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With Matt Starr, Berin Szoka and Geoffrey Manne

Today’s oral argument in the D.C Circuit over the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules suggests that the case — Verizon v. FCC — is likely to turn on whether the Order impermissibly imposes common carrier regulation on broadband ISPs. If so, the FCC will lose, no matter what the court thinks of the Commission’s sharply contested claims of authority under the Telecommunications Act.

The FCC won last year before the same court when Verizon challenged its order mandating that carriers provide data roaming services to their competitors’ customers. But Judge Tatel, who wrote the Cellco decision is likely to write the court’s opinion overturning the Net neutrality rules — just as he wrote the court’s 2010 Comcast v. FCC opinion, thwarting the FCC’s first attempt at informal net neutrality regulation.

Over an extraordinary two-hour session, Judges Tatel and Silberman asked a barrage of questions that suggest they’ll apply the same test used to uphold the data roaming rule to strike down at least the non-discrimination rule at the heart of the Open Internet Order — and probably, the entire Order.

Common Carrier Analysis

The Communications Act explicitly prohibits treating services that are not regulated under Title II as common carriers. Title II regulates “telecommunications services,” such as landline telephone service, but broadband is an “information service” regulated under Title I of the Act, while wireless is regulated under Title III of the Act (as a “radio transmission”).

In Cellco, the court ruled that the FCC’s data roaming rule did not impermissibly classify mobile providers as common carriers even though it compelled wireless carriers to let other companies’ subscribers roam on their networks. Here, the Open Internet Order effectively forces ISPs to carry traffic of all “edge” providers in an equal, non-discriminatory manner. While these might seem similar, the two mandates differ significantly, and Tatel’s analysis in the data roaming case may lead to precisely the opposite result here.

Tatel’s data roaming opinion rested on a test, derived from decades of case law, for determining what level of regulation constitutes an impermissible imposition of common carrier status:

  1. “If a carrier is forced to offer service indiscriminately and on general terms, then that carrier is being relegated to common carrier status”;

  2. “[T]he Commission has significant latitude to determine the bounds of common carriage in particular cases”;

  3. “[C]ommon carriage is not all or nothing—there is a gray area [between common carrier status and private carrier status] in which although a given regulation might be applied to common carriers, the obligations imposed are not common carriage per se” because they permit carriers to retain sufficient decisionmaking authority over their networks (by retaining programming control and/or the authority to negotiate terms, for example); and

  4. In this gray area, “[the FCC’s] determination that a regulation does or does not confer common carrier status warrants deference” under the Supreme Court’s Chevron decision.

In Cellco, the court determined that the data roaming rule fell into the gray area, and thus deferred to the FCC’s determination that the regulation did not impose common carrier status. The essential distinction, according to the court, was that carriers remained free to “negotiate the terms of their roaming arrangements on an individualized basis,” provided their terms were “commercially reasonable.” Rather than impose a “presumption of reasonableness,” the Commission offered “considerable flexibility for providers to respond to the competitive forces at play in the mobile-data market.” Thus, the court held, the data roaming rule “leaves substantial room for individualized bargaining and discrimination in terms,” and thus “does not amount to a duty to hold out facilities indifferently for public use.”

The Open Internet rules, by contrast, impose a much harsher restriction on what ISPs may do with their broadband networks, barring them from blocking any legal content and prohibiting “unreasonable” discrimination. Judges Tatel and Silberman repeatedly asked questions that suggested that the Order’s reasonable discrimination rule removed the kind of “flexibility” that justified upholding the data roaming rule. By requiring carriers to “offer service indiscriminately and on general terms” and to “hold out facilities indifferently for public use” (to quote the D.C. Circuit’s test), the rule would go beyond the “gray area” in which the FCC gets deference, and fall into the D.C. Circuit’s definition of common carriage. If that’s indeed ultimately where the two judges wind up, it’s game over for the FCC.

The Open Internet Order requires broadband ISPs to make their networks available, and to do so on equal terms that remove pricing flexibility, to any edge provider that wishes to have its content available on an ISP’s network. This seems to be Judge Tatel’s interpretation of ¶ 76 of the Order, which goes on at length about the reasons why “pay for priority” arrangements would “raise significant cause for concern” and then concludes: “In light of each of these concerns, as a general matter, it’s unlikely that pay for priority would satisfy the ‘no unreasonable discrimination’ standard.” So… legal in principle, but effectively banned in practice — a per se rule dressed up as a rule of reason.

