise their collusion.” The competitor company then approached the government and cooperated in its investigation, including by recording phone calls with Zito.

This case, the first Section 2 criminal resolution in decades, was prosecuted in coordination with the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF), which remains a top priority for the DOJ. The PCSF has been quite active in recent months, obtaining several convictions and bringing new indictments.

Although Section 2 is regularly associated with unilateral monopolist conduct, it also makes it a crime to attempt to monopolize or to conspire to monopolize. The “attempt” provision is what the Division relied on to obtain a conviction in this case, which is essentially an attempted but unconsummated Section 1 market allocation case where one of the potential conspirators cooperated with the government rather than entering into a potentially collusive agreement.

Key takeaways from this case include the following:

  • Now companies need to consider potentially collusive agreements with competitors—or attempts to do the same—that may exclude other competitors from a market in their antitrust risk evaluations. In practice, this could significantly broaden the scope of any compliance [...]

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Why Courts Are Rejecting Agencies’ Merger Challenges

The US Department of Justice’s and the Federal Trade Commission’s losses in three merger challenges in September and a fourth in October demonstrate that merging parties can close difficult transactions if willing to fight the agencies in court. In this Law360 article, McDermott’s Jon B. Dubrow, Joel R. Grosberg and Matt Evola discuss these four cases and what they mean for merging parties.

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Seven Corporate Directors Resign: DOJ Ramps Enforcement Against Board Members Serving on Competitors’ Boards

WHAT HAPPENED

  • Seven directors resigned from corporate boards following promises of enforcement of Clayton Act Section 8 (15 U.S.C. § 19) by the US Department of Justice (DOJ), Antitrust Division (the Division), the Division announced Wednesday.
  • The directors served on the boards of corporations that the DOJ asserted competed in a variety of sectors, including information technology, software, and manufacturing.

WHAT’S THE LEGAL CONCERN

  • Section 8 prohibits “interlocking directorates” (per se violation), which occur when the same individual serves simultaneously as an officer or director of two competing companies (direct interlocks) or when different individuals on boards of competing companies act on behalf of and at the direction of a single firm (indirect interlocks through deputization). In its press release, the DOJ noted that some of the interlocks arose because a private equity firm appointed different personnel to the boards of competing companies.
  • The goal of Section 8 and the DOJ action is to decrease potential opportunities for the exchange of sensitive information between competitors and the risk of anticompetitive conduct more generally.
  • Exemptions might apply. There are de minimis exemptions if a) the competing sales are less than $4.1 million (threshold updated annually); b) the competing sales of either corporation represent less than 2% of its total sales; or c) the competing sales of each corporation are less than 4% of its total sales. A careful analysis (similar to that done in merger analysis) is necessary to determine whether an exemption might apply.
  • Not just corporations? While the plain language of Section 8 refers to interlocks involving “corporations,” the DOJ has stated its view that Section 8 also covers interlocks between non-corporate entities, such as LLCs (this is an open area of law).
  • Not just the same person? While the plain language of Section 8 states that it applies when the same “person” sits on the board or acts as an officer of two competitors, the DOJ interprets Section 8 broadly to mean that two different individuals appointed by a common entity cannot serve on boards of competitors because the entity is a “person” and is serving on the boards through its designees.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS

  • Interlocks can create significant antitrust risk. While the DOJ’s concerns with interlocks seem to be assuaged with the quick removal of the Corporate Director identified, interlocks have served as the factual underpinning for antitrust conspiracy claims. Therefore, companies should be proactive in eliminating problematic interlocks, as the interlock combined with parallel action by competitors in an industry could serve as the factual basis for long and costly conspiracy investigations or litigation and could support complaint allegations to defeat a Twombly-based motion to dismiss.

ANTICIPATE CONTINUED ENFORCEMENT

  • While the resignations are not novel, they represent a major amplification of corporate responses to what Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter has described as “an extensive review of interlocking directorates across the entire economy” and [...]

