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On February 13 an administrative law judge (ALJ) at the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) issued a proposed decision regarding the Comcast/Time Warner Cable (TWC) merger. The proposed decision recommends that the CPUC approve the merger with conditions.

It’s laudable that the ALJ acknowledges at least some of the competitive merits of the proposed deal. But the set of conditions that the proposed decision would impose on the combined company in order to complete the merger represents a remarkable set of unauthorized regulations that are both inappropriate for the deal and at odds with California’s legislated approach to regulation of the Internet.

According to the proposed decision, every condition it imposes is aimed at mitigating a presumed harm arising from the merger:

The Applicants must meet the conditions adopted herein in order to provide reasonable assurance that the proposed transaction will be in the public interest in accordance with Pub. Util. Code § 854(a) and (c).… We only adopt conditions which mitigate an effect of the merger in order to satisfy the public interest requirements of § 854.

By any reasonable interpretation, this would mean that the CPUC can adopt only those conditions that address specific public interest concerns arising from the deal itself. But most of the conditions in the proposed decision fail this basic test and seem designed to address broader social policy issues that have nothing to do with the alleged competitive effects of the deal.

Instead, without undertaking an analysis of the merger’s competitive effects, the proposed decision effectively accepts that the merger serves the public interest, while also simply accepting the assertions of the merger’s opponents that it doesn’t. In the name of squaring that circle, the proposed decision seeks to permit the merger to proceed, but then seeks to force the post-merger company to conform to the merger’s critics’ rather arbitrary view of their preferred market structure for the provision of cable broadband services in California.

For something — say, a merger — to be in the public interest, it need not further every conceivable public interest goal. This is a perversion of the standard, and it turns “public interest” into an unconstrained license to impose a regulatory wish-list on particular actors, outside of the scope of usual regulatory processes.

While a few people may have no problem with the proposed decision’s expansive vision of Internet access regulation, California governor Jerry Brown and the overwhelming majority of the California state legislature cannot be counted among the supporters of this approach.

In 2012 the state legislature passed by an overwhelming margin — and Governor Brown signed — SB 1161 (codified as Section 710 of the California Public Utilities Code), which expressly prohibits the CPUC from regulating broadband:

The commission shall not exercise regulatory jurisdiction or control over Voice over Internet Protocol and Internet Protocol enabled services except as required or expressly delegated by federal law or expressly directed to do so by statute or as set forth in [certain enumerated exceptions].”

The message is clear: The CPUC should not try to bypass clear state law and all institutional safeguards by misusing the merger clearance process.

While bipartisan majorities in the state house, supported by a Democratic governor, have stopped the CPUC from imposing new regulations on Internet and VoIP services through SB 1161, the proposed decision seeks to impose regulations through merger conditions that go far beyond anything permitted by this state law.

For instance, the proposed decision seeks to impose arbitrary retail price controls on broadband access:

Comcast shall offer to all customers of the merged companies, for a period of five years following the effective date of the parent company merger, the opportunity to purchase stand-alone broadband Internet service at a price not to exceed the price charged by Time Warner for providing that service to its customers, and at speeds, prices, and terms, at least comparable to that offered by Time Warner prior to the merger’s closing.

And the proposed decision seeks to mandate market structure in other insidious ways, as well, mandating specific broadband speeds, requiring a break-neck geographic expansion of Comcast’s service area, and dictating installation and service times, among other things — all without regard to the actual plausibility (or cost) of implementing such requirements.

But the problem is even more acute. Not only does the proposed decision seek to regulate Internet access issues irrelevant to the merger, it also proposes to impose conditions that would actually undermine competition.

The proposed decision would impose the following conditions on Comcast’s business VoIP and business Internet services:

Comcast shall offer Time Warner’s Business Calling Plan with Stand Alone Internet Access to interested CLECs throughout the combined service territories of the merging companies for a period of five years from the effective date of the parent company merger at existing prices, terms and conditions.

Comcast shall offer Time Warner’s Carrier Ethernet Last Mile Access product to interested CLECs throughout the combined service territories of the merging companies for a period of five years from the effective date of the parent company at the same prices, terms and conditions as offered by Time Warner prior to the merger.

But the proposed decision fails to recognize that Comcast is an also-ran in the business service market. Last year it served a small fraction of the business customers served by AT&T and Verizon, who have long dominated the business services market:

According to a Sept. 2011 ComScore survey, AT&T and Verizon had the largest market shares of all business services ISPs. AT&T held 20% of market share and Verizon held 12%. Comcast ranked 6th, with 5% of market share.

The proposed conditions would hamstring the upstart challenger Comcast by removing both product and pricing flexibility for five years – an eternity in rapidly evolving technology markets. That’s a sure-fire way to minimize competition, not promote it.

The proposed decision reiterates several times its concern that the combined Comcast/Time Warner Cable will serve more than 80% of California households, and “reduce[] the possibilities for content providers to reach the California broadband market.” The alleged concern is that the combined company could exercise anticompetitive market power — imposing artificially high fees for carrying content or degrading service of unaffiliated content and services.

The problem is Comcast and TWC don’t compete anywhere in California today, and they face competition from other providers everywhere they operate. As the decision matter-of-factly states:

Comcast and Time Warner do not compete with one another… [and] Comcast and Time Warner compete with other providers of Internet access services in their respective service territories.

As a result, the merger will actually have no effect on the number of competitive choices in the state; the increase in the statewide market share as a result of the deal is irrelevant. And so these purported competition concerns can’t be the basis for any conditions, let alone the sweeping ones set out in the proposed decision.

The stated concern about content providers finding it difficult to reach Californians is a red herring: the post-merger Comcast geographic footprint will be exactly the same as the combined, pre-merger Comcast/TWC/Charter footprint. Content providers will be able to access just as many Californians (and with greater speeds) as before the merger.

True, content providers that just want to reach some number of random Californians may have to reach more of them through Comcast than they would have before the merger. But what content provider just wants to reach some number of Californians in the first place? Moreover, this fundamentally misstates the way the Internet works: it is users who reach the content they prefer; not the other way around. And, once again, for literally every consumer in the state, the number of available options for doing so won’t change one iota following the merger.

Nothing shows more clearly how the proposed decision has strayed from responding to merger concerns to addressing broader social policy issues than the conditions aimed at expanding low-price broadband offerings for underserved households. Among other things, the proposed conditions dramatically increase the size and scope of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, converting this laudable effort from a targeted program (that uses a host of tools to connect families where a child is eligible for the National School Lunch Program to the Internet) into one that must serve all low-income adults.

Putting aside the damage this would do to the core Internet Essentials’ mission of connecting school age children by diverting resources from the program’s central purpose, it is manifestly outside the scope of the CPUC’s review. Nothing in the deal affects the number of adults (or children, for that matter) in California without broadband.

It’s possible, of course, that Comcast might implement something like an expanded Internet Essentials program without any prodding; after all, companies implement (and expand) such programs all the time. But why on earth should regulators be able to define such an obligation arbitrarily, and to impose it on whatever ISP happens to be asking for a license transfer? That arbitrariness creates precisely the sort of business uncertainty that SB 1161 was meant to prevent.

