Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.
Showing posts with label antitrust. Show all posts
Showing posts with label antitrust. Show all posts

Monday, January 24, 2022

American Airlines resists transparency, sues 'Points Guy' for tortious interference, trademark infringement

Photo by RJ Peltz-Steele at O.R. Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg,
South Africa, 2020 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The Points Guy (TPG) has become embroiled in litigation with American Airlines over how the TPG app lets users manage their frequent flyer miles, the airline charging the website with tortious interference and trademark infringement.

I read TPG every day.  The website is funded by product placements and advertising, especially by credit card companies.  One has to know that and take the content with heaps of salt.  But I find TPG incomparable and nonetheless worthwhile for keeping up with the travel industry.  And TPG advice has been especially helpful to me with advice on frequent flyer programs, for example, letting me know how much miles are worth on average in real dollars, so I know whether dynamic redemption tables are offering a good deal.

I also like some of the writers at TPG, because they set a tone that resonates with me, mixing a desire for industry accountability, especially for airlines, with a sense of humor and a lighthearted wonder of the world.  Baltimore-based senior editor Benét J. Wilson (LinkedIn, Muck Rack, Twitter; see also Poynter) is especially fabulous; check out her wider world at Aviation Queen.  I met Benét when she taught an outstanding program on advanced Google research tools for the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC), and thereby for my FOI Law students, who participated.

Last year, TPG launched an Apple app.  I haven't used it, because I'm an Android user.  I avoid Apple products because I've never been a fan of Apple intellectual property (IP) policies, which I mention because it's relevant here.  Apple's limited submission to a right of repair for Apple smartphones is a step in the right direction; more on that momentarily.  Anyway, TPG is working on the Android version of the app.

Among many features, the TPG app empowers users to manage their frequent flyer miles.  TPG deep-links to data from sites such as that of American Airlines (AA), within users' accounts there.  Obviously, this access improves the user's ability to maximize the value of their miles, recognizing good deals and, key, getting advance warning when miles are set to expire.

AA was not happy about that.  The company accused TPG of violating the terms and conditions of the website and frequent flyer program, AAdvantage, thus, allegedly, interfering with AA's contract with its customers and infringing on AA IP.  According to media reports, TPG sued AA in Delaware state court the week before last.  I assume TPG sought declaratory relief; at the time of this writing, the complaint is not yet available from Delaware courts.

Then on Tuesday last week, AA sued TPG in federal court, in AA's home Northern District of Texas.  The complaint alleged tortious interference with, inter alia, contract, unfair competition by misappropriation, (virtual) trespass, trademark infringement and dilution, copyright infringement, and violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

For Law360, Jasmin Jackson filled in some background last week (limited access without subscription).  Jackson reported that TPG initially sought AA's partnership in the app.  AA declined.  Since the app's launch, the two were discussing their differences.  AA claimed surprise at TPG's Delaware filing and accused TPG of leveraging its position with litigation costs and compelling, AA said, the suit in Texas.

I see the case as a high-tech relation of the right-to-repair problem.  AA is gaining a business advantage through obfuscation of customer data and control of information under the guise of IP protection.  The same strategy is why I have to pay a high-dollar technician to tell me what's wrong with my car when the check-engine light comes on, and it's why 11% of McDonald's Taylor-made McFlurry machines are broken.

Customer frustration with companies' resistance to transactional transparency to maximize profit margins is manifesting in a wave of state legislation to protect consumers (see N.Y. Times July, Oct. 2021; repair industry website; U.S. PIRG).  Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a right-to-repair ballot initiative in 2020, despite a $25m no campaign by the auto industry (on this blog).  Industry promptly sued, principally claiming federal preemption.  The outcome of a 2021 trial in Alliance for Automotive Innovation v. Healy is still awaited, as the parties battle over a state motion to reopen trial evidence.

There is a Fair Repair Act bill in Congress, even if its odds of passage are dismal.  And the President last summer made overtures, however feeble, ordering the Federal Trade Commission to regulate to protect independent repair shops.  Industry claims it needs exclusive repair rights to protect consumers from incompetent independent technicians.  But a May 2021 FTC report located such industry claims somewhere between baseless and overstated.

