Double secret ex parte meetings at the FCC: Something’s amiss in the agency’s big transaction reviews

Geoffrey Manne —  4 September 2014

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.

Geoffrey Manne

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