Interpreter fees and antitrust legislation and policy worldwide.

February 5, 2018 § 10 Comments

Dear friends and colleagues:

I am about to deal with a very touchy, delicate, dangerous, and polarizing issue. For this reason, I want to begin this post by clarifying that I have always observed all antitrust legislation, domestic, foreign, and international, everywhere I have worked, spoken, and in any other way practiced any professional activity. In no way I intend to encourage, suggest, hint, or in any other way provoke the desire to break any antitrust legislation anywhere in the world; and even though I may intellectually and philosophically disagree with part of the antitrust policy and legislation, I am firmly committed to fully obey the law if it remains as is.

Once the above is very clear, I would like to revisit this issue that most colleagues usually dodge, and perhaps for good reason. My intention here is to inform my colleagues about the legislation and policy about agreeing as professional service providers to set professional fees. There is a lot of misinformation, and urban legends around. I hope this piece contributes to dissipate some, and to raise awareness on the situation we have and what can be legally done to enact change, if you really want that.

My motivation to write about this issue came from some news I got about certain events in the Czech Republic, where apparently UOHS, the local Czech antitrust authority initiated proceedings against Jednota tlumocniku a prekladatelu (JTP) the main professional association of interpreters and translators in that country, because of the publication of recommended minimum rates for translation and interpreting professional services on their internal journal (reaching about 500 members) arguing there could be a potential violation of Czech antitrust legislation. Shortly after this happened, JTP settled with the authorities and withdrew said recommended rates with an agreement to abstain from publishing them again.

Czech legislation is very similar to prevailing legislation in the European Union, the United States and elsewhere, prohibiting “…agreements (including decisions of associations) containing provisions on direct or indirect price fixing or other business terms and conditions…” This legislation takes generally adopted terminology when it states on a later paragraph that: “… The prohibition… shall not apply to agreements (that) do not afford… the possibility of eliminating competition in respect to a substantial part of the market…”

I sympathize with all my interpreter and translator colleagues in the Czech Republic. I have often questioned the moral justification and ultimate purpose of all antitrust legislation. It comes to us as a gift from the past when legislation such as this was needed to protect regular citizens from colluded corporations and tolerant governments. We could argue those days are gone; that antitrust legislation is necessary in certain cases, but rarely when it comes to a regular individual trying to earn a living selling goods or providing a service as a freelancer.

Unfortunately, moral considerations also encompass our duty to respect and obey the law, in the understanding that if we dislike it, or disagree with it, we must pursue change by legal means such as lobbying for (in this case) more realistic legislation that reflects the reality of life in the 21st century. Disregarding the law, even if we deem it wrong is not the best answer to solve a problem.

Let’s look at the pieces of legislation widely applied throughout the world, that serve as a model for practically all antitrust legislation.

First, a very important concept difficult to understand (and accept):

Long arm of the law:

In the United States, a Long Arm Statute is a statute allowing a state to exercise personal jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant with certain contacts with the state.

Black’s Law Dictionary: It is a term where a law of a state gives its courts jurisdiction over people and property outside the state.

The United States subscribes to this legal theory and constantly exercises it, and applies to acts and individuals throughout the world. To properly exercise long-arm jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant, the plaintiff’s cause of action must also arise out of one (or more) of the enumerated bases for jurisdiction set out by the state’s long-arm statute. Some of the most common instances include buying, selling, producing, or transporting goods to, from, or through U.S. territory; dealing with people or corporations with some contact with the United States (even if minimum). If country “A” sells a product to country “B”, and the product is transported on a plane or vessel in possession of a registration under country “C”, but the vessel uses American fuel to transport the goods, all parties from countries “A”, “B”, and “C” are under U.S. jurisdiction because of “the long arm of the law” theory. The same happens when a translator from the Czech Republic or elsewhere translates a document used in the United States, even if the direct client is from a third country, and according to more recent tendencies, even if the only contact with the U.S. was that said product was advertised on line using an American internet provider or a platform such as Google, Microsoft or Apple.

