What Should the FTC Do about State & Local Barriers to Sharing Economy Innovation?

by on May 12, 2015 · 0 comments

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is taking a more active interest in state and local barriers to entry and innovation that could threaten the continued growth of the digital economy in general and the sharing economy in particular. The agency recently announced it would be hosting a June 9th workshop “to examine competition, consumer protection, and economic issues raised by the proliferation of online and mobile peer-to peer business platforms in certain sectors of the [sharing] economy.” Filings are due to the agency in this matter by May 26th. (Along with my Mercatus Center colleagues, I will be submitting comments and also releasing a big paper on reputational feedback mechanisms that same week. We have already released this paper on the general topic.)

Relatedly, just yesterday, the FTC sent a letter to Michigan policymakers about restricting entry by Tesla and other direct-to-consumer sellers of vehicles. Michigan passed a law in October 2014 prohibiting such direct sales. The FTC’s strongly-worded letter decries the state’s law as “protectionism for independent franchised dealers” noting that “current provisions operate as a special protection for dealers—a protection that is likely harming both competition and consumers.” The agency argues that:

consumers are the ones best situated to choose for themselves both the vehicles they want to buy and how they want to buy them. Automobile manufacturers have an economic incentive to respond to consumer preferences by choosing the most effective distribution method for their vehicle brands. Absent supportable public policy considerations, the law should permit automobile manufacturers to choose their distribution method to be responsive to the desires of motor vehicle buyers.

The agency cites the “well-developed body of research on these issues strongly suggests that government restrictions on distribution are rarely desirable for consumers” and the staff letter continues on to utterly demolish the bogus arguments set forth by defenders of the blatantly self-serving, cronyist law. (For more discussion of just how anti-competitive and anti-consumer these laws are in practice, see this January 2015 Mercatus Center study, “State Franchise Law Carjacks Auto Buyers,” by Jerry Ellig and Jesse Martinez.)

The FTC’s letter is another example of how the agency can take steps using its advocacy tools to explain to state and local policymakers how their laws may be protectionist and anti-consumer in character. Needless to say, this also has ramifications for how the agency approaches parochial restraints on entry and innovation affecting the sharing economy.

In our forthcoming Mercatus Center comments to the FTC for its June 6th sharing economy workshop, Christopher Koopman, Matt Mitchell, and I will address many issues related to the sharing economy and its regulation. Beyond addressing all five of the specific questions asked in the Commission’s workshop notice, we also include a discussion about “Federal Responses to Local Anticompetitive Regulations.” Down below I have reproduced the current rough draft of that section of our filing in the hope of getting input from others. Needless to say, the idea of the FTC aggressively using its advocacy efforts or even federal antitrust laws to address state and local barriers to trade and innovation will make some folks uncomfortable–especially on federalism grounds. But we argue that a good case can be made for the agency using both its advocacy and antitrust tools to address these issues. Let us know what you think.



The Federal Trade Commission possesses two primary tools to address public restraints of trade created by state and local authorities: advocacy and antitrust.[1]

Through its advocacy program, the Commission can provide specific comments to state and local officials regarding the effects of both proposed and existing regulations.[2] Commissioner Joshua Wright has noted that, “For many years, the FTC has used its mantle to comment on legislation and regulation that may restrain competition in a way that harms consumers.”[3] Thus, at a minimum, the Commission can and should shine light on parochial governmental efforts to restrain trade and limit innovation throughout the sharing economy.[4] By shining more light on state or local anti-competitive rules, the Commission will hopefully make governments, or their surrogate bodies (such as licensing boards), more transparent about their practices and more accountable for laws or regulations that could harm consumer welfare. However, to be successful, the Commission’s advocacy efforts depend upon the willingness of state and local legislators and regulators to heed its advice.[5]

The Commission has already used its advisory role in its recent guidance to state and local policymakers regarding the regulation of ridesharing services. The Commission noted then that “a regulatory framework should be responsive to new methods of competition,” and set forth the following vision regarding what it regards as the proper approach to parochial regulation of passenger transportation services:

Staff recommends that a regulatory framework for passenger vehicle transportation should allow for flexibility and adaptation in response to new and innovative methods of competition, while still maintaining appropriate consumer protections. [Regulators] also should proceed with caution in responding to calls for change that may have the effect of impairing new forms or methods of competition that are desirable to consumers. . . .  In general, competition should only be restricted when necessary to achieve some countervailing procompetitive virtue or other public benefit such as protecting the public from significant harm.[6]

This represents a reasonable framework for addressing concerns about parochial regulation of the sharing economy more generally.

