The Dark Side of Netflix

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Netflix Facing Class Action Lawsuit for Alleged Antitrust Violation with Walmart

No surprise, but Netflix is facing another class action lawsuit. This lawsuit is not due to anything you might have assumed, however. Rather than Netflix being sued over the company's wide array of suspicious business practices, Netflix is being sued for something the company allegedly did in 2005.

If you will think back to that time, Walmart was in the DVD-by-mail business. Walmart shuttered its video rental business and effectively surrendered its subscribers to Netflix. promoted Walmart for DVD sales. promoted Netflix for DVD rentals. It seemed like a wonderful marriage.

The plaintiffs are alleging that Netflix's CEO, Reed Hastings, met with the CEO of Walmart during that period, John Fleming, and conspired to strategically divide the home video market. According to the alleged agreement, Netflix would not sell DVDs (presumably new DVDs) if Walmart would agree to stop renting DVDs. That way, Walmart could secure a larger share of video sales and Netflix could secure a larger share of video rentals. Most importantly, the companies would not have to compete against each other and drive down each other's profits in price wars.

From a business point-of-view, this sort of arrangement makes perfect sense. Why fight your competitor in price wars over two different markets, when you can simply call a truce with your competitor that will allow each of you to have great control over an individual market? After all, as a business leader, which would you rather have: two highly competitive markets with low profit margins or one monopolized market with a high profit margin? If you do not have to compete as much, you can charge higher prices. Higher prices may hurt consumers, but higher prices normally translate to higher profits when proper competition does not exist in any given market.

The most important thing to consider about this alleged conspiracy is that it is most likely illegal under antitrust laws. These antitrust laws are in place to protect you, the consumer, from price fixing, collusion, and other similar predatory business practices. Walmart certainly did not want to be in a big trial over this. Walmart has already settled for an amount that may be $29 to $40 million. At some point, those included in the class action lawsuit will probably receive checks or Walmart gift cards as part of the settlement.

It is unclear what Netflix is going to do about this. Netflix is potentially just as guilty as Walmart in this alleged conspiracy. Netflix, however, may have much more at stake in this controversy. DVD sales makes up only a small fraction of Walmart's profits. If Walmart lost a lawsuit over inflated DVD sale prices, it would mean a hit against just one of its many businesses.

With Netflix, however, this is a different story. Netflix largely exists on video rentals. Videos are not just one business for Netflix, videos are Netflix's business. If the plaintiffs can prove Netflix has been able to charge inflated prices ever since the alleged Walmart agreement in 2005, the penalties could be tremendous. U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton in Oakland, CA has stated, "As a result, millions of Netflix subscribers allegedly paid supracompetitive prices."

Think about the millions and millions of subscribers who have paid monthly subscription fees to Netflix since 2005. If Judge Hamilton or some other judge were to determine those subscription fees were inflated by just 10% as a result of an illegal pact with Walmart, the amounts could be staggering. The penalties could be crippling.

The federal trial is currently set for January 2012. Certainly, Netflix lawyers and managers are carefully debating their options. Netflix must tread carefully on this issue. Given this lawsuit could potentially involve every Netflix subscriber since 2005, even the slightest misstep could lead to a nasty stumble for Netflix.