Even if a non-resident defendant is subject to personal jurisdiction under a state’s long arm statute, a court within the forum state may not exercise jurisdiction over that defendant if doing so would violate the Due Process Clause of the US Constitution. To satisfy the Due Process Clause, the defendant’s contacts with the state must be so it would “not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice” to require the defendant to litigate in the forum. Courts in the U.S., the European Union and elsewhere have determined that satisfying the requirements on the examples above, and affording the defendant a court hearing will comply with such legal requirements.

The Sherman Act

The main antitrust legislation in the United States, and the oldest (still current) antitrust legislation worldwide is the Sherman Act from the United States. It describes what conduct “Involves” import commerce, and gives the FTAIA and Justice Department main authority to deal with antitrust investigations and prosecution. It does not bar Sherman Act claims that “involve import commerce.” Several courts have recently been asked to consider what sort of “involvement” with import commerce is sufficient. The Third Circuit in Animal Science Products rejected the notion that the “import commerce” exception is limited to physical importers of goods, thus, it applies to service providers like interpreters and translators. The court defined conduct “involving import commerce” as conduct “directed at” or “targeted at” the U.S. import market. Although the original Minn-Chem Seventh Circuit panel agreed with this approach, neither court gave clear guidance on how to apply this standard.

Is a subjective intent to harm the U.S. import market required? Or is it sufficient to allege a global conspiracy to fix prices or set production limits that had as a consequence (as opposed to its focus or target) higher U.S. import prices? The DOJ’s view is that the FTAIA requires no subjective intent to harm U.S. import commerce and that a price-fixing conspiracy involves U.S. import commerce even “if the conspirators set prices for products sold around the world (so long as the agreement includes products sold into the United States) and even if only a relatively small proportion or dollar amount of the price fixed goods were sold into the United States.”  [Minn-Chem Inc. v. Agrium Inc., No. 10-1712, Brief for the United States and the Federal Trade Commission as amici curiae in support of neither party on rehearing en banc (Jan. 12, 2012), at pp. 19] Remember the example of the vessel above.

We can conclude that in the current environment, foreign companies involved in the manufacture or distribution of products (goods and services) outside the United States can no longer assume that the U.S. antitrust laws do not apply to their activities. This is an evolving area of the law with substantial uncertainty. It will take time for these issues to be sorted out in the courts and for clarity to emerge regarding the extraterritorial reach of the U.S. antitrust laws. Until then, a case-by-case analysis will be required to properly assess foreign companies’ potential exposure to criminal penalties (significant fines and jail sentences) and civil damages for violations of the U.S. antitrust laws. Because litigation before American courts is very costly, and the losing party is not required, as a matter of law, to pay for the legal expenses of the prevailing party, defendants often settle their cases and abstain from violating antitrust legislation before reaching a final resolution. This was the case of the American Translators Association (ATA) an association incorporated in the United States. ATA had a “Rate Guidelines Committee” (RGC) that once a year published a list of fees it recommended translators consider. It is possible that said rates (or fees) were reprinted by other professional associations of translators. In 1990 some interpreter and translator professional associations in the United States became the target of antitrust investigation by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). By 1994 at least two of the organizations: “The American Association of Language Specialists” (TAALS) and the “American Society of Interpreters” (ASI) had signed consent decrees in which the press reported they agreed, among other points, to halt any meetings at which two of those present mentioned rates or fees. After two years of investigation, and significant money spent in defending the association, ATA was notified by the FTC in March 1994 that the investigation had been closed. ATA had approved an strict antitrust policy seven months before the FTC investigation, and this probably contributed to the decision to close the inquiry.  In closing the case, the FTC issued a statement indicating that the closure did not mean that a violation had not occurred. The Commission also reserved the right to “…take such further action as the public interest may require…” Three years later, the FTC issued a cease-and-desist order to the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) after finding AIIC in violation of U.S. antitrust law. The association also chose a settlement obligating them to abstain from discussing fees (or rates) in public.