Unfortunately, in areas relevant to the regulation of the sharing economy (e.g., taxicab regulations and rules governing home and apartment rentals) anticompetitive regulations have remained on the books—and in some instances have expanded—in spite of more than 30 years of Commission comment and advocacy.[7]  In fact, as Public Citizen noted in a recent Supreme Court filing:

[M]any more occupations are regulated than ever before, and most boards doing the regulating—in both traditional and new professions—are dominated by industry members who compete in the regulated market. Those board member-competitors, in turn, commonly engage in regulation that can be seen as anticompetitive self-protection. The particular forms anticompetitive regulations take are highly varied, the possibilities seemingly limited only by the imaginations of the board members.[8]

In these instances, the Commission’s antitrust enforcement authority may need to be utilized when its advocacy efforts fall short with regard to regulations that favor incumbents by limiting competition and entry.[9] Many academics have endorsed expanded antitrust oversight of public barriers to trade and innovation.[10] As Commissioner Wright has argued, “the FTC is in a good position to use its full arsenal of tools to ensure that state and local regulators do not thwart new entrants from using technology to disrupt existing marketplace.”[11] He notes specifically that he is “quite confident that a significant shift of agency resources away from enforcement efforts aimed at taming private restraints of trade and instead toward fighting public restraints would improve consumer welfare.”[12] We agree.

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission made it clear that local authorities cannot claim broad immunity from federal antitrust laws.[13] This is particularly true, the Court noted, “where a State delegates control over a market to a nonsovereign actor,” such as a professional licensing board consisting primarily of members of the affected interest being regulated.[14] “Limits on state-action immunity are most essential when a State seeks to delegate its regulatory power to active market participants,” the Court held, “for dual allegiances are not always apparent to an actor and prohibitions against anticompetitive self-regulation by active market participants are an axiom of federal antitrust policy.”[15]

The touchstone of this case and the Court’s related jurisprudence in this area is political accountability.[16] State officials must (1) “clearly articulate” and (2) “actively supervise” licensing arrangements and regulatory bodies if they hope to withstand federal antitrust scrutiny.[17] The Court clarified this test in N.C. Dental holding that “the Sherman Act confers immunity only if the State accepts political accountability for the anticompetitive conduct it permits and controls.”[18] In other words, if state and local officials want to engage in protectionist activities that restrain trade in pursuit of some other countervailing objective, then they need to own up to it by being transparent about their anticompetitive intentions and then actively oversee the process after that to ensure it is not completely captured by affected interests.[19]

Some might argue that this does not go far enough to eradicate anti-competitive barriers to trade at the state or local level that could restrain the innovative potential of the sharing economy. While that may be true, some limits on the Commission’s federal antitrust discretion are necessary to avoid impinging upon legitimate state and local priorities.

Over time, it is our hope that by empowering the public with more options, more information and better ways to shine light on bad actors, the sharing economy will continue to make many of those old regulations unnecessary. Thus, in line with Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen’s wise advice, the Commission should encourage state and local officials to exercise patience and humility as they confront technological changes that disrupt traditional regulatory systems.[20]

But when parochial regulators engage in blatantly anti-competitive activities that restrain trade, foster cartelization, or harm consumer welfare in other ways, the Commission can act to counter the worst of those tendencies.[21] The Commission’s standard of review going forward was appropriately articulated by Commissioner Wright recently when he noted that, “in the context of potentially disruptive forms of competition through new technologies or new business models, we should generally be skeptical of regulatory efforts that have the effect of favoring incumbent industry participants.”[22]

Such parochial protectionist barriers to trade and innovation will become even more concerning as the potential reach of so many sharing economy businesses grows larger. The boundary between intrastate and interstate commerce is sometimes difficult to determine for many sharing economy platforms. Clearly, much of the commerce in question occurs within the boundaries of a state or municipality, but sharing economy services also rely upon Internet-enabled platforms with a broader reach. To the extent state or local restrictions on sharing economy operations create negative externalities in the form of “interstate spillovers,” the case for federal intervention is strengthened.[23] It would be preferable if Congress chose to deal with such spillovers using its Commerce Clause authority (Art. 1, Sec. 8 of the Constitution),[24] but the presence of such negative externalities might also bolster the case for the Commission’s use of antitrust to address parochial restraints on trade.


[1]     See Maureen K. Ohlhausen, Reflections on the Supreme Court’s North Carolina Dental Decision and the FTC’s Campaign to Rein in State Action Immunity, before the Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC, March 31, 2015, at 19-20.