The cause should be, and at least sometimes is, bipartisan.  As I have commented many times, free markets depend on transparency, the free flow of information between business and consumer.  So even economic conservatives should be able to get behind the right to repair.  That bipartisan impulse has fueled congressional appetite for now pending bills to enhance antitrust in the tech sector.  Apple's seemingly open-minded move to allow smartphone repair might have been calculated to head off antitrust enforcement.

Summons issued last week in the lawsuit filed by AA, which is American Airlines, Inc. v. Red Ventures LLC, No. 4:22-cv-00044 (N.D. Tex. filed Jan. 18, 2022).

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

U.S. rental car oligopoly hits new lows, as customers alleging false arrests intervene in Hertz bankruptcy

Photo by Diego Angel CC BY 3.0
A curious story of alleged false arrests and a corporate lawyer's blunder surfaced in business media earlier this month, and the story speaks to the sad state of consumer protection in America.

In December 2021, dozens of claimants filed (no. 193) in the covid-precipitated bankruptcy of Hertz, the rental car company, alleging the reporting of rental cars as stolen, resulting in false arrests of Hertz customers by police, along with the disgrace of arrest, jailing, and other life disruptions that attend felony charges.

The claims, many recounted by CBS News, allege varied circumstances precipitating the reports of stolen cars, including poor record-keeping and misunderstandings over return times, hardly the stuff of high crime.  The claimants' theory is that Hertz essentially outsourced its (mis)management of late returns to police, disregarding the dramatic mismatch between contract enforcement and criminal justice and the ruinous consequences visited on customers.

Early in January, journalist-blogger Minda Zetlin of The Geek Gap reported a verbal gaffe in court on the part of a Hertz lawyer.  Zetlin's report was picked up by a number of outlets, including Inc.  The only recent transcript on file in the case (no. 251) is "not available" on PACER, maybe because the claimants, Hertz, and CBS News are now in a tussle over sealing, the docket suggests.  Anyway, I can't verify Zetlin's report, so I'm not going to name the lawyer here.

According to Zetlin, a Big Law lawyer representing Hertz responded in court to the allegations: "It is a fraction of 1 percent of annual police reports that are filed that turn into actual litigation claims.... We actually think the number of legitimate claims that arise out of annual rentals is a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny fraction."

Zetlin fairly observed that even a "tiny" "number ... does not count customers who were falsely arrested but accepted an early settlement from Hertz, resolved the matter in arbitration, or simply decided they didn't have the funds or the stamina for a lawsuit."  Zetlin further opined that "[m]ost [Hertz customers] would likely prefer a car rental company where their chances of going to jail are zero, rather than just tiny."  Count me in that majority.

I can't speak to the merits of the claims.  But for my part, I have been frustrated by car rental companies' shocking embrace of the contemporary trend to forego all pretense of customer service.  This skimpflation has been exacerbated by the pandemic, but we were well on our way before 2020.

Hertz, in particular, raised my ire more than once last year.  Having been lured into Hertz's "Gold" program, I once made a reservation directly on the Hertz website, rather than running my usual price comparisons with intermediaries.  Afterward, I discovered a lower rate on USAA.  But every time I was forwarded to Hertz.com to confirm the reservation at the USAA rate, I was automatically logged in to Hertz, and the rate jumped substantially.  When I tried linking to Hertz in a private window, without logging in, I got the lower rate.  In other words, Hertz was charging me substantially more because I was a member of the "loyalty program."

When I waited on hold for hours to ask a Hertz agent to log my anonymous reservation in my Gold account, I was told it couldn't be done without elevating the rate.  An agent told me that the Gold program does not guarantee lowest rates.  Actually, it does.  So much for loyalty.

Another new practice of car rental companies is to manipulate the time of pickup and drop-off to increase the likelihood of a late fee.  A customer reserving a car for pickup has to make a ballpark estimate of the time, considering how long it might take to deboard a plane, claim bags, transfer to a ground transportation center, etc.  Reservation systems offer pickups usually in only half-hour increments, 12, 12:30, 1, 1:30 etc.  So it's an inexact science, and the rental company knows that.  Accordingly, it was once common for the companies to afford an hour's grace on the clock one way or the other.  No longer.

