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A recent exchange between Chris Walker and Philip Hamburger about Walker’s ongoing empirical work on the Chevron doctrine (the idea that judges must defer to reasonable agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes) gives me a long-sought opportunity to discuss what I view as the greatest practical problem with the Chevron doctrine: it increases both politicization and polarization of law and policy. In the interest of being provocative, I will frame the discussion below by saying that both Walker & Hamburger are wrong (though actually I believe both are quite correct in their respective critiques). In particular, I argue that Walker is wrong that Chevron decreases politicization (it actually increases it, vice his empirics); and I argue Hamburger is wrong that judicial independence is, on its own, a virtue that demands preservation. Rather, I argue, Chevron increases overall politicization across the government; and judicial independence can and should play an important role in checking legislative abdication of its role as a politically-accountable legislature in a way that would moderate that overall politicization.

Walker, along with co-authors Kent Barnett and Christina Boyd, has done some of the most important and interesting work on Chevron in recent years, empirically studying how the Chevron doctrine has affected judicial behavior (see here and here) as well as that of agencies (and, I would argue, through them the Executive) (see here). But the more important question, in my mind, is how it affects the behavior of Congress. (Walker has explored this somewhat in his own work, albeit focusing less on Chevron than on how the role agencies play in the legislative process implicitly transfers Congress’s legislative functions to the Executive).

My intuition is that Chevron dramatically exacerbates Congress’s worst tendencies, encouraging Congress to push its legislative functions to the executive and to do so in a way that increases the politicization and polarization of American law and policy. I fear that Chevron effectively allows, and indeed encourages, Congress to abdicate its role as the most politically-accountable branch by deferring politically difficult questions to agencies in ambiguous terms.

One of, and possibly the, best ways to remedy this situation is to reestablish the role of judge as independent decisionmaker, as Hamburger argues. But the virtue of judicial independence is not endogenous to the judiciary. Rather, judicial independence has an instrumental virtue, at least in the context of Chevron. Where Congress has problematically abdicated its role as a politically-accountable decisionmaker by deferring important political decisions to the executive, judicial refusal to defer to executive and agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes can force Congress to remedy problematic ambiguities. This, in turn, can return the responsibility for making politically-important decisions to the most politically-accountable branch, as envisioned by the Constitution’s framers.

A refresher on the Chevron debate

Chevron is one of the defining doctrines of administrative law, both as a central concept and focal debate. It stands generally for the proposition that when Congress gives agencies ambiguous statutory instructions, it falls to the agencies, not the courts, to resolve those ambiguities. Thus, if a statute is ambiguous (the question at “step one” of the standard Chevron analysis) and the agency offers a reasonable interpretation of that ambiguity (“step two”), courts are to defer to the agency’s interpretation of the statute instead of supplying their own.

This judicially-crafted doctrine of deference is typically justified on several grounds. For instance, agencies generally have greater subject-matter expertise than courts so are more likely to offer substantively better constructions of ambiguous statutes. They have more resources that they can dedicate to evaluating alternative constructions. They generally have a longer history of implementing relevant Congressional instructions so are more likely attuned to Congressional intent – both of the statute’s enacting and present Congresses. And they are subject to more direct Congressional oversight in their day-to-day operations and exercise of statutory authority than the courts so are more likely concerned with and responsive to Congressional direction.

Chief among the justifications for Chevron deference is, as Walker says, “the need to reserve political (or policy) judgments for the more politically accountable agencies.” This is at core a separation-of-powers justification: the legislative process is fundamentally a political process, so the Constitution assigns responsibility for it to the most politically-accountable branch (the legislature) instead of the least politically-accountable branch (the judiciary). In turn, the act of interpreting statutory ambiguity is an inherently legislative process – the underlying theory being that Congress intended to leave such ambiguity in the statute in order to empower the agency to interpret it in a quasi-legislative manner. Thus, under this view, courts should defer both to this Congressional intent that the agency be empowered to interpret its statute (and, should this prove problematic, it is up to Congress to change the statute or to face political ramifications), and the courts should defer to the agency interpretation of that statute because agencies, like Congress, are more politically accountable than the courts.

Chevron has always been an intensively studied and debated doctrine. This debate has grown more heated in recent years, to the point that there is regularly scholarly discussion about whether Chevron should be repealed or narrowed and what would replace it if it were somehow curtailed – and discussion of the ongoing vitality of Chevron has entered into Supreme Court opinions and the appointments process with increasing frequency. These debates generally focus on a few issues. A first issue is that Chevron amounts to a transfer of the legislature’s Constitutional powers and responsibilities over creating the law to the executive, where the law ordinarily is only meant to be carried out. This has, the underlying concern is, contributed to the increase in the power of the executive compared to the legislature. A second, related, issue is that Chevron contributes to the (over)empowerment of independent agencies – agencies that are already out of favor with many of Chevron’s critics as Constitutionally-infirm entities whose already-specious power is dramatically increased when Chevron limits the judiciary’s ability to check their use of already-broad Congressionally-delegated authority.

A third concern about Chevron, following on these first two, is that it strips the judiciary of its role as independent arbiter of judicial questions. That is, it has historically been the purview of judges to answer statutory ambiguities and fill in legislative interstices.

Chevron is also a focal point for more generalized concerns about the power of the modern administrative state. In this context, Chevron stands as a representative of a broader class of cases – State Farm, Auer, Seminole Rock, Fox v. FCC, and the like – that have been criticized as centralizing legislative, executive, and judicial powers in agencies, allowing Congress to abdicate its role as politically-accountable legislator, abdicating the judiciary’s role in interpreting the law, as well as raising due process concerns for those subject to rules promulgated by federal agencies..

Walker and his co-authors have empirically explored the effects of Chevron in recent years, using robust surveys of federal agencies and judicial decisions to understand how the doctrine has affected the work of agencies and the courts. His most recent work (with Kent Barnett and Christina Boyd) has explored how Chevron affects judicial decisionmaking. Framing the question by explaining that “Chevron deference strives to remove politics from judicial decisionmaking,” they ask whether “Chevron deference achieve[s] this goal of removing politics from judicial decisionmaking?” They find that, empirically speaking, “the Chevron Court’s objective to reduce partisan judicial decision-making has been quite effective.” By instructing judges to defer to the political judgments (or just statutory interpretations) of agencies, judges are less political in their own decisionmaking.

Hamburger responds to this finding somewhat dismissively – and, indeed, the finding is almost tautological: “of course, judges disagree less when the Supreme Court bars them from exercising their independent judgment about what the law is.” (While a fair critique, I would temper it by arguing that it is nonetheless an important empirical finding – empirics that confirm important theory are as important as empirics that refute it, and are too often dismissed.)

