On Thursday, August 13, 2015, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a Statement of Enforcement Principles Regarding “Unfair Methods of Competition” Under Section 5 of the FTC Act. The statement was passed by a 4–1 vote, with Commissioner Ohlhausen voting against the statement. This is the first time the Commission has issued formal guidelines regarding its Section 5 authority. The guidelines were released after growing calls from Republican commissioners and congressmen to clarify the reach of the Commission’s enforcement power under Section 5.
The Commission set out the following three principles that the FTC will adhere to when challenging unfair methods of competition on the basis of Section 5 alone:
- the Commission will be guided by the public policy underlying the antitrust laws, namely the promotion of consumer welfare;
- the Commission will evaluate the act or practice under a framework similar to the rule of reason, that is, an act or practice challenged by the Commission must cause, or be likely to cause, harm to competition or the competitive process, taking into account any associated cognizable efficiencies and business justifications; and
- the Commission is less likely to challenge an act or practice as an unfair method of competition on a stand-alone basis if enforcement of the Sherman or Clayton Act is sufficient to address the competitive harm arising from the act or practice.
Commissioner Ohlhausen’s dissenting statement criticized the content of the guidance as “seriously lacking” and noted that “what substance the statement does offer ultimately provides more questions than answers, undermining its value as guidance.” Ohlhausen went on to condemn the lack of public comment and discussion that went into the preparation of the policy statement. Finally, she warned that the FTC staff would be “embolden[ed] . . . to explore the limits of [unfair methods of competition] in conduct and merger investigations” and that the guidance would “ultimately lead to more, not less, uncertainty and burdens for the business community.”
The policy statement notes that its purpose “is to provide the Commission’s view on how it approaches the use of its statutory authority.” Chairwoman Ramirez stated in her prepared remarks that “[t]he statement formally aligns Section 5 with the Sherman and Clayton Acts” and “does not signal any change of course.”