The same thing applies to the proposed decision’s requirement regarding school and library broadband connectivity:

Comcast shall connect and/or upgrade Internet infrastructure for K-12 schools and public libraries in unserved and underserved areas in Comcast’s combined California service territory so that it is providing high speed Internet to at least the same proportion of K-12 schools and public libraries in such unserved and underserved areas as it provides to the households in its service territory.

No doubt improving school and library infrastructure is a noble goal — and there’s even a large federal subsidy program (E-Rate) devoted to it. But insisting that Comcast do so — and do so to an extent unsupported by the underlying federal subsidy program already connecting such institutions, and in contravention of existing provider contracts with schools — as a condition of the merger is simple extortion.

The CPUC is treating the proposed merger like a free-for-all, imposing in the name of the “public interest” a set of conditions that it would never be permitted to impose absent the gun-to-the-head of merger approval. Moreover, it seeks to remake California’s broadband access landscape in a fashion that would likely never materialize in the natural course of competition: If the merger doesn’t go through, none of the conditions in the proposed decision and alleged to be necessary to protect the public interest will exist.

Far from trying to ensure that Comcast’s merger with TWC doesn’t erode competitive forces to the detriment of the public, the proposed decision is trying to micromanage the market, simply asserting that the public interest demands imposition of it’s subjective and arbitrary laundry list of preferred items. This isn’t sensible regulation, it isn’t compliant with state law, and it doesn’t serve the people of California.

It’s easy to look at the net neutrality debate and assume that everyone is acting in their self-interest and against consumer welfare. Thus, many on the left denounce all opposition to Title II as essentially “Comcast-funded,” aimed at undermining the Open Internet to further nefarious, hidden agendas. No matter how often opponents make the economic argument that Title II would reduce incentives to invest in the network, many will not listen because they have convinced themselves that it is simply special-interest pleading.

But whatever you think of ISPs’ incentives to oppose Title II, the incentive for the tech companies (like Cisco, Qualcomm, Nokia and IBM) that design and build key elements of network infrastructure and the devices that connect to it (i.e., essential input providers) is to build out networks and increase adoption (i.e., to expand output). These companies’ fundamental incentive with respect to regulation of the Internet is the adoption of rules that favor investment. They operate in highly competitive markets, they don’t offer competing content and they don’t stand as alleged “gatekeepers” seeking monopoly returns from, or control over, what crosses over the Interwebs.

Thus, it is no small thing that 60 tech companies — including some of the world’s largest, based both in the US and abroad — that are heavily invested in the buildout of networks and devices, as well as more than 100 manufacturing firms that are increasingly building the products and devices that make up the “Internet of Things,” have written letters strongly opposing the reclassification of broadband under Title II.

There is probably no more objective evidence that Title II reclassification will harm broadband deployment than the opposition of these informed market participants.

These companies have the most to lose from reduced buildout, and no reasonable nefarious plots can be constructed to impugn their opposition to reclassification as consumer-harming self-interest in disguise. Their self-interest is on their sleeves: More broadband deployment and adoption — which is exactly what the Open Internet proceedings are supposed to accomplish.

If the FCC chooses the reclassification route, it will most assuredly end up in litigation. And when it does, the opposition of these companies to Title II should be Exhibit A in the effort to debunk the FCC’s purported basis for its rules: the “virtuous circle” theory that says that strong net neutrality rules are necessary to drive broadband investment and deployment.

Access to all the wonderful content the Internet has brought us is not possible without the billions of dollars that have been invested in building the networks and devices themselves. Let’s not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

In March 2014, the U.S. Government’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA, the Executive Branch’s telecommunications policy agency) abruptly announced that it did not plan to renew its contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to maintain core functions of the Internet. ICANN oversees the Internet domain name system through its subordinate agency, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). In its March statement, NTIA proposed that ICANN consult with “global stakeholders” to agree on an alternative to the “current role played by NTIA in the coordination of the Internet’s [domain name system].”

In recent months Heritage Foundation scholars have discussed concerns stemming from this vaguely-defined NTIA initiative (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, and here). These concerns include fears that eliminating the U.S. Government’s role in Internet governance could embolden other nations and international organizations (especially the International Telecommunications Union, an arm of the United Nations) to seek to regulate the Internet and limit speech, and create leeway for ICANN to expand beyond its core activities and trench upon Internet freedoms.

Although NTIA has testified that its transition plan would preclude such undesirable outcomes, the reaction to these assurances should be “trust but verify” (especially given the recent Administration endorsement of burdensome Internet common carrier regulation, which appears to be at odds with the spirit if not the letter of NTIA’s assurances).

Reflecting the “trust but verify” spirit, the just-introduced “Defending Internet Freedom Act of 2014” requires that NTIA maintain its existing Internet oversight functions, unless the NTIA Administrator certifies in writing that certain specified assurances have been met regarding Internet governance. Those assurances include findings that the management of the Internet domain name system will not be exercised by foreign governmental or intergovernmental bodies; that ICANN’s bylaws will be amended to uphold First Amendment-type freedoms of speech, assembly, and association; that a four-fifths supermajority will be required for changes in ICANN’s bylaws or fees for services; that an independent process for resolving disputes between ICANN and third parties be established; and that a host of other requirements aimed at protecting Internet freedoms and ensuring ICANN and IANA accountability be instituted.

Legislative initiatives of this sort, while no panacea, play a valuable role in signaling Congress’s intent to hold the Administration accountable for seeing to it that key Internet freedoms (including the avoidance of onerous regulation and deleterious restrictions on speech and content) are maintained. They merit thoughtful consideration.

The free market position on telecom reform has become rather confused of late. Erstwhile conservative Senator Thune is now cosponsoring a version of Senator Rockefeller’s previously proposed video reform bill, bundled into satellite legislation (the Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act or “STAVRA”) that would also include a provision dubbed “Local Choice.” Some free marketeers have defended the bill as a step in the right direction.

Although it looks as if the proposal may be losing steam this Congress, the legislation has been described as a “big and bold idea,” and it’s by no means off the menu. But it should be.

It has been said that politics makes for strange bedfellows. Indeed, people who disagree on just about everything can sometimes unite around a common perceived enemy. Take carriage disputes, for instance. Perhaps because, for some people, a day without The Bachelor is simply a day lost, an unlikely alliance of pro-regulation activists like Public Knowledge and industry stalwarts like Dish has emerged to oppose the ability of copyright holders to withhold content as part of carriage negotiations.

Senator Rockefeller’s Online Video Bill was the catalyst for the Local Choice amendments to STAVRA. Rockefeller’s bill did, well, a lot of terrible things, from imposing certain net neutrality requirements, to overturning the Supreme Court’s Aereo decision, to adding even more complications to the already Byzantine morass of video programming regulations.

But putting Senator Thune’s lipstick on Rockefeller’s pig can’t save the bill, and some of the worst problems from Senator Rockefeller’s original proposal remain.

Among other things, the new bill is designed to weaken the ability of copyright owners to negotiate with distributors, most notably by taking away their ability to withhold content during carriage disputes and by forcing TV stations to sell content on an a la carte basis.

Video distribution issues are complicated — at least under current law. But at root these are just commercial contracts and, like any contracts, they rely on a couple of fundamental principles.