Rather than focus on concerns about politicized decisionmaking by judges, Hamburger focuses instead on the importance of judicial independence – on it being “emphatically the duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is” (quoting Marbury v. Madison). He reframes Walker’s results, arguing that “deference” to agencies is really “bias” in favor of the executive. “Rather than reveal diminished politicization, Walker’s numbers provide strong evidence of diminished judicial independence and even of institutionalized judicial bias.”

So which is it? Does Chevron reduce bias by de-politicizing judicial decisionmaking? Or does it introduce new bias in favor of the (inherently political) executive? The answer is probably that it does both. The more important answer, however, is that neither is the right question to ask.

What’s the correct measure of politicization? (or, You get what you measure)

Walker frames his study of the effects of Chevron on judicial decisionmaking by explaining that “Chevron deference strives to remove politics from judicial decisionmaking. Such deference to the political branches has long been a bedrock principle for at least some judicial conservatives.” Based on this understanding, his project is to ask whether “Chevron deference achieve[s] this goal of removing politics from judicial decisionmaking?”

This framing, that one of Chevron’s goals is to remove politics from judicial decisionmaking, is not wrong. But this goal may be more accurately stated as being to prevent the judiciary from encroaching upon the political purposes assigned to the executive and legislative branches. This restatement offers an important change in focus. It emphasizes the concern about politicizing judicial decisionmaking as a separation of powers issue. This is in apposition to concern that, on consequentialist grounds, judges should not make politicized decisions – that is, judges should avoid political decisions because it leads to substantively worse outcomes.

It is of course true that, as unelected officials with lifetime appointments, judges are the least politically accountable to the polity of any government officials. Judges’ decisions, therefore, can reasonably be expected to be less representative of, or responsive to, the concerns of the voting public than decisions of other government officials. But not all political decisions need to be directly politically accountable in order to be effectively politically accountable. A judicial interpretation of an ambiguous law, for instance, can be interpreted as a request, or even a demand, that Congress be held to political account. And where Congress is failing to perform its constitutionally-defined role as a politically-accountable decisionmaker, it may do less harm to the separation of powers for the judiciary to make political decisions that force politically-accountable responses by Congress than for the judiciary to respect its constitutional role while the Congress ignores its role.

Before going too far down this road, I should pause to label the reframing of the debate that I have impliedly proposed. To my mind, the question isn’t whether Chevron reduces political decisionmaking by judges; the question is how Chevron affects the politicization of, and ultimately accountability to the people for, the law. Critically, there is no “conservation of politicization” principle. Institutional design matters. One could imagine a model of government where Congress exercises very direct oversight over what the law is and how it is implemented, with frequent elections and a Constitutional prohibition on all but the most express and limited forms of delegation. One can also imagine a more complicated form of government in which responsibilities for making law, executing law, and interpreting law, are spread across multiple branches (possibly including myriad agencies governed by rules that even many members of those agencies do not understand). And one can reasonably expect greater politicization of decisions in the latter compared to the former – because there are more opportunities for saying that the responsibility for any decision lies with someone else (and therefore for politicization) in the latter than in the “the buck stops here” model of the former.

In the common-law tradition, judges exercised an important degree of independence because their job was, necessarily and largely, to “say what the law is.” For better or worse, we no longer live in a world where judges are expected to routinely exercise that level of discretion, and therefore to have that level of independence. Nor do I believe that “independence” is necessarily or inherently a criteria for the judiciary, at least in principle. I therefore somewhat disagree with Hamburger’s assertion that Chevron necessarily amounts to a problematic diminution in judicial independence.

Again, I return to a consequentialist understanding of the purposes of judicial independence. In my mind, we should consider the need for judicial independence in terms of whether “independent” judicial decisionmaking tends to lead to better or worse social outcomes. And here I do find myself sympathetic to Hamburger’s concerns about judicial independence. The judiciary is intended to serve as a check on the other branches. Hamburger’s concern about judicial independence is, in my mind, driven by an overwhelmingly correct intuition that the structure envisioned by the Constitution is one in which the independence of judges is an important check on the other branches. With respect to the Congress, this means, in part, ensuring that Congress is held to political account when it does legislative tasks poorly or fails to do them at all.

The courts abdicate this role when they allow agencies to save poorly drafted statutes through interpretation of ambiguity.

Judicial independence moderates politicization

Hamburger tells us that “Judges (and academics) need to wrestle with the realities of how Chevron bias and other administrative power is rapidly delegitimizing our government and creating a profound alienation.” Huzzah. Amen. I couldn’t agree more. Preach! Hear-hear!

Allow me to present my personal theory of how Chevron affects our political discourse. In the vernacular, I call this Chevron Step Three. At Step Three, Congress corrects any mistakes made by the executive or independent agencies in implementing the law or made by the courts in interpreting it. The subtle thing about Step Three is that it doesn’t exist – and, knowing this, Congress never bothers with the politically costly and practically difficult process of clarifying legislation.

To the contrary, Chevron encourages the legislature expressly not to legislate. The more expedient approach for a legislator who disagrees with a Chevron-backed agency action is to campaign on the disagreement – that is, to politicize it. If the EPA interprets the Clean Air Act too broadly, we need to retake the White House to get a new administrator in there to straighten out the EPA’s interpretation of the law. If the FCC interprets the Communications Act too narrowly, we need to retake the White House to change the chair so that we can straighten out that mess! And on the other side, we need to keep the White House so that we can protect these right-thinking agency interpretations from reversal by the loons on the other side that want to throw out all of our accomplishments. The campaign slogans write themselves.

So long as most agencies’ governing statutes are broad enough that those agencies can keep the ship of state afloat, even if drifting rudderless, legislators have little incentive to turn inward to engage in the business of government with their legislative peers. Rather, they are freed to turn outward towards their next campaign, vilifying or deifying the administrative decisions of the current government as best suits their electoral prospects.

The sharp-eyed observer will note that I’ve added a piece to the Chevron puzzle: the process described above assumes that a new administration can come in after an election and simply rewrite all of the rules adopted by the previous administration. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but this is exactly what administrative law allows (see Fox v. FCC and State Farm). The underlying logic, which is really nothing more than an expansion of Chevron, is that statutory ambiguity delegates to agencies a “policy space” within which they are free to operate. So long as agency action stays within that space – which often allows for diametrically-opposed substantive interpretations – the courts say that it is up to Congress, not the Judiciary, to provide course corrections. Anything else would amount to politically unaccountable judges substituting their policy judgments (this is, acting independently) for those of politically-accountable legislators and administrators.

