Peter Whelan ‘Competition Law and Criminal Justice’ in The Intersections of Antitrust, Galloway (ed.), (Oxford University Press, forthcoming)

As opposed to other types of market conduct (such as, e.g., vertical distribution agreements or the unilateral use of market power), cartels are widely perceived to have few if any redeeming features. In recent years, one can clearly detect a firm commitment from antitrust enforcers around the globe to pursue rigorously the investigation, detection and prosecution of cartel activity. Aligned with this development is a growing tendency in a wide variety of jurisdictions to hold individuals accountable for the creation and implementation of cartels, including through use of criminal law. Unfortunately, the employment of criminal cartel sanctions is not without its problems. This paper, available here, seeks to evaluate some inherent problems associated with the use of criminal sanctions for cartel conduct to deter anticompetitive behaviour. It is structured as follows: Section B outlines the deterrence-based justification for criminal cartel sanctions. The primary rationale for the criminal cartel sanctions is economic deterrence. Unlike retribution, deterrence does not concern itself with…

Andreas Stephan ‘An empirical evaluation of the normative justifications for cartel criminalisation’ (2017) Legal Studies 37(4) 621

A growing number of jurisdictions treat ‘hard-core’ cartel conduct as crime, in the belief that the threat of incarceration is necessary for deterrence. For many years, the US was the only active criminal cartel enforcement regime in the world. Cartels were first prohibited under the US Sherman Act 1890 as misdemeanours, and became a felony in 1974. The US Department of Justice regularly secures convictions of firms and individuals – many of whom agree to serve custodial sentences under negotiated plea agreements – from around the world. In the past 20 years, there has been an international movement towards the US model. Around 25 jurisdictions have criminalised ‘hard-core’ cartel conduct, including the UK, France, Ireland and Australia – with many more having adopted criminal offences that relate only to bid-rigging in public procurement. Most of these jurisdictions have chosen to retain their civil enforcement powers in parallel, so as to use criminal enforcement selectively. However, there is still disagreement over…

Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice E. Stucke ‘Sustainable and Unchallenged Algorithmic Tacit Collusion’ Oxford Legal Studies Research Paper No. 16/2019

This piece is similar to last week’s papers in that if focuses on the challenges posed by algorithmic tacit collusion, but arguably goes further. In previous work, the authors outlined four scenarios where algorithms may be used to facilitate collusion. There is a consensus that their first two scenarios – Messenger, where algorithms help humans collude; and Hub and Spoke, where a common intermediary provides the algorithm and the pricing decision mechanism that could facilitate collusion – pose competition issues that should be addressed under existing rules. Their third and fourth scenarios have proved more controversial. Under the third scenario, called Tacit Collusion on Steroids – The Predictable Agent, companies could unilaterally use algorithms with the intent to facilitate conscious parallelism (also known as tacit collusion). Under the fourth scenario, called Artificial Intelligence, God View, and the Digital Eye, algorithms may arrive at this anticompetitive outcome on their own. Tacit collusion is beyond the reach of the competition laws of…

German Monopolies Commission ‘Algorithms and Collusion’, Chapter I of the XXII. Biennial Report

The Monopolies Commission is a permanent, independent expert committee which advises the German government and legislature as regards competition policy-making, competition law and regulation. The chapter is already one year old, and can be accessed here. In data-intensive sectors such of the digital economy, pricing algorithms can facilitate collusion by automating collusive behaviour. For example, algorithms can stabilise collusion by allowing the collection of information on competitors’ prices and sanctioning deviations from collusive market outcomes more quickly. The use of pricing algorithms can also render explicit anticompetitive agreements or concerted practices dispensable. As a result, difficulties with determining whether a concerted practice is actually taking place will increase with the use of pricing algorithms. The Monopolies Commission considers that the use of pricing algorithms makes it necessary to strengthen market monitoring through sector inquiries. Since consumer associations are most likely to have indications of collusive overpricing, the Monopolies Commission recommends that consumer associations obtain the right to initiate competition sector…

Emilio Calvano, Giacomo Calzolari, Vincenzo Denicol and Sergio Pastorello ‘Artificial Intelligence, Algorithmic Pricing and Collusion’ Centre for Economic Policy Research, London

Algorithmic pricing is not new, but newer software programs are much more “autonomous” than their precursors. Powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI), pricing algorithms can develop their pricing strategies from scratch, engaging in active experimentation and adapting to the evolving environment. In this learning process, they require little or no external guidance. Taken together with the diffusion and evolution of pricing algorithms, these developments raise various issues for competition policy, particularly as regards tacit collusion. While so far no one has brought an antitrust case against autonomously colluding algorithms, antitrust agencies are discussing the problem seriously. In addition to the OECD, competition authorities in the US, Canada and UK have held roundtable or issued papers on the topic. This paper, available here, tries to understand whether tacit collusion arising from AI should be a real concern by looking, for the first time, at the emergence of collusive strategies among autonomous pricing algorithms. It takes an experimental approach, by constructing AI pricing agents and…