First is the basic property right. The Supreme Court (at least somewhat) settled this for now (in Aereo), by protecting the right of copyright holders to be compensated for carriage of their content. With this baseline, distributors must engage in negotiations to obtain content, rather than employing technological workarounds and exploiting legal loopholes.

Second is the related ability of contracts to govern the terms of trade. A property right isn’t worth much if its owner can’t control how it is used, governed or exchanged.

Finally, and derived from these, is the issue of bargaining power. Good-faith negotiations require both sides not to act strategically by intentionally causing negotiations to break down. But if negotiations do break down, parties need to be able to protect their rights. When content owners are not able to withhold content in carriage disputes, they are put in an untenable bargaining position. This invites bad faith negotiations by distributors.

The STAVRA/Local Choice proposal would undermine the property rights and freedom of contract that bring The Bachelor to your TV, and the proposed bill does real damage by curtailing the scope of the property right in TV programming and restricting the range of contracts available for networks to license their content.

The bill would require that essentially all broadcast stations that elect retrans make their content available a la carte — thus unbundling some of the proverbial sticks that make up the traditional property right. It would also establish MVPD pass-through of each local affiliate. Subscribers would pay a fee determined by the affiliate, and the station must be offered on an unbundled basis, without any minimum tier required – meaning an MVPD has to offer local stations to its customers with no markup, on an a la carte basis, if the station doesn’t elect must-carry. It would also direct the FCC to open a rulemaking to determine whether broadcasters should be prohibited from withholding their content online during a dispute with an MPVD.

“Free market” supporters of the bill assert something like “if we don’t do this to stop blackouts, we won’t be able to stem the tide of regulation of broadcasters.” Presumably this would end blackouts of broadcast programming: If you’re an MVPD subscriber, and you pay the $1.40 (or whatever) for CBS, you get it, period. The broadcaster sets an annual per-subscriber rate; MVPDs pass it on and retransmit only to subscribers who opt in.

But none of this is good for consumers.

When transaction costs are positive, negotiations sometimes break down. If the original right is placed in the wrong hands, then contracting may not assure the most efficient outcome. I think it was Coase who said that.

But taking away the ability of content owners to restrict access to their content during a bargaining dispute effectively places the right to content in the hands of distributors. Obviously, this change in bargaining position will depress the value of content. Placing the rights in the hands of distributors reduces the incentive to create content in the first place; this is why the law protects copyright to begin with. But it also reduces the ability of content owners and distributors to reach innovative agreements and contractual arrangements (like certain promotional deals) that benefit consumers, distributors and content owners alike.

The mandating of a la carte licensing doesn’t benefit consumers, either. Bundling is generally pro-competitive and actually gives consumers more content than they would otherwise have. The bill’s proposal to force programmers to sell content to consumers a la carte may actually lead to higher overall prices for less content. Not much of a bargain.

There are plenty of other ways this is bad for consumers, even if it narrowly “protects” them from blackouts. For example, the bill would prohibit a network from making a deal with an MVPD that provides a discount on a bundle including carriage of both its owned broadcast stations as well as the network’s affiliated cable programming. This is not a worthwhile — or free market — trade-off; it is an ill-advised and economically indefensible attack on vertical distribution arrangements — exactly the same thing that animates many net neutrality defenders.

Just as net neutrality’s meddling in commercial arrangements between ISPs and edge providers will ensure a host of unintended consequences, so will the Rockefeller/Thune bill foreclose a host of welfare-increasing deals. In the end, in exchange for never having to go three days without CBS content, the bill will make that content more expensive, limit the range of programming offered, and lock video distribution into a prescribed business model.

Former FCC Commissioner Rob McDowell sees the same hypocritical connection between net neutrality and broadcast regulation like the Local Choice bill:

According to comments filed with the FCC by Time Warner Cable and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, broadcasters should not be allowed to take down or withhold the content they produce and own from online distribution even if subscribers have not paid for it—as a matter of federal law. In other words, edge providers should be forced to stream their online content no matter what. Such an overreach, of course, would lay waste to the economics of the Internet. It would also violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against state-mandated, or forced, speech—the flip side of censorship.

It is possible that the cable companies figure that subjecting powerful broadcasters to anti-free speech rules will shift the political momentum in the FCC and among the public away from net neutrality. But cable’s anti-free speech arguments play right into the hands of the net-neutrality crowd. They want to place the entire Internet ecosystem, physical networks, content and apps, in the hands of federal bureaucrats.

While cable providers have generally opposed net neutrality regulation, there is, apparently, some support among them for regulations that would apply to the edge. The Rockefeller/Thune proposal is just a replay of this constraint — this time by forcing programmers to allow retransmission of broadcast content under terms set by Congress. While “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” sounds appealing in theory, here it is simply doubling down on a terrible idea.

What it reveals most of all is that true neutrality advocates don’t want government control to be limited to ISPs — rather, progressives like Rockefeller (and apparently some conservatives, like Thune) want to subject the whole apparatus — distribution and content alike — to intrusive government oversight in order to “protect” consumers (a point Fred Campbell deftly expands upon here and here).

You can be sure that, if the GOP supports broadcast a la carte, it will pave the way for Democrats (and moderates like McCain who back a la carte) to expand anti-consumer unbundling requirements to cable next. Nearly every economic analysis has concluded that mandated a la carte pricing of cable programming would be harmful to consumers. There is no reason to think that applying it to broadcast channels would be any different.

What’s more, the logical extension of the bill is to apply unbundling to all MVPD channels and to saddle them with contract restraints, as well — and while we’re at it, why not unbundle House of Cards from Orange is the New Black? The Rockefeller bill may have started in part as an effort to “protect” OVDs, but there’ll be no limiting this camel once its nose is under the tent. Like it or not, channel unbundling is arbitrary — why not unbundle by program, episode, studio, production company, etc.?

There is simply no principled basis for the restraints in this bill, and thus there will be no limit to its reach. Indeed, “free market” defenders of the Rockefeller/Thune approach may well be supporting a bill that ultimately leads to something like compulsory, a la carte licensing of all video programming. As I noted in my testimony last year before the House Commerce Committee on the satellite video bill:

Unless we are prepared to bear the consumer harm from reduced variety, weakened competition and possibly even higher prices (and absolutely higher prices for some content), there is no economic justification for interfering in these business decisions.

So much for property rights — and so much for vibrant video programming.

That there is something wrong with the current system is evident to anyone who looks at it. As Gus Hurwitz noted in recent testimony on Rockefeller’s original bill,

The problems with the existing regulatory regime cannot be understated. It involves multiple statutes implemented by multiple agencies to govern technologies developed in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, according to policy goals from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. We are no longer living in a world where the Rube Goldberg of compulsory licenses, must carry and retransmission consent, financial interest and syndication exclusivity rules, and the panoply of Federal, state, and local regulations makes sense – yet these are the rules that govern the video industry.

While video regulation is in need of reform, this bill is not an improvement. In the short run it may ameliorate some carriage disputes, but it will do so at the expense of continued programming vibrancy and distribution innovations. The better way to effect change would be to abolish the Byzantine regulations that simultaneously attempt to place thumbs of both sides of the scale, and to rely on free market negotiations with a copyright baseline and antitrust review for actual abuses.

But STAVRA/Local Choice is about as far from that as you can get.