In other words, the politicization of law seen in our current political moment is largely a function of deference and a lack of stare decisis combined. A virtue of stare decisis is that it forces Congress to act to directly address politically undesirable opinions. Because agencies are not bound by stare decisis, an alternative, and politically preferable, way for Congress to remedy problematic agency decisions is to politicize the issue – instead of addressing the substantive policy issue through legislation, individual members of Congress can campaign on it. (Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with one contemporary example of this: the recent net neutrality CRA vote, which is widely recognized as having very little chance of ultimate success but is being championed by its proponents as a way to influence the 2018 elections.) This is more directly aligned with the individual member of Congress’s own incentives, because, by keeping and placing more members of her party in Congress, her party will be able to control the leadership of the agency which will thus control the shape of that agency’s policy. In other words, instead of channeling the attention of individual Congressional actors inwards to work together to develop law and policy, it channels it outwards towards campaigning on the ills and evils of the opposing administration and party vice the virtues of their own party.

The virtue of judicial independence, of judges saying what they think the law is – or even what they think the law should be – is that it forces a politically-accountable decision. Congress can either agree, or disagree; but Congress must do something. Merely waiting for the next administration to come along will not be sufficient to alter the course set by the judicial interpretation of the law. Where Congress has abdicated its responsibility to make politically-accountable decisions by deferring those decisions to the executive or agencies, the political-accountability justification for Chevron deference fails. In such cases, the better course for the courts may well be to enforce Congress’s role under the separation of powers by refusing deference and returning the question to Congress.


I had the pleasure last month of hosting the first of a new annual roundtable discussion series on closing the rural digital divide through the University of Nebraska’s Space, Cyber, and Telecom Law Program. The purpose of the roundtable was to convene a diverse group of stakeholders — from farmers to federal regulators; from small municipal ISPs to billion dollar app developers — for a discussion of the on-the-ground reality of closing the rural digital divide.

The impetus behind the roundtable was, quite simply, that in my five years living in Nebraska I have consistently found that the discussions that we have here about the digital divide in rural America are wholly unlike those that the federally-focused policy crowd has back in DC. Every conversation I have with rural stakeholders further reinforces my belief that those of us who approach the rural digital divide from the “DC perspective” fail to appreciate the challenges that rural America faces or the drive, innovation, and resourcefulness that rural stakeholders bring to the issue when DC isn’t looking. So I wanted to bring these disparate groups together to see what was driving this disconnect, and what to do about it.

The unfortunate reality of the rural digital divide is that it is an existential concern for much of America. At the same time, the positive news is that closing this divide has become an all-hands-on-deck effort for stakeholders in rural America, one that defies caricatured political, technological, and industry divides. I have never seen as much agreement and goodwill among stakeholders in any telecom community as when I speak to rural stakeholders about digital divides. I am far from an expert in rural broadband issues — and I don’t mean to hold myself out as one — but as I have engaged with those who are, I am increasingly convinced that there are far more and far better ideas about closing the rural digital divide to be found outside the beltway than within.

The practical reality is that most policy discussions about the rural digital divide over the past decade have been largely irrelevant to the realities on the ground: The legal and policy frameworks focus on the wrong things, and participants in these discussions at the federal level rarely understand the challenges that define the rural divide. As a result, stakeholders almost always fall back on advocating stale, entrenched, viewpoints that have little relevance to the on-the-ground needs. (To their credit, both Chairman Pai and Commissioner Carr have demonstrated a longstanding interest in understanding the rural digital divide — an interest that is recognized and appreciated by almost every rural stakeholder I speak to.)

Framing Things Wrong

It is important to begin by recognizing that contemporary discussion about the digital divide is framed in terms of, and addressed alongside, longstanding federal Universal Service policy. This policy, which has its roots in the 20th century project of ensuring that all Americans had access to basic telephone service, is enshrined in the first words of the Communications Act of 1934. It has not significantly evolved from its origins in the analog telephone system — and that’s a problem.

A brief history of Universal Service

The Communications Act established the FCC

for the purpose of regulating interstate and foreign commerce in communication by wire and radio so as to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States … a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service ….

The historic goal of “universal service” has been to ensure that anyone in the country is able to connect to the public switched telephone network. In the telephone age, that network provided only one primary last-mile service: transmitting basic voice communications from the customer’s telephone to the carrier’s switch. Once at the switch various other services could be offered — but providing them didn’t require more than a basic analog voice circuit to the customer’s home.

For most of the 20th century, this form of universal service was ensured by fiat and cost recovery. Regulated telephone carriers (that is, primarily, the Bell operating companies under the umbrella of AT&T) were required by the FCC to provide service to all comers, at published rates, no matter the cost of providing that service. In exchange, the carriers were allowed to recover the cost of providing service to high-cost areas through the regulated rates charged to all customers. That is, the cost of ensuring universal service was spread across and subsidized by the entire rate base.

This system fell apart following the break-up of AT&T in the 1980s. The separation of long distance from local exchange service meant that the main form of cross subsidy — from long distance to local callers — could no longer be handled implicitly. Moreover, as competitive exchange services began entering the market, they tended to compete first, and most, over the high-revenue customers who had supported the rate base. To accommodate these changes, the FCC transitioned from a model of implicit cross-subsidies to one of explicit cross-subsidies, introducing long distance access charges and termination fees that were regulated to ensure money continued to flow to support local exchange carriers’ costs of providing services to high-cost users.

The 1996 Telecom Act forced even more dramatic change. The goal of the 1996 Telecom Act was to introduce competition throughout the telecom ecosystem — but the traditional cross-subsidy model doesn’t work in a competitive market. So the 1996 Telecom Act further evolved the FCC’s universal service mechanism, establishing the Universal Service Fund (USF), funded by fees charged to all telecommunications carriers, which would be apportioned to cover the costs incurred by eligible telecommunications carriers in providing high-cost (and other “universal”) services.

The problematic framing of Universal Service

For present purposes, we need not delve into these mechanisms. Rather, the very point of this post is that the interminable debates about these mechanisms — who pays into the USF and how much; who gets paid out of the fund and how much; and what services and technologies the fund covers — simply don’t match the policy challenges of closing the digital divide.

What the 1996 Telecom Act does offer is a statement of the purposes of Universal Service. In 47 USC 254(b)(3), the Act states the purpose of ensuring “Access in rural and high cost areas”:

Consumers in all regions of the Nation, including low-income consumers and those in rural, insular, and high cost areas, should have access to telecommunications and information services … that are reasonably comparable to those services provided in urban areas ….

This is a problematic framing. (I would actually call it patently offensive…). It is a framing that made sense in the telephone era, when ensuring last-mile service meant providing only basic voice telephone service. In that era, having any service meant having all service, and the primary obstacles to overcome were the high-cost of service to remote areas and the lower revenues expected from lower-income areas. But its implicit suggestion is that the goal of federal policy should be to make rural America look like urban America.

Today universal service, at least from the perspective of closing the digital divide, means something different, however. The technological needs of rural America are different than those of urban America; the technological needs of poor and lower-income America are different than those of rich America. Framing the goal in terms of making sure rural and lower-income America have access to the same services as urban and wealthy America is, by definition, not responsive to (or respectful of) the needs of those who are on the wrong side of one of this country’s many digital divides. Indeed, that goal almost certainly distracts from and misallocates resources that could be better leveraged towards closing these divides.