US versus EU Antitrust Law

Regarding Antitrust Law, the similarities on both sides of the Atlantic outweigh the remaining differences by far. This holds true, at any rate, today, after more than 100 years of legal development.

The central difference was initially that the relevant U.S.-American law is much older. The Sherman Act dates from 1890, the Clayton Act, which introduced merger control, from 1914 (with a significant improvement by the Celler-Kefauver Act in 1950). These laws were not only existent on paper. They were rigorously enforced in practice. National competition laws in Europe developed mainly after the Second World War. Their development was triggered by introducing the rules on competition in the European Community in 1958. The latter induced many of the Member States, e.g. Italy, to introduce laws against restraints of competition for the first time.

A difference between the legal systems lies in the role of the state. In the USA, antitrust is a matter for private actors. In Europe, the role of the state was inevitably involved. This was due to the extensive involvement of the state in the economy

A common feature of the competition law regimes on both sides of the Atlantic is that they claim for themselves a wide international reach (long arm of the law). It suffices that a restraint of competition has effects within their own territory, regardless of where and by what enterprise it is effected (“effects doctrine” or “extraterritorial application of competition law”). A difference lies in the U.S. Antitrust Law’s better ability to assert itself: Uncle Sam has a very long arm. This is due to the USA usually making up half of the “world-wide market”. No globally acting enterprise can afford not to be present on the U.S.-American market. This inexorably leads to the result it can be caught by the American jurisdiction with no strain. Translators, interpreters, and professional interpreter and translator associations must know of this before taking any action.

Regarding the procedure, both legal systems build upon a rule of law, which is more pronounced in the United States than in Europe. A remarkable difference consists in the fact that in the USA, approximately 75% of all antitrust cases are brought by way of private enforcement

Under American civil procedure law, the American rule prevails. I.e., a defendant wrongly sued has to bear his own legal costs. The unsuccessful plaintiff need not reimburse them. This creates a significant potential for threat in the hands of an economically strong plaintiff. The civil procedure can mutate into an instrument for restraining competition. Just imagine a case between IAPTI and the U.S. Department of Justice. The deepest pockets will prevail.

European Union

Czech Republic and all members of the EU must comply with EU antitrust policy and legislation.

European antitrust policy is developed from two central rules set out in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union:

First, Article 101 of the Treaty prohibits agreements between two or more independent market operators which restrict competition. This provision covers both horizontal agreements (between actual or potential competitors operating at the same level of the supply chain) and vertical agreements (between firms operating at different levels, i.e. agreement between a manufacturer and its distributor). Only limited exceptions are provided for in the general prohibition. The most flagrant example of illegal conduct infringing Article 101 is the creation of a cartel between competitors, which may involve price-fixing and/or market sharing.

Second, Article 102 of the Treaty prohibits firms that hold a dominant position on a given market to abuse that position, for example by charging unfair prices, by limiting production, or by refusing to innovate to the prejudice of consumers.

The Commission is empowered by the Treaty to apply these rules and has several investigative powers (e.g. inspection at business and non-business premises, written requests for information, etc.). The Commission may impose fines on undertakings which violate the EU antitrust rules.

National Competition Authorities (NCAs) are empowered to apply Articles 101 and 102 of the Treaty fully, to ensure that competition is not distorted or restricted. National courts may also apply these provisions to protect the individual rights conferred on citizens by the Treaty. Building on these achievements, the communication on ten years of antitrust enforcement identified further areas to create a common competition enforcement area in the EU.

As part of the overall enforcement of EU competition law, the Commission has also developed and implemented a policy on applying EU competition law to actions for damages before national courts. It also cooperates with national courts to ensure that EU competition rules are applied coherently throughout the EU.