The Wall Street Journal dropped an FCC bombshell last week, although I’m not sure anyone noticed. In an article ostensibly about the possible role that MFNs might play in the Comcast/Time-Warner Cable merger, the Journal noted that

The FCC is encouraging big media companies to offer feedback confidentially on Comcast’s $45-billion offer for Time Warner Cable.

Not only is the FCC holding secret meetings, but it is encouraging Comcast’s and TWC’s commercial rivals to hold confidential meetings and to submit information under seal. This is not a normal part of ex parte proceedings at the FCC.

In the typical proceeding of this sort – known as a “permit-but-disclose proceeding” – ex parte communications are subject to a host of disclosure requirements delineated in 47 CFR 1.1206. But section 1.1200(a) of the Commission’s rules permits the FCC, in its discretion, to modify the applicable procedures if the public interest so requires.

If you dig deeply into the Public Notice seeking comments on the merger, you find a single sentence stating that

Requests for exemptions from the disclosure requirements pursuant to section 1.1204(a)(9) may be made to Jonathan Sallet [the FCC’s General Counsel] or Hillary Burchuk [who heads the transaction review team].

Similar language appears in the AT&T/DirecTV transaction Public Notice.

This leads to the cited rule exempting certain ex parte presentations from the usual disclosure requirements in such proceedings, including the referenced one that exempts ex partes from disclosure when

The presentation is made pursuant to an express or implied promise of confidentiality to protect an individual from the possibility of reprisal, or there is a reasonable expectation that disclosure would endanger the life or physical safety of an individual

So the FCC is inviting “media companies” to offer confidential feedback and to hold secret meetings that the FCC will hold confidential because of “the possibility of reprisal” based on language intended to protect individuals.

Such deviations from the standard permit-but-disclose procedures are extremely rare. As in non-existent. I guess there might be other examples, but I was unable to find a single one in a quick search. And I’m willing to bet that the language inviting confidential communications in the PN hasn’t appeared before – and certainly not in a transaction review.

It is worth pointing out that the language in 1.1204(a)(9) is remarkably similar to language that appears in the Freedom of Information Act. As the DOJ notes regarding that exemption:

Exemption 7(D) provides protection for “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes [which] could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source… to ensure that “confidential sources are not lost through retaliation against the sources for past disclosure or because of the sources’ fear of future disclosure.”

Surely the fear-of-reprisal rationale for confidentiality makes sense in that context – but here? And invoked to elicit secret meetings and to keep confidential information from corporations instead of individuals, it makes even less sense (and doesn’t even obviously comply with the rule itself). It is not as though – as far as I know – someone approached the Commission with stated fears and requested it implement a procedure for confidentiality in these particular reviews.

Rather, this is the Commission inviting non-transparent process in the midst of a heated, politicized and heavily-scrutinized transaction review.

The optics are astoundingly bad.

Unfortunately, this kind of behavior seems to be par for the course for the current FCC. As Commissioner Pai has noted on more than one occasion, the minority commissioners have been routinely kept in the dark with respect to important matters at the Commission – not coincidentally, in other highly-politicized proceedings.

What’s particularly troubling is that, for all its faults, the FCC’s process is typically extremely open and transparent. Public comments, endless ex parte meetings, regular Open Commission Meetings are all the norm. And this is as it should be. Particularly when it comes to transactions and other regulated conduct for which the regulated entity bears the burden of proving that its behavior does not offend the public interest, it is obviously necessary to have all of the information – to know what might concern the Commission and to make a case respecting those matters.

The kind of arrogance on display of late, and the seeming abuse of process that goes along with it, hearkens back to the heady days of Kevin Martin’s tenure as FCC Chairman – a tenure described as “dysfunctional” and noted for its abuse of process.

All of which should stand as a warning to the vocal, pro-regulatory minority pushing for the FCC to proclaim enormous power to regulate net neutrality – and broadband generally – under Title II. Just as Chairman Martin tried to manipulate diversity rules to accomplish his pet project of cable channel unbundling, some future Chairman will undoubtedly claim authority under Title II to accomplish some other unintended, but politically expedient, objective — and it may not be one the self-proclaimed consumer advocates like, when it happens.

Bad as that risk may be, it is only made more likely by regulatory reviews undertaken in secret. Whatever impelled the Chairman to invite unprecedented secrecy into these transaction reviews, it seems to be of a piece with a deepening politicization and abuse of process at the Commission. It’s both shameful – and deeply worrying.

The International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) and TechFreedom filed two joint comments with the FCC today, explaining why the FCC has no sound legal basis for micromanaging the Internet and why “net neutrality” regulation would actually prove counter-productive for consumers.

The Policy Comments are available here, and the Legal Comments are here. See our previous post, Net Neutrality Regulation Is Bad for Consumers and Probably Illegal, for a distillation of many of the key points made in the comments.

New regulation is unnecessary. “An open Internet and the idea that companies can make special deals for faster access are not mutually exclusive,” said Geoffrey Manne, Executive Director of ICLE. “If the Internet really is ‘open,’ shouldn’t all companies be free to experiment with new technologies, business models and partnerships?”

“The media frenzy around this issue assumes that no one, apart from broadband companies, could possibly question the need for more regulation,” said Berin Szoka, President of TechFreedom. “In fact, increased regulation of the Internet will incite endless litigation, which will slow both investment and innovation, thus harming consumers and edge providers.”

Title II would be a disaster. The FCC has proposed re-interpreting the Communications Act to classify broadband ISPs under Title II as common carriers. But reinterpretation might unintentionally ensnare edge providers, weighing them down with onerous regulations. “So-called reclassification risks catching other Internet services in the crossfire,” explained Szoka. “The FCC can’t easily forbear from Title II’s most onerous rules because the agency has set a high bar for justifying forbearance. Rationalizing a changed approach would be legally and politically difficult. The FCC would have to simultaneously find the broadband market competitive enough to forbear, yet fragile enough to require net neutrality rules. It would take years to sort out this mess — essentially hitting the pause button on better broadband.”

Section 706 is not a viable option. In 2010, the FCC claimed Section 706 as an independent grant of authority to regulate any form of “communications” not directly barred by the Act, provided only that the Commission assert that regulation would somehow promote broadband. “This is an absurd interpretation,” said Szoka. “This could allow the FCC to essentially invent a new Communications Act as it goes, regulating not just broadband, but edge companies like Google and Facebook, too, and not just neutrality but copyright, cybersecurity and more. The courts will eventually strike down this theory.”

A better approach. “The best policy would be to maintain the ‘Hands off the Net’ approach that has otherwise prevailed for 20 years,” said Manne. “That means a general presumption that innovative business models and other forms of ‘prioritization’ are legal. Innovation could thrive, and regulators could still keep a watchful eye, intervening only where there is clear evidence of actual harm, not just abstract fears.” “If the FCC thinks it can justify regulating the Internet, it should ask Congress to grant such authority through legislation,” added Szoka. “A new communications act is long overdue anyway. The FCC could also convene a multistakeholder process to produce a code enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission,” he continued, noting that the White House has endorsed such processes for setting Internet policy in general.

Manne concluded: “The FCC should focus on doing what Section 706 actually commands: clearing barriers to broadband deployment. Unleashing more investment and competition, not writing more regulation, is the best way to keep the Internet open, innovative and free.”