The Demands of Rural Broadband

Rural broadband needs are simultaneously both more and less demanding than the services we typically focus on when discussing universal service. The services that we fund, and the way that we approach how to close digital divides, needs to be based in the first instance on the actual needs of the community that connectivity is meant to serve. Take just two of the prototypical examples: precision and automated farming, and telemedicine.

Assessing rural broadband needs

Precision agriculture requires different networks than does watching Netflix, web surfing, or playing video games. Farms with hundreds or thousands of sensors and other devices per acre can put significant load on networks — but not in terms of bandwidth. The load is instead measured in terms of packets and connections per second. Provisioning networks to handle lots of small packets is very different from provisioning them to handle other, more-typical (to the DC crowd), use cases.

On the other end of the agricultural spectrum, many farms don’t own their own combines. Combines cost upwards of a million dollars. One modern combine is sufficient to tend to several hundred acres in a given farming season. It is common for many farmers to hire someone who owns a combine to service their fields. During harvest season, for instance, one combine service may operate on a dozen farms during harvest season. Prior to operation, modern precision systems need to download a great deal of GIS, mapping, weather, crop, and other data. High-speed Internet can literally mean the difference between letting a combine sit idle for many days of a harvest season while it downloads data and servicing enough fields to cover the debt payments on a million dollar piece of equipment.

Going to the other extreme, rural health care relies upon Internet connectivity — but not in the ways it is usually discussed. The stories one hears on the ground aren’t about the need for particularly high-speed connections or specialized low-latency connections to allow remote doctors to control surgical robots. While tele-surgery and access to highly specialized doctors are important applications of telemedicine, the urgent needs today are far more modest: simple video consultations with primary care physicians for routine care, requiring only a moderate-speed Internet connection capable of basic video conferencing. In reality, literally megabits per second (not even 10 mbps) can mean the difference between a remote primary care physician being able to provide basic health services to a rural community and that community going entirely unserved by a doctor.

Efforts to run gigabit connections and dedicated fiber to rural health care facilities may be a great long-term vision — but the on-the-ground need could be served by a reliable 4G wireless connection or DSL line. (Again, to their credit, this is a point that Chairman Pai and Commissioner Carr have been highlighting in their recent travels through rural parts of the country.)

Of course, rural America faces many of the same digital divides faced elsewhere. Even in the wealthiest cities in Nebraska, for instance, significant numbers of students are eligible for free or reduced price school lunches — a metric that corresponds with income — and rely on anchor institutions for Internet access. The problem is worse in much of rural Nebraska, where there may simply be no Internet access at all.

Addressing rural broadband needs

Two things in particular have struck me as I have spoken to rural stakeholders about the digital divide. The first is that this is an “all hands on deck” problem. Everyone I speak to understands the importance of the issue. Everyone is willing to work with and learn from others. Everyone is willing to commit resources and capital to improve upon the status quo, including by undertaking experiments and incurring risks.

The discussions I have in DC, however, including with and among key participants in the DC policy firmament, are fundamentally different. These discussions focus on tweaking contribution factors and cost models to protect or secure revenues; they are, in short, missing the forest for the trees. Meanwhile, the discussion on the ground focuses on how to actually deploy service and overcome obstacles. No amount of cost-model tweaking will do much at all to accomplish either of these.

The second striking, and rather counterintuitive, thing that I have often heard is that closing the rural digital divide isn’t (just) about money. I’ve heard several times the lament that we need to stop throwing more money at the problem and start thinking about where the money we already have needs to go. Another version of this is that it isn’t about the money, it’s about the business case. Money can influence a decision whether to execute upon a project for which there is a business case — but it rarely creates a business case where there isn’t one. And where it has created a business case, that case was often for building out relatively unimportant networks while increasing the opportunity costs of building out more important networks. The networks we need to build are different from those envisioned by the 1996 Telecom Act or FCC efforts to contort that Act to fund Internet build-out.

Rural Broadband Investment

There is, in fact, a third particularly striking thing I have gleaned from speaking with rural stakeholders, and rural providers in particular: They don’t really care about net neutrality, and don’t see it as helpful to closing the digital divide.  

Rural providers, it must be noted, are generally “pro net neutrality,” in the sense that they don’t think that ISPs should interfere with traffic going over their networks; in the sense that they don’t have any plans themselves to engage in “non-neutral” conduct; and also in the sense that they don’t see a business case for such conduct.

But they are also wary of Title II regulation, or of other rules that are potentially burdensome or that introduce uncertainty into their business. They are particularly concerned that Title II regulation opens the door to — and thus creates significant uncertainty about the possibility of — other forms of significant federal regulation of their businesses.

More than anything else, they want to stop thinking, talking, and worrying about net neutrality regulations. Ultimately, the past decade of fights about net neutrality has meant little other than regulatory cost and uncertainty for them, which makes planning and investment difficult — hardly a boon to closing the digital divide.

The basic theory of the Wheeler-era FCC’s net neutrality regulations was the virtuous cycle — that net neutrality rules gave edge providers the certainty they needed in order to invest in developing new applications that, in turn, would drive demand for, and thus buildout of, new networks. But carriers need certainty, too, if they are going to invest capital in building these networks. Rural ISPs are looking for the business case to justify new builds. Increasing uncertainty has only negative effects on the business case for closing the rural digital divide.

Most crucially, the logic of the virtuous cycle is virtually irrelevant to driving demand for closing the digital divide. Edge innovation isn’t going to create so much more value that users will suddenly demand that networks be built; rather, the applications justifying this demand already exist, and most have existed for many years. What stands in the way of the build-out required to service under- or un-served rural areas is the business case for building these (expensive) networks. And the uncertainty and cost associated with net neutrality only exacerbate this problem.

Indeed, rural markets are an area where the virtuous cycle very likely turns in the other direction. Rural communities are actually hotbeds of innovation. And they know their needs far better than Silicon Valley edge companies, so they are likely to build apps and services that better cater to the unique needs of rural America. But these apps and services aren’t going to be built unless their developers have access to the broadband connections needed to build and maintain them, and, most important of all, unless users have access to the broadband connections needed to actually make use of them. The upshot is that, in rural markets, connectivity precedes and drives the supply of edge services not, as the Wheeler-era virtuous cycle would have it, the other way around.

The effect of Washington’s obsession with net neutrality these past many years has been to increase uncertainty and reduce the business case for building new networks. And its detrimental effects continue today with politicized and showboating efforts to to invoke the Congressional Review Act in order to make a political display of the 2017 Restoring Internet Freedom Order. Back in the real world, however, none of this helps to provide rural communities with the type of broadband services they actually need, and the effect is only to worsen the rural digital divide, both politically and technologically.

The Road Ahead …?