When I picked up a car early, Hertz, without the agent saying a word, pre-charged me a late fee on the return while giving me paperwork showing the car due back at the original return time.  When I complained, Hertz said the charge would be taken off if I returned the car earlier than the indicated time, days to the minute from my actual pickup.  Yet when I rented another car and picked it up late, my return time still did not change.  The car was due back at the same time, and I just lost the hours to my late arrival.  So whether a customer is early or late for pickup, an inevitability because of deliberate inexactness, the company wins, either time or money.  No doubt the company is betting that the small loss on one rental will go unnoticed to the customer but add up big for the cumulative bottom line.

I admit, my complaints are small potatoes, mere annoyances, compared with being jailed.  But the theme that unifies my experience and that of the claimants against Hertz is Hertz's profound indifference to the customer.

So, free market, right?  Treating a customer like an entitlement is a consumer protection problem that should solve itself when a competitor comes along and offers to do better.  (Southwest's free checked bags and transparent pricing come to mind in the airline industry.)  Part of the problem is our public officials' dereliction of duty in antitrust.  The experiences I just described also characterize the policies of Dollar and Thrifty, because, guess what, they're owned by Hertz.  Likewise, Enterprise owns National and Alamo, and Avis owns Budget and Payless.  Three "beasts" account for almost all of the U.S. rental market.

Free markets only work when the playing field is level, information flows freely, and barriers of entry to the market for new competitors are surmountable. None of those conditions holds true in our car rental oligopoly.  Rather, if the claims in the bankruptcy court are to be believed, we've come to the point that a company can jail customers in case of contract dispute and hardly fear market reprisal.

Debtors' prison must be around the next corner.

The bankruptcy case is In re Rental Car Intermediate Holdings, LLC, and CBS Broadcasting Inc., No. 20-11247 (Bankr. D. Del. filed May 22, 2020).

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

While U.S. Congress ponders Big Tech oligopoly, Uruguay Supreme Court upholds TV football for all

While our powers-that-be in Congress wring their hands over trying to reconcile allegiance to our corporate overlords with antitrust in the tech sector, a court decision in Uruguay is worth noting.  The Supreme Court of Justice in the country of La Celeste held constitutional a law that compels the free live broadcast of some national soccer and basketball games.

Uruguay v. Costa Rica in World Cup 2014
(Danilo Borges/Portal da Copa CC BY 3.0 BR)

The ruling, sentencia no. 244 de 17 de agosto 2020 (search "244/2020" here), doesn't cover many games.  Explaining the case in 2019, a representative of the appellant Uruguayan Football Association (AUF) told El Observador (Uruguay) that the law would cost the franchise only some of nine Uruguay football qualifiers in four years. AUF still insisted that its economic interests were meaningfully and unconstitutionally diminished by the imposition.

Notwthstanding the limited reach of the ruling, the Court's willingness to abrogate private economic rights to further the public interest is significant.  Accepting the rationale for the law, the Court wrote, "Recuerda y resalta la Corte que la selección uruguaya de fútbol, en función de las hazañas deportivas y copas obtenidas en campeonatos mundiales y juegos olímpicos, forma parte de la identidad nacional y es tópico actual y recurrente en la ciudadanía." ("The Court recalls and emphasizes that the Uruguayan football team, as a function of its sporting achievements and championships won in the World Cup and Olympic Games, forms part of the national identity and is a current and continuing subject among the people.")

The ruling, on article 39 of the Ley de Medios, No. 19307, is one in a series from Uruguayan high courts (e.g., Observacom, Aug. 15) in recent months examining constitutional challenges to a far-ranging 2015 package of populist telecommunication reforms.  Civil rights advocates have hailed the courts' rulings for upholding the constitutional framework of the media law overall.  But business challengers have succeeded in blocking some restrictions, such as a limitation on subscriber numbers for cable TV providers, as unduly burdensome of commercial freedom.  For further example of the mixed results, the Court upheld article 40, which licenses Televisión Nacional de Uruguay to broadcast a game if no other broadcaster bought the rights.  But the Court struck down a subparagraph of article 39 that gave the executive authority to convert matches to free TV by resolution recognizing the public interest.