For some of our other work on net neutrality, see:

“Understanding Net(flix) Neutrality,” an op-ed by Geoffrey Manne in the Detroit News on Netflix’s strategy to confuse interconnection costs with neutrality issues.

“The Feds Lost on Net Neutrality, But Won Control of the Internet,” an op-ed by Berin Szoka and Geoffrey Manne in Wired.com.

“That startup investors’ letter on net neutrality is a revealing look at what the debate is really about,” a post by Geoffrey Manne in Truth on the Market.

Bipartisan Consensus: Rewrite of ‘96 Telecom Act is Long Overdue,” a post on TF’s blog highlighting the key points from TechFreedom and ICLE’s joint comments on updating the Communications Act.

The Net Neutrality Comments are available here:

ICLE/TF Net Neutrality Policy Comments

TF/ICLE Net Neutrality Legal Comments

With Berin Szoka.

TechFreedom and the International Center for Law & Economics will shortly file two joint comments with the FCC, explaining why the FCC has no sound legal basis for micromanaging the Internet—now called “net neutrality regulation”—and why such regulation would be counter-productive as a policy matter. The following summarizes some of the key points from both sets of comments.

No one’s against an open Internet. The notion that anyone can put up a virtual shingle—and that the good ideas will rise to the top—is a bedrock principle with broad support; it has made the Internet essential to modern life. Key to Internet openness is the freedom to innovate. An open Internet and the idea that companies can make special deals for faster access are not mutually exclusive. If the Internet really is “open,” shouldn’t all companies be free to experiment with new technologies, business models and partnerships? Shouldn’t the FCC allow companies to experiment in building the unknown—and unknowable—Internet of the future?

The best approach would be to maintain the “Hands off the Net” approach that has otherwise prevailed for 20 years. That means a general presumption that innovative business models and other forms of “prioritization” are legal. Innovation could thrive, and regulators could still keep a watchful eye, intervening only where there is clear evidence of actual harm, not just abstract fears. And they should start with existing legal tools—like antitrust and consumer protection laws—before imposing prior restraints on innovation.

But net neutrality regulation hurts more than it helps. Counterintuitively, a blanket rule that ISPs treat data equally could actually harm consumers. Consider the innovative business models ISPs are introducing. T-Mobile’s unRadio lets users listen to all the on-demand music and radio they want without taking a hit against their monthly data plan. Yet so-called consumer advocates insist that’s a bad thing because it favors some content providers over others. In fact, “prioritizing” one service when there is congestion frees up data for subscribers to consume even more content—from whatever source. You know regulation may be out of control when a company is demonized for offering its users a freebie.

Treating each bit of data neutrally ignores the reality of how the Internet is designed, and how consumers use it.  Net neutrality proponents insist that all Internet content must be available to consumers neutrally, whether those consumers (or content providers) want it or not. They also argue against usage-based pricing. Together, these restrictions force all users to bear the costs of access for other users’ requests, regardless of who actually consumes the content, as the FCC itself has recognized:

[P]rohibiting tiered or usage-based pricing and requiring all subscribers to pay the same amount for broadband service, regardless of the performance or usage of the service, would force lighter end users of the network to subsidize heavier end users. It would also foreclose practices that may appropriately align incentives to encourage efficient use of networks.

The rules that net neutrality advocates want would hurt startups as well as consumers. Imagine a new entrant, clamoring for market share. Without the budget for a major advertising blitz, the archetypical “next Netflix” might never get the exposure it needs to thrive. But for a relatively small fee, the startup could sign up to participate in a sponsored data program, with its content featured and its customers’ data usage exempted from their data plans. This common business strategy could mean the difference between success and failure for a startup. Yet it would be prohibited by net neutrality rules banning paid prioritization.

The FCC lacks sound legal authority. The FCC is essentially proposing to do what can only properly be done by Congress: invent a new legal regime for broadband. Each of the options the FCC proposes to justify this—Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act and common carrier classification—is deeply problematic.

First, Section 706 isn’t sustainable. Until 2010, the FCC understood Section 706 as a directive to use its other grants of authority to promote broadband deployment. But in its zeal to regulate net neutrality, the FCC reversed itself in 2010, claiming Section 706 as an independent grant of authority. This would allow the FCC to regulate any form of “communications” in any way not directly barred by the Act — not just broadband but “edge” companies like Google and Facebook. This might mean going beyond neutrality to regulate copyright, cybersecurity and more. The FCC need only assert that regulation would somehow promote broadband.

If Section 706 is a grant of authority, it’s almost certainly a power to deregulate. But even if its power is as broad as the FCC claims, the FCC still hasn’t made the case that, on balance, its proposed regulations would actually do what it asserts: promote broadband. The FCC has stubbornly refused to conduct serious economic analysis on the net effects of its neutrality rules.

And Title II would be a disaster. The FCC has asked whether Title II of the Act, which governs “common carriers” like the old monopoly telephone system, is a workable option. It isn’t.

In the first place, regulations that impose design limitations meant for single-function networks simply aren’t appropriate for the constantly evolving Internet. Moreover, if the FCC re-interprets the Communications Act to classify broadband ISPs as common carriers, it risks catching other Internet services in the cross-fire, inadvertently making them common carriers, too. Surely net neutrality proponents can appreciate the harmful effects of treating Skype as a common carrier.

Forbearance can’t clean up the Title II mess. In theory the FCC could “forbear” from Title II’s most onerous rules, promising not to apply them when it determines there’s enough competition in a market to make the rules unnecessary. But the agency has set a high bar for justifying forbearance.

Most recently, in 2012, the Commission refused to grant Qwest forbearance even in the highly competitive telephony market, disregarding competition from wireless providers, and concluding that a cable-telco “duopoly” is inadequate to protect consumers. It’s unclear how the FCC could justify reaching the opposite conclusion about the broadband market—simultaneously finding it competitive enough to forbear, yet fragile enough to require net neutrality rules. Such contradictions would be difficult to explain, even if the FCC generally gets discretion on changing its approach.

But there is another path forward. If the FCC can really make the case for regulation, it should go to Congress, armed with the kind of independent economic and technical expert studies Commissioner Pai has urged, and ask for new authority. A new Communications Act is long overdue anyway. In the meantime, the FCC could convene the kind of multistakeholder process generally endorsed by the White House to produce a code enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission. A consensus is possible — just not inside the FCC, where the policy questions can’t be separated from the intractable legal questions.

Meanwhile, the FCC should focus on doing what Section 706 actually demands: clearing barriers to broadband deployment and competition. The 2010 National Broadband Plan laid out an ambitious pro-deployment agenda. It’s just too bad the FCC was so obsessed with net neutrality that it didn’t focus on the plan. Unleashing more investment and competition, not writing more regulation, is the best way to keep the Internet open, innovative and free.

[Cross-posted at TechFreedom.]

UPDATE: I’ve been reliably informed that Vint Cerf coined the term “permissionless innovation,” and, thus, that he did so with the sorts of private impediments discussed below in mind rather than government regulation. So consider the title of this post changed to “Permissionless innovation SHOULD not mean ‘no contracts required,'” and I’ll happily accept that my version is the “bastardized” version of the term. Which just means that the original conception was wrong and thank god for disruptive innovation in policy memes!