Best Practices on Cooperation in Merger Investigations

The revised Best Practices include an expanded section on remedies and settlements that details cooperation throughout the remedial process, emphasizing that early and frequent cooperation in this phase is important to avoid inconsistent or conflicting remedies, especially when remedies may include an up-front buyer and/or Phase I remedy in the EU. The revised Best Practices also underscore the critical role that the parties play in ensuring effective cooperation in this phase, including timely coordination of their remedy proposals with the reviewing agencies to allow for meaningful cooperation before either agency decides. Besides avoiding the risk of inconsistent or conflicting remedies, such meaningful cooperation in the remedial phase can cause the acceptance of common remedy proposals or even the appointment of common trustees or monitors, which is in both the agencies’ and the parties’ interest.

Recognizing that legal professional privileges differ between the U.S. and the EU, how are in-house counsel communications protections maintained once waivers of confidentiality are granted? The Best Practices note that the agencies will accept a stipulation in parties’ waivers given to DG Competition that excludes from the scope of the waiver evidence properly identified by the parties as and qualifies for the in-house counsel privilege under U.S. law. This is only an example of the European Union accommodating U.S. legislation in antitrust matters. There are other instances.

Antitrust legislation in Latin America

There has been antitrust law in some of the Latin American countries for many years. Brazil was the first to have such a law, but for many years enforcement was desultory. Then in the 1980s and 1990s scores of other countries around the world enacted or strengthened their antitrust laws, and this included Latin American jurisdictions such as Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and others.

A few jurisdictions had become fairly consistent in enforcing their antitrust laws, including Brazil and Mexico.

Continuing with the reforms, the new authorities of the Argentine Antitrust Commission (the “Antitrust Commission“) released a draft of the new Antitrust Law, which seeks to bring Argentina into line with the international experience in this matter: The Ley de Defensa de la Competencia (As far as I know) passed in the lower chamber when the diputados voted for it, and it is pending approval by the Senate. Among the reforms envisaged are:

Tougher sanctions, increasing fines up to 30% of turnover associated with products or services involved in the anti-competitive act; The creation of a National Antitrust Authority as a decentralized and self-governing body within the national executive branch, in replacement of the Antitrust Commission and of the Secretary of Commerce; The facilitation of private actions for damages against violators of the law; and the creation of a National Antitrust Court of Appeals to replace the uncertainty on which Court of Appeals is competent regarding antitrust matters.

The long arm of the law theory, and current practices and cooperation of all major international players, including the United States, European Union, and others will make it almost impossible to go against current policy and legislation. There is a great likelihood that many complaints will go to the U.S. courts because of the high cost of litigation and the absence of any legal basis for the losing party to pay for prevailing party’s legal fees and costs.

A Private Citizen’s Freedom of Speech.

Individuals may exercise their freedom of speech and speak, write, publish, and in any other way disseminate their opposition to legislation and policy. It will take a change of heart by the authorities, and current cultural values, to change this legislation and bring it to the reality of solo practitioners trying to make a living in the 21st. century. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this issue, remembering that no comment suggesting fees or rates will be included in this blog.

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§ 10 Responses to Interpreter fees and antitrust legislation and policy worldwide.

  • Aurora says:

    GREAT post, Tony. The T&I community needs to discuss this.

  • Armando Ezquerra Hasbun says:

    Tony, thanks for such a thorough overview of this complex and important component of the reality of independent contractors in our field, caught between the upper millstone of the greed of some language services providers and the nether millstone of thrifty end users and naive new colleagues entering the profession, who depress our compensation from below.

    After the many discussions on this topic, I think it’s important to look whether our actions are within or without the spirit of the law. If we secretly collude to quote a pre-established fee for our services for a particular engagement, I think we’d be guilty of price-fixing. However, if we discuss or openly post our schedule of fees, including minimums, unconnected to any specific engagement, I think we are not infringing the law or stifling free competition.