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q2 2022

In the United States, parties continue to be cautious in litigating challenged transactions. Since January 2021, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) filed lawsuits (or threatened to sue) to block 16 transactions. Of those transactions, 12 were abandoned and six are in various stages of litigation. The data suggest that the FTC’s and DOJ’s aggressive merger enforcement policy is raising the stakes for parties to potential mergers and acquisitions, including an increased willingness by the agencies to litigate potentially problematic transactions.

Between May 6 and June 3, 2022, the European Commission (Commission) held a public consultation to seek views on the draft revised Merger Implementing Regulation (Implementing Regulation) and the Notice on Simplified Procedure. This consultation was launched in the context of the Commission’s review process of the procedural and jurisdictional aspects of EU merger control.

On April 20, 2022, the UK government proposed new measures to boost consumer protection rights and competition rules. In particular, the UK government’s reforms aim to strengthen the Competition & Markets Authority’s (CMA) powers and alleviate burdens on smaller companies.

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DOJ Revamps Corporate Criminal Enforcement Policies with Continued Emphasis on Compliance

At a September 15, 2022, speech at New York University School of Law, US Deputy Attorney General (Deputy AG) Lisa Monaco announced several new policies intended to further the aggressive stance the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has taken under the Biden administration to corporate criminal enforcement.

The DOJ’s landmark new policies are focused on encouraging and enticing companies to self-report criminal violations and cooperate in DOJ investigations. They include:

  • First, for the first time, every DOJ component that prosecutes corporate crime will have to develop a formal program to incentivize voluntary self-disclosure. Importantly, the DOJ will not seek a guilty plea when a company has voluntarily self-disclosed, cooperated in the DOJ’s investigation and remediated misconduct.
  • Second, companies seeking cooperation credit need to come forward and disclose important evidence to the DOJ quickly. Companies—and prosecutors evaluating those companies—will now be “on the clock.” Undue or intentional delay in providing information and documents will result in a reduction or outright denial of cooperation credit.
  • Third, the DOJ will now formally encourage companies to hold in escrow or claw back compensation from executives and employees responsible for wrongdoing.

Deputy AG Monaco provided additional guidance with respect to significant changes announced in October 2021, including on how prior criminal, civil and regulatory misconduct by companies will be evaluated when deciding an appropriate resolution, and how and when monitors should be imposed.

Deputy AG Monaco also announced that the DOJ would seek an additional $250 million in targeted resources for corporate criminal enforcement and other corporate crime initiatives.

IN DEPTH

While Deputy AG Monaco continued to emphasize—as she did in speeches in October 2021 and March 2022—that the DOJ’s No. 1 priority remains individual “accountability” and prosecutions, the recent announcement is the latest in a series of ambitious steps taken by the DOJ under the Biden administration to further the Department’s ongoing and increasing emphasis on misconduct at the corporate level. Taken collectively, the mixture of carrots, sticks and potential additional resources demonstrates the DOJ’s continued focus on pursuing corporate wrongdoing and the need for companies to proactively assess their compliance programs and ensure they are well-positioned to respond to the DOJ’s boundary-shifting approaches.

NEW DOJ-WIDE VOLUNTARY SELF-DISCLOSURE PROGRAM

Among the more significant changes, every DOJ component that prosecutes corporate crime will, for the first time, be required to have a documented policy that incentivizes voluntary self-disclosure. Deputy AG Monaco highlighted the success of a handful of self-disclosure programs that several DOJ components have already developed, such as the long-standing Antitrust Division Leniency Program and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) unit’s self-reporting program. She also stated that if a DOJ component does not have such a formal, documented policy, they must draft one. In support of this policy, she noted that the DOJ’s “goal is simple: to reward those companies whose historical investments in compliance enable voluntary self-disclosure and to incentivize other companies to make the same investments going forward.”

Deputy AG Monaco also announced several [...]

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