Can we dispense with the bastardization of the “permissionless innovation” concept (best developed by Adam Thierer) to mean “no contracts required”? I’ve been seeing this more and more, but it’s been around for a while. Some examples from among the innumerable ones out there:

Vint Cerf on net neutrality in 2009:

We believe that the vast numbers of innovative Internet applications over the last decade are a direct consequence of an open and freely accessible Internet. Many now-successful companies have deployed their services on the Internet without the need to negotiate special arrangements with Internet Service Providers, and it’s crucial that future innovators have the same opportunity. We are advocates for “permissionless innovation” that does not impede entrepreneurial enterprise.

Net neutrality is replete with this sort of idea — that any impediment to edge providers (not networks, of course) doing whatever they want to do at a zero price is a threat to innovation.

Chet Kanojia (Aereo CEO) following the Aereo decision:

It is troubling that the Court states in its decision that, ‘to the extent commercial actors or other interested entities may be concerned with the relationship between the development and use of such technologies and the Copyright Act, they are of course free to seek action from Congress.’ (Majority, page 17)That begs the question: Are we moving towards a permission-based system for technology innovation?

At least he puts it in the context of the Court’s suggestion that Congress pass a law, but what he really wants is to not have to ask “permission” of content providers to use their content.

Mike Masnick on copyright in 2010:

But, of course, the problem with all of this is that it goes back to creating permission culture, rather than a culture where people freely create. You won’t be able to use these popular or useful tools to build on the works of others — which, contrary to the claims of today’s copyright defenders, is a key component in almost all creativity you see out there — without first getting permission.

Fair use is, by definition, supposed to be “permissionless.” But the concept is hardly limited to fair use, is used to justify unlimited expansion of fair use, and is extended by advocates to nearly all of copyright (see, e.g., Mike Masnick again), which otherwise requires those pernicious licenses (i.e., permission) from others.

The point is, when we talk about permissionless innovation for Tesla, Uber, Airbnb, commercial drones, online data and the like, we’re talking (or should be) about ex ante government restrictions on these things — the “permission” at issue is permission from the government, it’s the “permission” required to get around regulatory roadblocks imposed via rent-seeking and baseless paternalism. As Gordon Crovitz writes, quoting Thierer:

“The central fault line in technology policy debates today can be thought of as ‘the permission question,'” Mr. Thierer writes. “Must the creators of new technologies seek the blessing of public officials before they develop and deploy their innovations?”

But it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about private contracts.

Just about all human (commercial) activity requires interaction with others, and that means contracts and licenses. You don’t see anyone complaining about the “permission” required to rent space from a landlord. But that some form of “permission” may be required to use someone else’s creative works or other property (including broadband networks) is no different. And, in fact, it is these sorts of contracts (and, yes, the revenue that may come with them) that facilitates people engaging with other commercial actors to produce things of value in the first place. The same can’t be said of government permission.

Don’t get me wrong – there may be some net welfare-enhancing regulatory limits that might require forms of government permission. But the real concern is the pervasive abuse of these limits, imposed without anything approaching a rigorous welfare determination. There might even be instances where private permission, imposed, say, by a true monopolist, might be problematic.

But this idea that any contractual obligation amounts to a problematic impediment to innovation is absurd, and, in fact, precisely backward. Which is why net neutrality is so misguided. Instead of identifying actual, problematic impediments to innovation, it simply assumes that networks threaten edge innovation, without any corresponding benefit and with such certainty (although no actual evidence) that ex ante common carrier regulations are required.

“Permissionless innovation” is a great phrase and, well developed (as Adam Thierer has done), a useful concept. But its bastardization to justify interference with private contracts is unsupported and pernicious.

In our blog post this morning on ABC v. Aereo, we explain why, regardless of which test applies (the majority’s “looks-like-cable-TV” test or the dissent’s volitional conduct test), Aereo infringes on television program owners’ exclusive right under the Copyright Act to publicly perform their works. We also explain why the majority’s test is far less ambiguous than its critics assert, and why it does not endanger cloud computing services like so many contend.

Because that post was so long, and because the cloud computing issue is key to understanding the implications of this case, this post pulls out the cloud computing argument from that post and presents it separately.

In our April essay on these pages, we identified several reasons why the Court could and should rule against Aereo without exposing innovative cloud computing firms to copyright liability:

  1. Both fair use and the DMCA’s safe harbor likely protect cloud hosting services such as Dropbox so long as they respond to takedown notices and are not otherwise aware of the nature of the content uploaded by their users;
  2. Cloud computing services typically lack the volitional conduct necessary to be considered direct infringers; and
  3. If consumers acquire licensed content from cloud services such as Amazon or Google, and stream themselves that content from the cloud, the services’ privity with rights holders should render them safe from copyright infringement liability.

The Court explicitly endorsed our privity argument and implicitly acknowledged our point about DMCA and fair use. As the Court wrote:

[A]n entity that transmits a performance to individuals in their capacities as owners or possessors does not perform to ‘the public,’ whereas an entity like Aereo that transmits to large numbers of paying subscribers who lack any prior relationship to the works does so perform.

The majority’s “looks-like-cable-TV” test (the dissent’s name for it, not ours) actually offers a clearer basis for distinguishing cloud services than the dissent’s (and our earlier blog post’s) volitional conduct test.

Many commenters lament that the Court’s decision leaves cloud computing in peril, offering no real limiting principle (as, they claim, applying the volitional conduct test would have). Vox’s Timothy B. Lee, for example, opines that:

The problem is that the court never provides clear criteria for this “looks-like-cable-TV” rule…. The Supreme Court says its ruling shouldn’t dramatically change the legal status of other technologies…. But it’s going to take years of litigation — and millions of dollars in legal fees — to figure out exactly how the decision will affect cloud storage services.

But the Court did articulate several important limits, in fact. Most significantly, the opinion plainly excepts transmission of underlying works “own[ed] or possess[ed]” by subscribers from its definition of public performance. It also circumscribes what constitutes a public performance to transmissions from a person to large groups of people “outside of [her] family and [her] social circle,” and reinforces that fair use limitations continue to protect those who perform copyrighted works.

At the same time, the Court characterizes Aereo—and the aspect of the service that give rise to its liability—as “not simply an equipment provider…. Aereo sells a service that allows subscribers to watch television programs, many of which are copyrighted, almost as they are being broadcast.”

Crucially, Aereo makes available to each of its subscribers copyrighted content that he or she does not necessarily otherwise own or possess—even if the company also offers its viewers “enhancements” much like a modern cable system. As we noted in our previous post, this distinguishes Aereo from the cloud computing services to which it is compared:

Cloud computing providers, on the other hand, offer services that enable distinct functionality independent of the mere retransmission of copyrighted content.

Even if the Court’s holding were applied in contexts beyond traditional television programming, how many cloud services actually deliver content—rather than just enhancing it, as a DVR does—that its users do not otherwise own or possess? Vanishingly few, if any. Most obviously, talk of the risks Aereo poses to cloud storage and digital lockers—services that, by definition, apply only to content provided by the user and thus previously “owned or possessed” by the user—is simply misplaced.