    Gas stations advertise (and respond to) their openly displayed pricing. Mechanics have signs that display the hourly cost for their services (and I’m sure, they check their competition to adjust their own rates too.) Airlines too, routinely respond in matters of minutes if a competitor lowers their prices on a given route, and this promotes competition to the benefit of consumers.
    The AOUSC sets and openly displays the fees paid to certified and uncertified interpreters in the federal courts as most likely do the Administrative Office of the Courts in many states. Here uniform prices are fixed by the consumer, yet no wrongdoing is implied. Are they guilty of stifling free competition?

    We should be able to mention, review and discuss our compensation schemes and each practitioner should be free to set their own fee schedule accordingly, as long as this is not targeting a given client or request or is seen as a mandatory requirement.

    My experience on the “industry” side of the profession was that if one contacted several Japanese interpreters around the country, one would find the same fee quoted for their services, a) because they knew how much in demand they were, b) because they knew their worth and c) because they knew what their colleagues were charging.

    A true and troubling observation you make is that about how the deep pockets of a litigant can deter the other side. The specter of a legal action has led many organizations and individuals to throwing out the baby with the bath water: a healthy, transparent dialogue about our compensation is taboo out of fear they could be accused of violating the Trade Act.

    A balancing act has to be found, where colluding to inflate the market pricing is avoided in an attempt to discuss and self-regulate our pricing so as to adjust and survive the constant attempt of agencies and other users to depress the fees they pay for our services.

    Thank you for taking on the elephant in the room!

    • Andres Urdaneta says:

      Tony
      I concur with Armando in thanking you for taking on the elephant in the room! However, I would also like to read your thought on the question posted by Armando on publishing recommended compensation for legal interpreters.

  • Frank Pool says:

    Thanks for bringing this up. We were talking about this issue at the AYTIAC ethics committee this week, I agree that it is better not to discuss about minimum rates for translation and interpretation fees in public, however translators associations should have a fair view on antitrust laws in their respective countries in order to comply with them. This article will support our decisions regarding this aspect of our profession.

  • Julia DELILLE Gomory says:

    Very clear and interesting overview. You omitted one important aspect of the aiic settlement with the FTC, which recognized aiic’s role as a trade union and thus can continue to negotiate with several families of international organizations. Within those agreements there are agreed remuneration, working and travel conditions. These serve as a ‘guidelines’ for the private market.

    • Thank you Julia, you are correct. AIIC was recognized. I did not include it because said recognition allowed it to negotiate on behalf of its members, not to set market fees. As of today, when it comes to agreeing to manipulate fees, AIIC has the same limitations as anybody else.

  • Andre BERNHARD says:

    Right!

  • Luigi says:

    Re: “FTC issued a cease-and-desist order to the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) after finding AIIC in violation of U.S. antitrust law. The association also chose a settlement obligating them to abstain from discussing fees (or rates) in public.”

    I was AIIC Council member for the USA at the time and was very involved with the case. I would like to clarify what happened. AIIC refused to sign a cease and desist order, so there was no settlement. The case went forward all the way to the Commission itself, which did issue an order regarding rates (which AIIC had actually stopped issuing before the investigation began).

    Why? The main reason was simple enough: the cease-and-desist order drafted by FTC lawyers carried various provisions preventing AIIC from setting certain working conditions (e.g. team size, not working alone, etc.). We objected to that as we consider said conditions essential to quality and long-term health, and irrelevant to market price. So, we offered to sign the order if said provisions we deleted. The lawyers refused.

    The Commission heard our case, and indeed issued an order prohibiting AIIC from setting rates, but ruled against their own lawyers on the working conditions. No mention of them was made in the final order, and the FTC lawyers wasted 3 years and many tax dollars trying to prove that decent working conditions had nothing to do with quality and health but were concocted solely to control market prices. In other words, they ended up getting what we offered them 3 years earlier!

    Moreover, we asked that a clause validating our collective agreements with the UN and other international be included, along with the right to sign further agreements with parties wanting to enter into future agreements with us. That clause was accepted by the Commissioners exactly as we drafted it.

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