Francisco Beneke and Mark-Oliver Mackenrodt ‘Artificial Intelligence and Collusion’ (2019) International Review of Intellectual Property and Competition Law 50 109

Current technological developments in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) have added further complexity to the discussion of whether, in the absence of overt communications, mere tacit coordination between competitors should be outlawed. Whereas some commentators argue that the dangers posed by AI should tip the balance towards making tacit coordination illegal, there are others who are either not entirely persuaded of the plausibility of such dangers or who point out that a competition rule focusing on mere inter-firm interdependence is not administrable. This paper, available here, reviews this debate with a view to establishing whether successful price coordination achieved by self-learning algorithms should be punishable under EU competition law, and whether the current regulatory framework is suitable. Section 2 explains how AI relates to antitrust. AI is expected to arise from certain types of software algorithms. An algorithm is merely a specified sequence of steps for producing a solution to a problem. Software is a composition of individual algorithms…

Albert Sanchez-Graells ‘Competition and Public Procurement’ (2018) Journal of European Competition Law & Practice 9(8) 55

This piece, available here, surveys the interaction between competition and public procurement law in Europe. It is structured as follows: Section II looks at recent examples of competition enforcement against bid rigging. Competition law enforcement in public procurement settings remains a top enforcement priority for competition authorities in Europe. This is not only clear in the practice of the European Commission, but is also demonstrated by a continuous string of cases brought all over Europe. Recent examples of this can be found in Poland (car towing and parking services), Belgium (railway infrastructure), Latvia (security services, distribution of professional stage equipment), Ireland (retail distribution), Greece (construction), Italy (consulting services), Lithuania (construction), Denmark (construction, passenger transportation), Romania (electricity consumption equipment), or Spain (advertising services). A continued focus on competition enforcement against bid-rigging seems adequate, given the continued trend towards less competitive tenders for public contracts over the last decade or so—in part, as a result of procurement aggregation strategies, but also as a result…

David Imhof, Yavuz Karagök and Samuel Rutz on ‘Screening For Bid Rigging—Does It Work?’ (2018) Journal of Competition Law & Economics 14(2) 235

The title of this paper, available here, is a bit misleading, since individuals who developed a screening tool for the Swiss competition authority wrote it, and the paper is devoted to describing how the method works and how successful it has been in practice. To summarise, the paper proposes a method to detect bid rigging that is particularly suited to address the problem of partial collusion, i.e. collusion that does not involve all firms and/or all contracts in a specific dataset. It explains how the authors applied mutually reinforcing screens to a Swiss road construction procurement dataset in which no prior information about collusion was available, and how this method succeeded in isolating a group of “suspicious” firms. It further describes how the screen led the Swiss Competition Commission (COMCO) to opening an investigation and sanctioning the identified “suspicious” firms for bid rigging. The paper is structured as follows: Section II presents literature on screening methods. The growing literature on cartel…

Martin Huber and David Imhof ‘Machine Learning with Screens for Detecting Bid-Rigging Cartels’ (2019) International Journal of Industrial Organization

This paper, available here, combines machine-learning techniques with statistical screens computed from the distribution of bids in tenders within the Swiss construction sector to predict collusion through bid-rigging cartels, leading to a correct classification of 84% of bidding processes as collusive or non-collusive out of 584 tenders. The paper is structured follows: Section 2 reviews the data set. The data includes four bid-rigging cartels, comprising 584 tenders in the Swiss road construction sector with 3,799 bids for a market volume of roughly 370 million Swiss francs. For each cartel, the dataset allows one to observe collusive cartel periods as well as competitive post-cartel periods. In doing so, the dataset is ideal for detecting bid-rigging cartels, in that it reflects periods of undisputed collusion and periods of undisputed competition. Collusive agreements were comparable across the four bid-rigging cartels. In all four cartels, the procurement procedure was based on a first-price sealed bid auction. The cartels required two steps: first, to designate…

Robert D. Anderson, Alison Jones and Bill Kovacic ‘Preventing Corruption, Supplier Collusion and the Corrosion of Civic Trust: A Procompetitive Program to Improve the Effectiveness and Legitimacy of Public Procurement’ (forthcoming, George Mason Law Review)

You can find this paper here. There is also a shorter version of the paper available here. Governments around the world spend an estimated US$9.5 trillion on goods and services each year. This accounts for roughly one third of government expenditures (29.1% on average in OECD countries) and 10% to 20% of total gross domestic product (“GDP”) in many nations. Furthermore, public procurement is an essential input to the delivery of broader public services and functions of government that are vital for growth, development and social welfare. The special procedures that characterise public procurement are necessary in light of the principal-agent problem and moral hazards that public procurement entails. Conventional responses to the problems of corruption and supplier collusion in public procurement comprise two broad sets of tools. The first, focusing on corruption issues, involves measures to increase the transparency of public procurement and to strengthen the accountability of responsible public officials for malfeasance. The second, aimed at preventing supplier collusion,…