The story told above is not a happy one. Closing digital divides, and especially closing the rural digital divide, is one of the most important legal, social, and policy challenges this country faces. Yet the discussion about these issues in DC reflects little of the on-the-ground reality. Rather advocates in DC attack a strawman of the rural digital divide, using it as a foil to protect and advocate for their pet agendas. If anything, the discussion in DC distracts attention and diverts resources from productive ideas.

To end on a more positive note, some are beginning to recognize the importance and direness of the situation. I have noted several times the work of Chairman Pai and Commissioner Carr. Indeed, the first time I met Chairman Pai was when I had the opportunity to accompany him, back when he was Commissioner Pai, on a visit through Diller, Nebraska (pop. 287). More recently, there has been bipartisan recognition of the need for new thinking about the rural digital divide. In February, for instance, a group of Democratic senators asked President Trump to prioritize rural broadband in his infrastructure plans. And the following month Congress enacted, and the President signed, legislation that among other things funded a $600 million pilot program to award grants and loans for rural broadband built out through the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service. But both of these efforts rely too heavily on throwing money at the rural divide (speaking of the recent legislation, the head of one Nebraska-based carrier building out service in rural areas lamented that it’s just another effort to give carriers cheap money, which doesn’t do much to help close the divide!). It is, nonetheless, good to see urgent calls for and an interest in experimenting with new ways to deliver assistance in closing the rural digital divide. We need more of this sort of bipartisan thinking and willingness to experiment with new modes of meeting this challenge — and less advocacy for stale, entrenched, viewpoints that have little relevance to the on-the-ground reality of rural America.

The world discovered something this past weekend that the world had already known: that what you say on the Internet stays on the Internet, spread intractably and untraceably through the tendrils of social media. I refer, of course, to the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook SNAFU (or just Situation Normal): the disclosure that Cambridge Analytica, a company used for election analytics by the Trump campaign, breached a contract with Facebook in order to unauthorizedly collect information on 50 million Facebook users. Since the news broke, Facebook’s stock is off by about 10 percent, Cambridge Analytica is almost certainly a doomed company, the FTC has started investigating both, private suits against Facebook are already being filed, the Europeans are investigating as well, and Cambridge Analytica is now being blamed for Brexit.

That is all fine and well, and we will be discussing this situation and its fallout for years to come. I want to write about a couple of other aspects of the story: the culpability of 270,000 Facebook users in disclosing the data of 50 million of their peers, and what this situation tells us about evergreen proposals to “open up the social graph” by making users’ social media content portable.

I Have Seen the Enemy and the Enemy is Us

Most discussion of Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data has focused on the large number of user records Cambridge Analytica obtained access to – 50 million – and the fact that it obtained these records through some problematic means (and Cambridge Analytica pretty clearly breached contracts and acted deceptively to obtain these records). But one needs to dig a deeper to understand the mechanics of what actually happened. Once one does this, the story becomes both less remarkable and more interesting.

(For purposes of this discussion, I refer to Cambridge Analytica as the actor that obtained the records. It’s actually a little more complicated: Cambridge Analytica worked with an academic researcher to obtain these records. That researcher was given permission by Facebook to work with and obtain data on users for purposes relating to his research. But he exceeded that scope of authority, sharing the data that he collected with CA.)

The 50 million users’ records that Cambridge Analytica obtained access to were given to Cambridge Analytica by about 200,000 individual Facebook users. Those 270,000 users become involved with Cambridge Analytica by participating in an online quiz – one of those fun little throwaway quizzes that periodically get some attention on Facebook and other platforms. As part of taking that quiz, those 270,000 users agreed to grant Cambridge Analytica access to their profile information, including information available through their profile about their friends.

This general practice is reasonably well known. Any time a quiz or game like this has its moment on Facebook it is also accompanied by discussion of how the quiz or game is likely being used to harvest data about users. The terms of use of these quizzes and games almost always disclose that such information is being collected. More telling, any time a user posts a link to one of these quizzes or games, some friend will will invariably leave a comment warning about these terms of service and of these data harvesting practices.

There are two remarkable things about this. The first remarkable thing is that there is almost nothing remarkable about the fact that Cambridge Analytica obtained this information. A hundred such data harvesting efforts have preceded Cambridge Analytica; and a hundred more will follow it. The only remarkable things about the present story is that Cambridge Analytica was an election analytics firm working for Donald Trump – never mind that by all accounts the data collected proved to be of limited use generally in elections or that when Cambridge Analytica started working for the Trump campaign they were tasked with more mundane work that didn’t make use of this data.

More remarkable is that Cambridge Analytica didn’t really obtain data about 50 million individuals from Facebook, or from a Facebook quiz. Cambridge Analytica obtained this data from those 50 million individuals’ friends.

There are unquestionably important questions to be asked about the role of Facebook in giving users better control over, or ability to track uses of, their information. And there are questions about the use of contracts such as that between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to control how data like this is handled. But this discussion will not be complete unless and until we also understand the roles and responsibilities of individual users in managing and respecting the privacy of their friends.

Fundamentally, we lack a clear and easy way to delineate privacy rights. If I share with my friends that I participated in a political rally, that I attended a concert, that I like certain activities, that I engage in certain illegal activities, what rights do I have to control how they subsequently share that information? The answer in the physical world, in the American tradition, is none – at least, unless I take affirmative steps to establish such a right prior to disclosing that information.

The answer is the same in the online world, as well – though platforms have substantial ability to alter this if they so desire. For instance, Facebook could change the design of its system to prohibit users from sharing information about their friends with third parties. (Indeed, this is something that most privacy advocates think social media platforms should do.) But such a “solution” to the delineation problem has its own problems. It assumes that the platform is the appropriate arbiter of privacy rights – a perhaps questionable assumption given platforms’ history of getting things wrong when it comes to privacy. More trenchant, it raises questions about users’ ability to delineate or allocate their privacy differently than allowed by the platforms, particularly where a given platform may not allow the delineation or allocation of rights that users prefer.

The Badness of the Open Graph Idea

One of the standard responses to concerns about how platforms may delineate and allow users to allocate their privacy interests is, on the one hand, that competition among platforms would promote desirable outcomes and that, on the other hand, the relatively limited and monopolistic competition that we see among firms like Facebook is one of the reasons that consumers today have relatively poor control over their information.

The nature of competition in markets such as these, including whether and how to promote more of it, is a perennial and difficult topic. The network effects inherent in markets like these suggest that promoting competition may in fact not improve consumer outcomes, for instance. Competition could push firms to less consumer-friendly privacy positions if that allows better monetization and competitive advantages. And the simple fact that Facebook has lost 10% of its value following the Cambridge Analytica news suggests that there are real market constraints on how Facebook operates.