[2]     Id., at 20. (“The primary goal of such advocacy is to convince policymakers to consider and then minimize any adverse effects on competition that may result from regulations aimed at preventing various consumer harms.”) Also see James C. Cooper and William E. Kovacic, “U.S. Convergence with International Competition Norms: Antitrust Law and Public Restraints on Competition,” Boston University Law Review, Vol. 90, No. 4, (August 2010): 1582, “Competition advocacy helps solve consumers’ collective action problem by acting within the regulatory process to advocate for regulations that do not restrict competition unless there is a compelling consumer protection rationale for imposing such costs on citizens.”).

[3]     Joshua D. Wright, “Regulation in High-Tech Markets:  Public Choice, Regulatory Capture, and the FTC,” Remarks of Joshua D. Wright Commissioner, Federal Trade Commission at the Big Ideas about Information Lecture Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina, April 2, 2015, at 15, https://www.ftc.gov/public-statements/2015/04/regulation-high-tech-markets-public-choice-regulatory-capture-ftc.

[4]     Cooper and Kovacic, “U.S. Convergence with International Competition Norms,” at 1610, (“Competition agencies could devote greater resources to conduct research to measure the effects of public policies that restrict competition. A research program could accumulate and analyze empirical data that assesses the consumer welfare effects of specific restrictions. Such a program could also assess whether the stated public interest objectives of government restrictions are realized in practice.”)

[5]     Cooper and Kovacic, “U.S. Convergence with International Competition Norms,” at 1582, (“The value of competition advocacy should be measured by (1) the degree to which comments altered regulatory outcomes times (2) the value to consumers of those improved outcomes. For all practical purposes, however, both elements are difficult to measure with any degree of certainty.”).

[6]     Federal Trade Commission, Staff Comments Before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission In The Matter of The Proposed Rules Regulating Transportation By Motor Vehicle, 4 Code of Colorado Regulations, (March 6, 2013), http://ftc.gov/os/2013/03/130703coloradopublicutilities.pdf.

[7]     Marvin Ammori, “Can the FTC Save Uber,” Slate, March 12, 2013, http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2013/03/uber_lyft_sidecar_can_the_ftc_fight_local_taxi_commissions.html (noting that, “not only does the FTC have the authority to take these cities to impartial federal courts and end their anticompetitive actions; it also has deep expertise in taxi markets and antitrust doctrines.”) Also see, Edmund W. Kitch, “Taxi Reform—The FTC Can Hack It,” Regulation, May/June 1984, http://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/serials/files/regulation/1984/5/v8n3-3.pdf.

[8]     Brief of Amici Curiae Public Citizen in Support of Respondent, North Carolina State Bd. of Dental Exam’rs v. FTC, (August 2014): 24.

[9]     Brief of Antitrust Scholars as Amici Curiae in Support of Respondent, North Carolina State Bd. of Dental Exam’rs v. FTC, (August 6, 2014): 24, (“Antitrust review is entirely appropriate for curbing the excesses of occupational licensing because the anticompetitive effect has a similar effect on the market—and in particular consumers—as does traditional cartel activity.”)

[10]   See Mark A. Perry, “Municipal Supervision and State Action Antitrust Immunity,” The University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 57, (Fall 1990): 1413-1445; William J. Martin, “State Action Antitrust Immunity for Municipally Supervised Parties,” The University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 72, (Summer, 2005): 1079-1102; Jarod M. Bona, “The Antitrust Implications of Licensed Occupations Choosing Their Own Exclusive Jurisdiction,” University of St. Thomas Journal of Law & Public Policy, Vol 5, (Spring 2011): 28-51; Ingram Weber “The Antitrust State Action Doctrine and State Licensing Boards,” The University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 79, (2012); Aaron Edlin and Rebecca Haw, “Cartels by Another Name:  Should Licensed Occupations Face Antitrust Scrutiny?,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 162, (2014): 1093-1164.

[11]   Wright, “Regulation in High-Tech Markets,” at 28-9.

[12]   Wright, “Regulation in High-Tech Markets,” at 29.

[13]   North Carolina State Bd. of Dental Exam’rs v. FTC, 135 S. Ct. 1101 (2015).

[14]   Id.

[15]   Id. Also see Edlin & Haw, “Cartels by Another Name,” at 1143, (“Who could seriously argue that an unsupervised group of competitors appointed to regulate their own profession can be counted on to neglect their selfish interests in favor of the state’s?”); Brief Amicus of the Pacific Legal Foundation and Cato Institute, North Carolina State Bd. of Dental Exam’rs v. FTC, (August 2014): 3, (“Antitrust immunity for private parties who act under color of state law is especially problematic, given that anticompetitive conduct is most likely to occur when private parties are in a position to exploit government’s regulatory powers.”)