The telecommunication reforms have been championed by "center-right" Uruguay President Luis Lacalle Pou, who came to power in March 2020 after a hard-fought election and contested run-off.  Upon a campaign theme of "Uruguay seguro, transparente y de oportunidades," President Lacalle Pou promised to push back against left-leaning policies of the previous fifteen years with a raft of reforms aimed at slashing spending, controlling crime, combating corruption, and realigning foreign policy.  Whether or not he could have delivered, he has been, like leaders around the world, hampered by the coronavirus crisis.

Hat tip at Observacom Executive Director Gustavo Gómez (Twitter) for reporting on the case.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Legal comparatists meet in Missouri

Maxeiner
Last week the American Society of Comparative Law (ASCL) met at the University of Missouri Law School.  I was privileged to participate among 120 scholars from 20 countries.

As part of the works-in-progress program at the front end of the conference, I presented the most recent iteration of my work on access to information law, comparing private-sector transparency and accountability measures in South Africa with selected standards in Europe. 

Maxeiner's 2018 book on
"failures" in Amercian
lawmaking

Yoo
I benefited from exchange of critique from a room full of participants, including co-panelists James Maxeiner of the University of Baltimore and Kwanghyuk (David) Yoo of the University of Iowa.  Maxeiner presented a fascinating comparative study of lawmaking in Germany and the United States, showing the inventive ways that lobbying-driven American lawmakers might learn from Germany's variegated means of incubating potential legislation.  Yoo talked about U.S. and European Union court decisions on antitrust challenges to patent settlements in the pharmaceutical industry: when a company settles a lawsuit to keep a patent challenger out of the market, when does dispute resolution cross into anti-competitive misconduct?

The panel was moderated by Missouri’s Mekonnen Ayano, a Harvard doctoral graduate and formerly an Ethiopian judge and World Bank legal counsel.  University of Missouri Dean Lyrissa Lidsky, an accomplished media law scholar, attended and live-tweeted the panel.

[UPDATE: Vainly adding photos with me in them, courtesy of Mizzou Law.]

Prof. Maxeiner and I listen in the lecture hall.

I puzzle over dinner options.

I ramble about ATI in Africa with the generous ear of moderator Prof. Ayano.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Antitrust regulators need to up their game to meet challenges of media convergence, Argentine researchers write in UNESCO paper

Published by UNESCO, a new policy paper from Argentine researchers Martín Becerra and Guillermo Mastrini warns that antitrust regulation must adapt to the convergence of media, telecommunication, and internet to remain effective and preserve people's rights.

Prof. Mastrini

Becerra is a researcher with the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), an Argentine government agency, and holds academic appointments at the National University of Quilmes (UNQ) and the University of Buenos Aires (UBA).  Mastrini also serves on the UBA faculty.

The researchers reach the counter-intuitive conclusion that the internet's accessibility to new market entrants, and the ease with which new communication technology should facilitate the balkanization of media services, ironically has worked to concentrate property, revenue, and audience globally.  Thus the role of the regulator is more important than ever, while anachronistic regulatory approaches remain siloed in sectors of disparate expertise.

Prof. Becerra
Becerra and Mastrini rather articulate a "relevant market" approach to organize regulatory authority.  At the same time, they eschew a one-size-fits-all approach to the different problems presented by different entities, namely internet "giants," telecommunication conglomerates, and media companies.  Moreover, the researchers stress that values of access to culture, freedom of expression, and pluralism should be baked into the regulatory framework.

The report is La convergencia de medios, telecomunicaciones e internet en la perspectiva de la competencia: Hacia un enfoque multicomprensivo (my translation: The Convergence of Media, Telecommunication, and Internet from the Perspective of Competition: Toward a Multiple-Understanding Approach) and is published by UNESCO as no. 13 in the series, Discussion Notebooks on Communication and Information, ISSN no. 2301-1424 (2019).  The report is in Spanish and includes an executive summary in translation.  HT @ Observacom.