But placing those issues to the side for now, the situation with Cambridge Analytica offers an important cautionary tale about one of the perennial proposals for how to promote competition between social media platforms: “opening up the social graph.” The basic idea of these proposals is to make it easier for users of these platforms to migrate between platforms or to use the features of different platforms through data portability and interoperability. Specific proposals have taken various forms over the years, but generally they would require firms like Facebook to either make users’ data exportable in a standardized form so that users could easily migrate it to other platforms or to adopt a standardized API that would allow other platforms to interoperate with data stored on the Facebook platform.

In other words, proposals to “open the social graph” are proposals to make it easier to export massive volumes of Facebook user data to third parties at efficient scale.

If there is one lesson from the past decade that is more trenchant than that delineation privacy rights is difficult it is that data security is even harder.

These last two points do not sum together well. The easier that Facebook makes it for its users’ data to be exported at scale, the easier Facebook makes it for its users’ data to be exfiltrated at scale. Despite its myriad problems, Cambridge Analytica at least was operating within a contractual framework with Facebook – it was a known party. Creating external API for exporting Facebook data makes it easier for unknown third-parties to anonymously obtain user information. Indeed, even if the API only works to allow trusted third parties to to obtain such information, the problem of keeping that data secured against subsequent exfiltration multiplies with each third party that is allowed access to that data.

Last week the International Center for Law & Economics and I filed an amicus brief in the DC Circuit in support of en banc review of the court’s decision to uphold the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order.

In our previous amicus brief before the panel that initially reviewed the OIO, we argued, among other things, that

In order to justify its Order, the Commission makes questionable use of important facts. For instance, the Order’s ban on paid prioritization ignores and mischaracterizes relevant record evidence and relies on irrelevant evidence. The Order also omits any substantial consideration of costs. The apparent necessity of the Commission’s aggressive treatment of the Order’s factual basis demonstrates the lengths to which the Commission must go in its attempt to fit the Order within its statutory authority.

Our brief supporting en banc review builds on these points to argue that

By reflexively affording substantial deference to the FCC in affirming the Open Internet Order (“OIO”), the panel majority’s opinion is in tension with recent Supreme Court precedent….

The panel majority need not have, and arguably should not have, afforded the FCC the level of deference that it did. The Supreme Court’s decisions in State Farm, Fox, and Encino all require a more thorough vetting of the reasons underlying an agency change in policy than is otherwise required under the familiar Chevron framework. Similarly, Brown and Williamson, Utility Air Regulatory Group, and King all indicate circumstances in which an agency construction of an otherwise ambiguous statute is not due deference, including when the agency interpretation is a departure from longstanding agency understandings of a statute or when the agency is not acting in an expert capacity (e.g., its decision is based on changing policy preferences, not changing factual or technical considerations).

In effect, the panel majority based its decision whether to afford the FCC deference upon deference to the agency’s poorly supported assertions that it was due deference. We argue that this is wholly inappropriate in light of recent Supreme Court cases.


The panel majority failed to appreciate the importance of granting Chevron deference to the FCC. That importance is most clearly seen at an aggregate level. In a large-scale study of every Court of Appeals decision between 2003 and 2013, Professors Kent Barnett and Christopher Walker found that a court’s decision to defer to agency action is uniquely determinative in cases where, as here, an agency is changing established policy.

Kent Barnett & Christopher J. Walker, Chevron In the Circuit Courts 61, Figure 14 (2016), available at

Figure 14 from Barnett & Walker, as reproduced in our brief.

As  that study demonstrates,

agency decisions to change established policy tend to present serious, systematic defects — and [thus that] it is incumbent upon this court to review the panel majority’s decision to reflexively grant Chevron deference. Further, the data underscore the importance of the Supreme Court’s command in Fox and Encino that agencies show good reason for a change in policy; its recognition in Brown & Williamson and UARG that departures from existing policy may fall outside of the Chevron regime; and its command in King that policies not made by agencies acting in their capacity as technical experts may fall outside of the Chevron regime. In such cases, the Court essentially holds that reflexive application of Chevron deference may not be appropriate because these circumstances may tend toward agency action that is arbitrary, capricious, in excess of statutory authority, or otherwise not in accordance with law.

As we conclude:

The present case is a clear example where greater scrutiny of an agency’s decision-making process is both warranted and necessary. The panel majority all too readily afforded the FCC great deference, despite the clear and unaddressed evidence of serious flaws in the agency’s decision-making process. As we argued in our brief before the panel, and as Judge Williams recognized in his partial dissent, the OIO was based on factually inaccurate, contradicted, and irrelevant record evidence.

Read our full — and very short — amicus brief here.

I have a new post up at, excerpted below, in which I discuss the growing body of (surprising uncontroversial) work showing that broadband in the US compares favorably to that in the rest of the world. My conclusion, which is frankly more cynical than I like, is that concern about the US “falling behind” is manufactured debate. It’s a compelling story that the media likes and that plays well for (some) academics.

Before the excerpt, I’d also like to quote one of today’s headlines from Slashdot:

“Google launched the citywide Wi-Fi network with much fanfare in 2006 as a way for Mountain View residents and businesses to connect to the Internet at no cost. It covers most of the Silicon Valley city and worked well until last year, as Slashdot readers may recall, when connectivity got rapidly worse. As a result, Mountain View is installing new Wi-Fi hotspots in parts of the city to supplement the poorly performing network operated by Google. Both the city and Google have blamed the problems on the design of the network. Google, which is involved in several projects to provide Internet access in various parts of the world, said in a statement that it is ‘actively in discussions with the Mountain View city staff to review several options for the future of the network.'”

The added emphasis is mine. It is added to draw attention to the simple point that designing and building networks is hard. Like, really really hard. Folks think that it’s easy, because they have small networks in their homes or offices — so surely they can scale to a nationwide network without much trouble. But all sorts of crazy stuff starts to happen when we substantially increase the scale of IP networks. This is just one of the very many things that should give us pause about calls for the buildout of a government run or sponsored Internet infrastructure.

Another of those things is whether there’s any need for that. Which brings us to my post:

In the week or so since TPRC, I’ve found myself dwelling on an observation I made during the conference: how much agreement there was, especially on issues usually thought of as controversial. I want to take a few paragraphs to consider what was probably the most surprisingly non-controversial panel of the conference, the final Internet Policy panel, in which two papers – one by ITIF’s Rob Atkinson and the other by James McConnaughey from NTIA – were presented that showed that broadband Internet service in US (and Canada, though I will focus on the US) compares quite well to that offered in the rest of the world. […]

But the real question that this panel raised for me was: given how well the US actually compares to other countries, why does concern about the US falling behind dominate so much discourse in this area? When you get technical, economic, legal, and policy experts together in a room – which is what TPRC does – the near consensus seems to be that the “kids are all right”; but when you read the press, or much of the high-profile academic literature, “the sky is falling.”