Insofar as the transmission of third-party content is the defining characteristic of a “looks-like-cable-TV” system, the Court’s test actually offers a fairly clear delineation, and one that offers no risk to the vast majority of cloud services. This may remind many of Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous “I know it when I see it” test for adjudging obscenity, but it firmly removes a large swath of cloud computing services from the risk of direct copyright liability under Aereo.

And to the extent that some cloud services might seem to fail this test—YouTube, for example—those services (like YouTube and unlike Aereo) routinely obtain performance licenses for the content they provide. Although some of YouTube’s content may not be legally provided to the service, that doesn’t affect its direct copyright infringement liability. Instead, it merely affects the indirect liability YouTube faced before Aereo and continues to face after Aereo. And any such providers that do not currently obtain public performance licenses can and will simply do so with small textual amendments to their existing content licenses.

In other words, the Court’s ruling boils down to this: Either get a license to provide content not already owned by your subscribers, or provide only that content which your subscribers already own. The crux of the Aereo ruling is remarkably clear.

Meanwhile, the volitional conduct test, like most legal tests, doesn’t offer a bright line, despite some commenters’ assertions that it would have been a better grounds for deciding the case. While the volitional conduct test is an imprecise, sliding scale—regardless of the type of service or the underlying relationship between end-users and content providers—the Court’s Aereo test offers relatively clear rules, imposing direct liability only on services that transmit without a public performance license content that its users do not already own or possess.

For the many cloud services we know and love—and for the cloud computing startups yet to exist—the Court’s decision in Aereo should be little cause for concern. Legitimate hand-wringing over potential threats to the cloud will have to wait until another day.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court released its much-awaited decision in ABC v. Aereo. The Court reversed the Second Circuit, holding that Aereo directly infringed the copyrights of broadcast television program owners by publicly performing their works without permission. Justice Breyer, who wrote the opinion for the Court, was joined by five other Justices, including Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Kennedy, and the liberal-leaning bloc. Interestingly, Justice Scalia dissented on textualist grounds, joined by his conservative-leaning colleagues Justice Thomas and Justice Alito.

As this split illustrates, debates about intellectual property often don’t break down along partisan or ideological lines, and the division between the majority and the dissent in Aereo focused entirely on how to interpret the copyright statute, not on the underlying philosophical merits of property rights or policy judgments regarding the costs and benefits of stronger or weaker IP.

The majority, relying on both the legislative history and the text of the Copyright Act of 1976, emphasized that the Act sought to foreclose the workaround by cable companies of broadcasters’ copyrights that the Supreme Court had previously sanctioned in a duo of cases—and that Aereo’s conduct was functionally almost identical to the unauthorized retransmissions by cable companies prior to the 1976 Act.

Justice Scalia dissented on two grounds: first, that the majority based its reading of the statute on legislative history, a practice he opposes as a means of divining a statute’s meaning; and second, that the majority relied on a vague and inapt comparison between Aereo’s allegedly infringing conduct and cable companies’ pre-1976 retransmissions of broadcast network programming.

We argue here, building on our amicus brief and our previous blog post on Aereo, that, regardless of which test applies, Aereo infringes on television program owners’ exclusive right under the Copyright Act to publicly perform their works. Moreover, we argue that the Court’s test in Aereo is far less ambiguous than its critics assert, and that it does not endanger cloud computing services like so many contend.

The Court Adopts (Some of) Our Arguments

In our brief, we reviewed two key Supreme Court rulings that influenced how Congress rewrote the Copyright Act in 1976. As we explained:

In the 1960s, two owners of programming aired over broadcast television separately brought copyright infringement suits against cable companies that—like Aereo—retransmitted television broadcasts of the plaintiffs’ works without compensating the owners. Fortnightly Corp. v. United Artists Television, Inc., 392 U.S. 390 (1968); Teleprompter Corp. v. CBS, Inc., 415 U.S. 394 (1974). In both cases, this Court found for the defendants, holding that a cable company’s retransmission of a television broadcast signal did not constitute a “performance” of that program under the Copyright Act in force at the time. Dissatisfied with these rulings, Congress effectively abrogated Fortnightly and Teleprompter in the Copyright Act of 1976, defining a transmission of a performance as a performance itself. 17 U.S.C. § 101. Although Congress’s immediate reason for making this change was to bar cable companies from retransmitting broadcast television programs without compensating their owners, the law was written so as to be as future-proof as possible.

We argued that for the Court to find that the Copyright Act does not reach Aereo’s conduct would run contrary to the law’s text and purpose, for Aereo designed its system to evade copyright in much the same way as cable companies operated prior to 1976. The Court agreed with this analogy, holding that:

By means of its technology (antennas, transcoders, and servers), Aereo’s system receives programs that have been released to the public and carries them by private channels to additional viewers. It carries whatever programs it receives, and it offers all the programming of each over-the-air station it carries [alterations, citations, and quotation marks omitted].

Furthermore, in our April essay on these pages, we identified several reasons why the Court could and should rule against Aereo without exposing innovative cloud computing firms to copyright liability:

  1. Both fair use and the DMCA’s safe harbor likely protect cloud hosting services such as Dropbox so long as they respond to takedown notices and are not otherwise aware of the nature of the content uploaded by their users;
  2. Cloud computing services typically lack the volitional conduct necessary to be considered direct infringers; and
  3. If consumers acquire licensed content from cloud services such as Amazon or Google, and stream themselves that content from the cloud, the services’ privity with rights holders should render them safe from copyright infringement liability.

The Court explicitly endorsed our privity argument and implicitly acknowledged our point about DMCA and fair use. As the Court wrote:

[A]n entity that transmits a performance to individuals in their capacities as owners or possessors does not perform to ‘the public,’ whereas an entity like Aereo that transmits to large numbers of paying subscribers who lack any prior relationship to the works does so perform.

What about Dropbox and similar services? The Court took pains to note that its opinion does not consider “whether the public performance right is infringed when the user of a service pays primarily for something other than the transmission of copyrighted works, such as the remote storage of content.” The Court also cited the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998, observing that “to the extent commercial actors or other interested entities may be concerned with the relationship between the development and use of such technologies and the Copyright Act, they are of course free to seek action from Congress.”

Below, we first discuss Justice Scalia’s dissent, and explain why Aereo’s volitional conduct with respect to copyrighted works sufficed to render the company directly liable for infringement, even under Scalia’s standard. We next discuss the implications for cloud computing, and explain why the Court’s test may in fact be clearer than the volitional conduct test, actually offering more legal protection for cloud computing than the dissent’s standard would.

Aereo Is Liable for Copyright Infringement Under the Volitional Conduct Test

Scalia, ever the critic of judges relying on legislative history and exercising too much discretion over substantive law, rejected what he called the majority’s “looks-like-cable-TV” standard. Instead, he argued that the Court should adopt the volitional conduct test used by various federal appellate courts, writing that “[a] defendant may be held directly liable only if it has engaged in volitional conduct that violates the Act.”

Scalia then asserted that Aereo is more like a copy shop than a video-on-demand service, because Aereo allows its customers to choose which programs they view and when to activate the copying function. Therefore, Scalia argued, Aereo “plays no role in selecting the content, [and] cannot be held directly liable when a customer makes an infringing copy.” Distinguishing Aereo’s conduct from that of Netflix, Scalia noted that the latter company’s “selection and arrangement [of content] constitutes a volitional act directed to specific copyrighted works and thus serves as a basis for direct liability” (or would so serve if Netflix lacked the requisite licenses).