Here is the executive summary:

The converging qualities of information and communication technologies challenge classic regulatory frameworks when regulating audiovisual media activities, on the one hand, and telecommunications, on the other. The digitalization of communications causes a metamorphosis in the definitions of what each sector encompasses and the emergence of actors that provide products and services and develop businesses in convergent markets simultaneously and in increasingly vast geographical areas.

Regulatory approaches that sought to protect freedom of expression in the media, guarantee access to cultural and informational resources and sustain economic competition to avoid distortion of markets today are being reviewed in light of the new reality of progressive integration and of the growing crosscutting elements within the media, telecommunications and Internet ecosystem. In fact, there are limitations that prevent responding effectively and consistently to the problems raised with the consolidation of the digital revolution.

This policy paper provides analytical tools based on comparative law and inquires about antitrust policies and their relationship with the objective of having diverse and pluralistic communication systems that stimulate public debate in democratic societies. Therefore, it has a multi-understanding approach, since one of its objectives is to facilitate the dialogue of areas that until now have had fields of study, normative translations and institutional expressions separated from each other.

After consulting Latin American regulators in the area of defense of competition, specialists in the region in the field and presenting an updated state of the art of the debate about the relevance of economic competition approaches to seek clear answers for the new problems of a convergent environment in communications, the document makes recommendations with the aim of improving the design of public policies both in the field of information and communication services, and in those that serve economic competition, harmonizing fields and disciplines that were not conceived in an articulated way.

In this context, the policy paper is proposed as an input for public policies and a contribution to optimize the understanding of current phenomena with deep repercussions in the culture, information and communication of societies and individuals.

En español:
Las cualidades convergentes de las tecnologías de información y comunicación desafían los encuadres normativos clásicos a la hora de regular las actividades de medios audiovisuales,  por  un  lado,  y  las  de  telecomunicaciones,  por  otro  lado.  La  digitalización de las comunicaciones provoca una metamorfosis en las propias definiciones de lo que cada sector abarcaba y el surgimiento de actores que proveen productos y servicios y desarrollan negocios en los mercados convergentes de modo simultáneo y en ámbitos geográficos cada vez más vastos.

Los enfoques regulatorios que buscaron como objetivos proteger la libertad de expresión en los medios de comunicación, garantizar el acceso a los recursos culturales e informacionales y sostener la competencia económica para evitar la distorsión de los mercados hoy están siendo revisados a la luz de la nueva realidad de la progresiva integración y de los cruces cada vez mayores dentro del ecosistema de medios, telecomunicaciones  e  Internet.  En  efecto,  hay  limitaciones  que  impiden  responder  de manera eficaz y consistente los problemas suscitados con la consolidación de la revolución digital.

El presente policy paper provee herramientas de análisis basadas en el derecho comparado e indaga sobre las políticas antitrust y su relación con el objetivo de contar con sistemas de comunicación diversos y plurales que estimulen el debate público en sociedades democráticas. Por ello es multicomprensivo, dado que uno de sus objetivos es facilitar el diálogo de áreas que hasta el presente han tenido campos de estudio, traducciones normativas y expresiones institucionales separadas entre sí.

Tras consultar a reguladores latinoamericanos del área de defensa de la competencia, a especialistas de la región en la materia y exponer un actualizado estado del arte del debate académico y de divulgación acerca de la pertinencia de los enfoques de competencia económica para satisfacer con respuestas claras los nuevos problemas propios  de  un  entorno  convergente  en  las  comunicaciones,  el  documento  formula  recomendaciones con el objetivo de mejorar el diseño de las políticas públicas tanto en el campo de los servicios de información y comunicación, como en el de las que atienden  a  la  competencia  económica,  armonizando  campos  y  disciplinas  que  no  fueron concebidos de modo articulado.
En este sentido, el policy paper se propone como un insumo de políticas públicas y una contribución para optimizar la comprensión de fenómenos actuales con hondas repercusiones en la cultura, la información y la comunicación de las sociedades y las personas.