The gap between these assessments could not be larger. I think that we need to think about why this is. I hate to be cynical or disparaging – especially since I know strong advocates on both sides and believe that their concerns are sincere and efforts earnest. But after this year’s conference, I’m having trouble shaking the feeling that ongoing concern about how US broadband stacks up to the rest of the world is a manufactured debate. It’s a compelling, media- and public-friendly, narrative that supports a powerful political agenda. And the clear incentives, for academics and media alike, are to find problems and raise concerns. […]

Compare this to the Chicken Little narrative. As I was writing this, I received a message from a friend asking my views on an Economist blog post that shares data from the ITU’s just-released Measuring the Information Society 2013 report. This data shows that the US has some of the highest prices for pre-paid handset-based mobile data around the world. That is, it reports the standard narrative – and it does so without looking at the report’s methodology. […]

Even more problematic than what the Economist blog reports, however, is what it doesn’t report. [The report contains data showing the US has some of the lowest cost fixed broadband and mobile broadband prices in the world. See the full post at for the numbers.]

Now, there are possible methodological problems with these rankings, too. My point here isn’t to debate over the relative position of the United States. It’s to ask why the “story” about this report cherry-picks the alarming data, doesn’t consider its methodology, and ignores the data that contradicts its story.

Of course, I answered that question above: It’s a compelling, media- and public-friendly, narrative that supports a powerful political agenda. And the clear incentives, for academics and media alike, are to find problems and raise concerns. Manufacturing debate sells copy and ads, and advances careers.

I have a new post up at TechPolicyDaily that takes a historical perspective on Network Neutrality. The abstract is below. I had to cut a bunch out of the piece — I hope to add a bunch of the cut parts back in and post an extended version here later this week. But for now:

Network Neutrality debates are fundamentally about switching – whether network switches can treat some packets differently from others. In this piece, I look back 100 years to the telephone interconnection debates of the early 20th century – and, in particular, to AT&T’s preference for (non-neutral) manual switchboards over (neutral) automatic switches. This history reminds us that design decisions in complex networks are rarely as simple as network neutrality proponents suggest they are – and that market forces, if given time to operate, can secure the consumer benefits that regulators aspire to promote without the appurtenant risk that regulatory intervention may stunt the market.

Read the full thing here.

On Debating Imaginary Felds

Gus Hurwitz —  18 September 2013

Harold Feld, in response to a recent Washington Post interview with AEI’s Jeff Eisenach about AEI’s new Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy, accused “neo-conservative economists (or, as [Feld] might generalize, the ‘Right’)” of having “stopped listening to people who disagree with them. As a result, they keep saying the same thing over and over again.”

(Full disclosure: The Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy includes, to which I am a contributor.)

Perhaps to the surprise of many, I’m going to agree with Feld. But in so doing, I’m going to expand upon his point: The problem with anti-economics social activists (or, as we might generalize, the ‘Left’)[*] is that they have stopped listening to people who disagree with them. As a result, they keep saying the same thing over and over again.

I don’t mean this to be snarky. Rather, it is a very real problem throughout modern political discourse, and one that we participants in telecom and media debates frequently contribute to. One of the reasons that I love – and sometimes hate – researching and teaching in this area is that fundamental tensions between government and market regulation lie at its core. These tensions present challenging and engaging questions, making work in this field exciting, but are sometimes intractable and often evoke passion instead of analysis, making work in this field seem Sisyphean.

One of these tensions is how to secure for consumers those things which the market does not (appear to) do a good job of providing. For instance, those of us on both the left and right are almost universally agreed that universal service is a desirable goal. The question – for both sides – is how to provide it. Feld reminds us that “real world economics is painfully complicated.” I would respond to him that “real world regulation is painfully complicated.”

I would point at Feld, while jumping up and down shouting “J’accuse! Nirvana Fallacy!” – but I’m certain that Feld is aware of this fallacy, just as I hope he’s aware that those of us who have spent much of our lives studying economics are bitterly aware that economics and markets are complicated things. Indeed, I think those of us who study economics are even more aware of this than is Feld – it is, after all, one of our mantras that “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” This mantra is particularly apt in telecommunications, where one of the most consistent and important lessons of the past century has been that the market tends to outperform regulation.

This isn’t because the market is perfect; it’s because regulation is less perfect. Geoff recently posted a salient excerpt from Tom Hazlett’s 1997 Reason interview of Ronald Coase, in which Coase recounted that “When I was editor of The Journal of Law and Economics, we published a whole series of studies of regulation and its effects. Almost all the studies – perhaps all the studies – suggested that the results of regulation had been bad, that the prices were higher, that the product was worse adapted to the needs of consumers, than it otherwise would have been.”

I don’t want to get into a tit-for-tat over individual points that Feld makes. But I will look at one as an example: his citation to The Market for Lemons. This is a classic paper, in which Akerlof shows that information asymmetries can cause rational markets to unravel. But does it, as Feld says, show “market failure in the presence of robust competition?” That is a hotly debated point in the economics literature. One view – the dominant view, I believe – is that it does not. See, e.g., the EconLib discussion (“Akerlof did not conclude that the lemon problem necessarily implies a role for government”). Rather, the market has responded through the formation of firms that service and certify used cars, document car maintenance, repairs and accidents, warranty cars, and suffer reputational harms for selling lemons. Of course, folks argue, and have long argued, both sides. As Feld says, economics is painfully complicated – it’s a shame he draws a simple and reductionist conclusion from one of the seminal articles is modern economics, and a further shame he uses that conclusion to buttress his policy position. J’accuse!

I hope that this is in no way taken as an attack on Feld – and I wish his piece was less of an attack on Jeff. Fundamentally, he raises a very important point, that there is a real disconnect between the arguments used by the “left” and “right” and how those arguments are understood by the other. Indeed, some of my current work is exploring this very disconnect and how it affects telecom debates. I’m really quite thankful to Feld for highlighting his concern that at least one side is blind to the views of the other – I hope that he’ll be receptive to the idea that his side is subject to the same criticism.

[*] I do want to respond specifically to what I think is an important confusion in Feld piece, which motivated my admittedly snarky labelling of the “left.” I think that he means “neoclassical economics,” not “neo-conservative economics” (which he goes on to dub “Neocon economics”). Neoconservativism is a political and intellectual movement, focused primarily on US foreign policy – it is rarely thought of as a particular branch of economics. To the extent that it does hold to a view of economics, it is actually somewhat skeptical of free markets, especially of lack of moral grounding and propensity to forgo traditional values in favor of short-run, hedonistic, gains.

Of Cake and Netflix

Gus Hurwitz —  6 September 2013

My new FSF Perspectives piece, Let Them Eat Cake and Watch Netflix, was published today. This piece explores a tension in Susan Crawford’s recent Wired commentary on Pew’s 2013 Broadband Report.

I excerpt from the piece below. You can (and, I daresay, should!) read the whole thing here.