[16]   See Maureen K. Ohlhausen, Reflections on the Supreme Court’s North Carolina Dental Decision and the FTC’s Campaign to Rein in State Action Immunity, before the Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC, March 31, 2015, at 16, https://www.ftc.gov/public-statements/2015/03/reflections-supreme-courts-north-carolina-dental-decision-ftcs-campaign, (“states need to be politically accountable for whatever market distortions they impose on consumers.”); Edlin & Haw, “Cartels by Another Name,” at 1137, (“political accountability is the price a state must pay for antitrust immunity.)

[17]   See Federal Trade Commission, Office of Policy and Planning, Report of the State Action Task Force (2003): 54, (“clear articulation requires that a state enunciate an affirmative intent to displace competition and to replace it with a stated criterion. Active supervision requires the state to examine individual private conduct, pursuant to that regulatory regime, to ensure that it comports with that stated criterion. Only then can the underlying conduct accurately be deemed that of the state itself, and political responsibility for the conduct fairly placed with the state.”) This test has been developed and refined in a variety of cases over the past 35 years. See: California Retail Liquor Dealers Ass’n v. Midcal Aluminum, Inc., 445 U.S. 97 (1980); Cmty. Comm’ns Co., Inc. v. City of Boulder, 455 U.S. 40, 48-51 (1982); City of Columbia v. Omni Outdoor Advertising, Inc., 499 U.S. 365 (1991); FTC v. Ticor Title Ins. Co., 504 U.S. 621 (1992).

[18]   North Carolina State Bd. of Dental Exam’rs v. FTC, 135 S. Ct. 1101 (2015).

[19]   Edlin & Haw, “Cartels by Another Name,” at 1156. (“Requiring that the state place its imprimatur on regulation is at least better than the status quo, in which states too often delegate self-regulation to professionals and walk away.”) See also North Carolina State Bd. of Dental Exam’rs v. FTC, 135 S. Ct. 1101 (2015) (“[Federal antitrust] immunity requires that the anticompetitive conduct of nonsovereign actors, especially those authorized by the State to regulate their own profession, result from procedures that suffice to make it the State’s own.”).

[20]  Maureen K. Ohlhausen, Commissioner, Fed. Trade Commission, “Regulatory Humility in Practice,” Remarks of the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C. (April 1, 2015).

[21]   Edlin & Haw, “Cartels by Another Name,” at 1094, (“state action doctrine should not prevent antitrust suits against state licensing boards that are comprised of private competitors deputized to regulate and to outright exclude their own competition, often with the threat of criminal sanction.”). See also Brief Amicus of the Pacific Legal Foundation and Cato Institute, North Carolina State Bd. of Dental Exam’rs v. FTC, (August 2014): 2, 21, http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/supreme_court_preview/BriefsV4/13-534_resp_amcu_plf-cato.authcheckdam.pdf, (noting that courts “should presume strongly against granting state-action immunity in antitrust cases.  It makes little sense to impose powerful civil and criminal punishments on private parties who are deemed to have engaged in anti-competitive conduct, while exempting government entities—or, worse, private parties acting under the government’s aegis—when they engage in the exact same conduct. . . . “Whatever one’s opinion of antitrust law in general, there is no justification for allowing states broad latitude to disregard federal law and erect private cartels with only vague instructions and loose oversight.”)

[22]   Wright, “Regulation in High-Tech Markets,” at 7.

[23]   FTC, Report of the State Action Task Force, 44, (“an unfortunate gap has emerged between scholarship and case law. Although many of the leading commentators have expressed serious concern regarding problems posed by interstate spillovers, their thinking has yet to take root in the law. Such spillovers undermine both economic efficiency and some of the same political representation values thought to be protected by principles of federalism.”); Brief Amicus of the Pacific Legal Foundation and Cato Institute, North Carolina State Bd. of Dental Exam’rs v. FTC, (August 2014): 13, (“Allowing states expansive power to exempt private actors from antitrust laws would also disrupt national economic policy by encouraging a patchwork of state-established entities licensed to engage in cartel behavior. This would disrupt interstate investment and consumer expectations, and would have spillover effects across state lines.”) Cooper and Kovacic, “U.S. Convergence with International Competition Norms,” at 1598, (“When a state exports the costs attendant to its anticompetitive regulatory scheme to those who have not participated in the political process, however, there is no political backstop; arguments for immunity based on federalism concerns are severely weakened, if not wholly eviscerated, in these situations.”

[24]   See Adam Thierer, The Delicate Balance: Federalism, Interstate Commerce, and Economic Freedom in the Technological Age (Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation, 1998): 81-118.

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