Yet even if Justice Scalia is right that the volitional conduct test would be easier for courts to apply in future cases than the majority’s “looks-like-cable-TV” test—and, as we discuss below, we believe this widely-held view is incorrect—it does not follow that the dissent properly applied the volitional conduct test to Aereo.

First, Aereo does in fact “curate” the content it offers, in several respects. In its attempt to drive a Mack truck through the 2nd Circuit’s holding in Cartoon Network that a cable company doesn’t publicly perform works by offering its users remote DVR service, Aereo built a business model around over-the-air television content—which represents only a small fraction of the content Aereo could have obtained from free, publicly accessible sources (e.g, the Internet). Aereo also selected the cities in which it installed the dime-sized antennas that pick up over-the-air programming.

Perhaps most importantly, as far as we can tell, Aereo does not offer all the ATSC broadcasts transmitted over-the-air in the cities where the service is available. In New York, for example, Aereo claims to offer 16 channels (and several virtual sub-channels), but it doesn’t claim to offer such channels as WMBQ-CD, WDVB-CD, WNYZ-LP, or WASA-LD—all of which are broadcast over-the-air throughout central New York, according to AntennaWeb. Meanwhile, Aereo does offer Bloomberg TV—a non-broadcast channel for which Aereo voluntarily sought and acquired licenses to retransmit.

Second, evaluating whether Aereo’s actions to make available over-the-air programming embody sufficient volition to render the company itself—as opposed to its users—directly responsible for performing broadcast television turns on more than the extent to which Aereo curated its offerings. As the Court explained, Aereo built a complex system of “antennas, transcoders, and servers” for the sole purpose of monetizing broadcast television shows. In “providing this service,” the Court noted, “Aereo uses its own equipment, housed in a centralized warehouse, outside of its users’ homes.” If Aereo merely bought some office space near the top of a New York skyscraper, along with some general-purpose servers connected to the Internet via fiber-optic broadband, the company could certainly rent out these assets to the general public without facing any liability for directly publicly performing copyrighted broadcast programs. Even if some of Aereo’s subscribers placed tiny antennas in their allocated spaces and configured their server instances to stream broadcast television to themselves, Aereo would—at the very worst—face liability for vicarious copyright infringement. But this is not how Aereo operated.

Aereo has, in other words, actually taken numerous “volitional” steps to make available copyrighted content to its subscribers. And while it also offers some services ancillary to the transmission of content (most notably remote-DVR functionality), it offers those as adjuncts to its core function of transmission, not as standalone services.

Had Aereo prevailed, the company and its competitors would likely have pursued other technical workarounds to monetize other types of copyrighted works without their owners’ permission. Although Aereo chose to start with over-the-air broadcast programming—presumably because it could plausibly argue that its subscribers already had an implied right to view over-the-air broadcasts—broadcast television is hardly the only form of valuable content that the public can lawfully access free of charge in one way or another. What about cable television networks that stream some of their shows online for free? Or news websites that allow unauthenticated users to access a limited number of stories free of charge each month? If Aereo had convinced the Court to bless its business model, it would have sent copyright owners a very clear message: don’t publicly distribute your works in any format, or else.

The Court’s Holding Doesn’t Imperil Cloud Services

Many commenters lament that the Court’s decision leaves cloud computing in peril, offering no real limiting principle (as, they claim, applying the volitional conduct test would have). Vox’s Timothy B. Lee, for example, opines that:

The problem is that the court never provides clear criteria for this “looks-like-cable-TV” rule…. The Supreme Court says its ruling shouldn’t dramatically change the legal status of other technologies…. But it’s going to take years of litigation — and millions of dollars in legal fees — to figure out exactly how the decision will affect cloud storage services.

But the Court did articulate several important limits, as we note above. Most significantly, the opinion plainly excepts transmission of underlying works “own[ed] or possess[ed]” by subscribers from its definition of public performance. It also circumscribes what constitutes a public performance to transmissions from a person to large groups of people “outside of [her] family and [her] social circle,” and reinforces that fair use limitations continue to protect those who perform copyrighted works.

At the same time, the Court characterizes Aereo—and the aspect of the service that give rise to its liability—as “not simply an equipment provider…. Aereo sells a service that allows subscribers to watch television programs, many of which are copyrighted, almost as they are being broadcast.”

Crucially, Aereo makes available to each of its subscribers copyrighted content that he or she does not necessarily otherwise own or possess—even if the company also offers its viewers “enhancements” much like a modern cable system. As we noted in our previous post, this distinguishes Aereo from the cloud computing services to which it is compared:

Cloud computing providers, on the other hand, offer services that enable distinct functionality independent of the mere retransmission of copyrighted content.

Even if the Court’s holding were applied in contexts beyond traditional television programming, how many cloud services actually deliver content—rather than just enhancing it, as a DVR does—that its user do not otherwise own or possess? Vanishingly few, if any. Most obviously, talk of the risks Aereo poses to cloud storage and digital lockers—services that, by definition, apply only to content provided by the user and thus previously “owned or possessed” by the user—is simply misplaced.

Insofar as the transmission of third-party content is the defining characteristic of a “looks-like-cable-TV” system, the Court’s test actually offers a fairly clear delineation, and one that offers no risk to the vast majority of cloud services. This may remind many of Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous “I know it when I see it” test for adjudging obscenity, but it firmly removes a large swath of cloud computing services from the risk of direct copyright liability under Aereo.

And to the extent that some cloud services might seem to fail this test—YouTube, for example—those services (like YouTube and unlike Aereo) routinely obtain performance licenses for the content they provide. Although some of YouTube’s content may not be legally provided to the service, that doesn’t affect its direct copyright infringement liability. Instead, it merely affects the indirect liability YouTube faced before Aereo and continues to face after Aereo. And any such providers that do not currently obtain public performance licenses can and will simply do so with small textual amendments to their existing content licenses.

In other words, the Court’s ruling boils down to this: Either get a license to provide content not already owned by your subscribers, or provide only that content which your subscribers already own. The crux of the Aereo ruling is remarkably clear.

Meanwhile, the volitional conduct test, like most legal tests, doesn’t offer a bright line, despite some commenters’ assertions that it would have been a better grounds for deciding the case. While the volitional conduct test is an imprecise, sliding scale—regardless of the type of service or the underlying relationship between end-users and content providers—the Court’s Aereo test offers relatively clear rules, imposing direct liability only on services that transmit without a public performance license content that its users do not already own or possess.

For the many cloud services we know and love—and for the cloud computing startups yet to exist—the Court’s decision in Aereo should be little cause for concern. Legitimate hand-wringing over potential threats to the cloud will have to wait until another day.

Conclusion

Strange bedfellows aside, the Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit and adopted a rationale similar to the one we articulated in our amicus brief. Even under the volitional conduct test advocated by Scalia in his dissenting opinion, Aereo should lose, just as we argued in our previous post on the issue. This will not be the last time the Court wrestles with applying the nearly 40 year-old Copyright Act to novel technology, but Aereo stands little chance of undermining the cloud computing sector. Although the great IP debate will surely continue, this much is settled law: You cannot build a business model around the idea of rebroadcasting copyrighted network content without paying for it.