In her piece, after noting the persistence of the digital divide, Crawford turns to her critique of both Pew’s and the FCC’s definition of “high-speed internet” – 4 Mbps down/1 Mbps up – and the inclusion of mobile Internet access in these measurements. She argues that this definition … is too slow. What if you wanted to watch two HD quality videos at once over a single connection? […]

But the digital divide isn’t about people today not being able to watch movies on Netflix. And it’s definitely not about people today not being able to use future service that may or may not require the sort of infrastructure Crawford wants the government to build. […] It’s about the (very real) concern that, as civic and democratic institutions increasingly migrate online, those without basic Internet access or knowledge will be locked out of a vital civic and democratic forum. […]

None of [applications central to concerns about the digital divide] require bandwidth sufficient to stream high-quality video. Indeed, none of them should require such capacity. Another very real concern related to the digital divide is that various groups with disabilities – the deaf and blind, for instance – are already unable to avail themselves of these online forums because they rely too much on sophisticated multimedia formats to provide basic information. […]

I would suggest that a better target for Crawford’s efforts – if she is really concerned about lessening the digital divide (and I do fully believe that her convictions are well meaning and sincere) – would be to advocate for government institutions and other civic and democratic forums to develop online applications that do not require high-speed broadband connections. […]

In a world where consumers perceive a non-zero marginal cost for incremental bandwidth consumption – perhaps, as an example, a world with consumer bandwidth caps – there would be consumer demand for lower-bandwidth versions of websites and other Internet services. Rather than ratcheting bandwidth requirements consistently up – increasing the size of the digital divide – the self-interested decisions of consumers on the fortunate side of that divide could actually help shrink that divide. […]

The tragic thing (though, to economists, not surprising) about demands that the Internet economy disobey laws of supply and demand, that Internet providers offer consumers a service unconstrained by scarcity, is that such demands create the Internet-equivalent of bread lines. They are, in fact, the wedge that widens the digital divide.

Ronald Coase, 1910-2013

Gus Hurwitz —  2 September 2013

Many more, who will do far more justice than I can, will have much more to say on this, so I will only note it here. Ronald Coase has passed away. He was 102. The University of Chicago Law School has a notice here.

The first thing I wrote on the board for my students this semester was simply his name, “Coase.” I told them only on Friday that he was still an active scholar at 102.

With thanks to Geoff and everyone else, it’s great to join the cast here at TOTM. Geoff gave a nice introduction, so I won’t use this first post to further that purpose – especially when I have substance to discuss. The only prefatory words I’ll offer are that my work lies at the intersection of law and technology, with a focus on telecommunications and the regulation of technology. Most of my posts here will likely relate to those subjects. But I may occasionally use this forum to write briefly on topics further afield of my research agenda (and to which I therefore cannot dedicate more than blog-post-length musings to develop).

But one paragraph of navel-grazing is enough; on to substance:

The WSJ had a nice piece the other day about the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) ongoing persecution of Craig Zucker. Several years ago, Zucker founded a company that sold small, strong, rare-earth magnets that are a ton of fun to play with. He called them BuckyBalls. In 2011, the CPSC determined that BuckBalls are inherently unsafe because children may swallow them, which can result in serious injury. The CPSC effectively forced the company to shut down in 2012. Unsatisfied with forcing a profitable small firm out of the market, the CPSC is now going after Zucker individually to, at his own expense, recall and refund the purchase price of all BuckyBalls the company sold.

BuckyBalls(Full disclosure: I own a bunch of BuckyBalls. In fact, they’re all over my office. To date, they have not harmed anyone. The photo to the left is of the “BuckyBall decapode” that I have behind my chair. Note: the CPSC is not concerned about BuckyBall decapodes, which could pose a legitimate danger if they became sentient, but about the individual magnets.)

The CPSC’s action is a case study in bad judgment, arguably abusive and vindictive government conduct, and a basic lack of common sense. But I don’t want to focus on common sense here – I want to focus on the common law. My question is why in the world do we need the CPSC protecting consumers from these magnets when the common law clearly offers sufficient protection?

These cases almost always follow a similar pattern. Adults buy BuckyBalls. Adults either give children BuckyBalls or leave BuckyBalls where children can get them. Children, acting as children are wont to act, somehow swallow BuckyBalls.

The CPSC’s complaint identifies 5 specific cases of children ingesting BuckyBalls and notes that “over one dozen” reports have been received. The complaint doesn’t discuss in detail any injuries that resulted, beyond noting that in some cases surgery was required (and in one case, treatment included “monitoring for infection and internal damage”). It doesn’t say whether any of these cases resulted in permanent injury or disability (presumably not, or that would surely be mentioned). There have been no reported deaths or, that I have seen reported, debilitating injuries.

On the flipside, over the few years that Zucker was in business (roughly 2009, when the product became popular, through 2012, when the company closed down), he sold about $75 million worth of BuckyBalls (per the WSJ piece, “’Two and a half million adults spent $30’”). This product wasn’t a mere novelty, but something created substantial economic value for consumers.

So, what do we have? A relatively small number of injuries, with very few disputable facts, and readily identifiable harm. These would be some of the easiest possible cases to bring to court, and would occur in small enough numbers that they wouldn’t burden the court system. After the first of these cases was decided, most of the others – given the similarity of facts – would likely settle. If the harms caused by BuckyBalls were sufficient to outweigh the economic value created by this product, Zucker could have responded by altering the product, seeking insurance, or shutting down. This is exactly the sort of case we have the courts for!

That penultimate sentence should be dwelt upon: the incremental approach of the common law would allow the firm to alter and improve its product, to avoid or reduce future harm. In this way, the law develops along with new products and technologies, supporting a dynamic market. Compare this to the CPSC approach, which was to demand that Zucker comply with the agency’s demands in a short period of time (which he did), and then, the very next day, to bring the administrative suit that forced Zucker to shut the company down. The CPSC could not have reviewed his response to its demands in that timeframe; even if it did and found the response lacking, its next step should have been to engage him to address any problems, with the twain objectives of both remedying any problems but also preserving the business. Rather, the CPSC’s purpose seems to have been from the outset to shut Zucker down. It seems that in its fervor to protect the children from negligent adults, it is willing to harm the consumers who enjoy these products — perhaps we should rechristen it the Children’s Product Safety Commission.

Others have written about the CPSC’s lack of common sense in this matter. My contribution to that discussion would be to say that the CPSC has become the FTC’s successor as the “National Nanny” (not to say the FTC does not deserve the title, as demonstrated by the POM Wonderful case – but today CPSC may be even more deserving of the title).

But the BuckyBalls case raises a more fundamental concern. The CPSC surely should be lambasted for its decision to pursue this matter at all; and even more for persecuting Mr. Zucker. But beyond that, this case raises fundamental questions about the need for, and the basic legitimacy of, the CPSC.