If that isn’t, in effect, a requirement that ISPs hold out their networks “indifferently for public use,” it’s hard to imagine what is — as Tatel certainly seemed to think today. Tatel’s use of the term “indiscriminately” in Cellco almost hints that the test was written with the FCC’s “no discrimination” rule in mind.

The FCC tried, but failed, to address such concerns in the Open Internet Order, by arguing that broadband providers remained free to “make individualized decisions” with the only customers that matter: their subscribers. Today, the agency again insisted that restricting, however heavily, a broadband provider’s ability to negotiate with an edge provider (or the backbone providers in between) is irrelevant to the analysis of whether the FCC has illegally imposed common carriage. But if that argument worked, the D.C. Circuit would not have had to analyze whether the data roaming rule afforded sufficient flexibility to carriers in contracting with other carriers to provide data roaming services to their customers.

Similarly, the FCC failed today, and in its briefs, to effectively distinguish this case from Midwest Video II, which was critical to the Cellco decision. here, the Supreme Court court struck down public-access rules imposed on cable companies as impermissible common carrier regulation because they “prohibited [cable operators] from determining or influencing the content of access programming,” and “delimit[ed] what [they could] charge for access and use of equipment.” In other words, the FCC’s rule left no flexibility for negotiations between companies — the same problem as in the Open Internet Order. The FCC attempted to distinguish the two cases by arguing that the FCC was restricting an existing wholesale market for channel carriage, while no such market exists today for prioritized Internet services. But this misses the key point made, emphatically, by Judge Silberman: it is the FCC’s relentless attempt to regulate Net Neutrality that has prevented the development of this market. Nothing better reveals the stasis mentality behind the FCC’s Order

Perhaps the most damning moment of today’s arguments occurred when Verizon’s lawyer responded to questions about what room for negotiation was left under the unreasonable discrimination rule — by pointing to what the FCC itself said in Footnote 240 of the Order. There the FCC quotes, approvingly, comments filed by Sprint: “The unreasonable discrimination standard contained in Section 202(a) of the Act contains the very flexibility the Commission needs to distinguish desirable from improper discrimination.” In other words, the only room for “commercially reasonable negotiation” recognized by the FCC under the nondiscrimination rule is found in the limited discretion traditionally available to common carriers under Section 202(a). Oops. This #LawyerFail will doubtless feature prominently in the court’s discussion of this issue, as the FCC’s perhaps accidental concession that, whatever the agency claims, it’s really imposing common carrier status — analogous to Title II, no less!

Judges Tatel and Silberman seemed to disagree only as to whether the no-blocking rule would also fail under Cellco’s reasoning. Tatel suggested that if the non-discrimination rule didn’t exist, the blocking rule, standing alone, would “leave substantial room for individualized bargaining and discrimination in terms” just as the data roaming rule did. Tatel spent perhaps fifteen minutes trying to draw clear answers from all counsel on this point, but seemed convinced that, at most, the no-blocking rule simply imposed a duty on the broadband provider to allow an edge provider to reach its customers, while still allowing the broadband provider to negotiate for faster carriage on “commercially reasonable terms.” Silberman disagreed, insisting that the blocking rule still imposed a common carrier duty to carry traffic at a zero price.

Severability

Ultimately the distinction between these two rules under Cellco’s common carriage test may not matter. If the court decides that the order is not severable, striking down the nondiscrimination rule as common carriage would cause the entire Order to fall.

The judges got into an interesting, though relatively short, discussion of this point. Verizon’s counsel repeatedly noted that the FCC had never stated any intention that the order should be read as severable either in the Order, in its briefs or even at oral argument. Unlike in MD/DC/DE Broadaster’s Assoc. v. FCC, the Commission did not state in the adopting regulation that it intended to treat the regulation as severable. And, as the DC Circuit has stated, “[s]everance and affirmance of a portion of an administrative regulation is improper if there is ‘substantial doubt’ that the agency would have adopted the severed portion on its own.”

The question, as the Supreme Court held in K Mart Corp. v. Cartier, Inc., is whether the remainder of the regulation could function sensibly without the stricken provision. This isn’t clear. While Judge Tatel seems to suggest that the rule against blocking could function without the nondiscrimination rule, Judge Silberman seems convinced that the two were intended as necessary complements by the FCC. The determination of the no-blocking rule’s severability may come down to Judge Rogers, who didn’t telegraph her view.

So what’s next?

The prediction made by Fred Campbell shortly after the Cellco decision seems like the most likely outcome: Tatel, joined by at least Silberman, could strike down the entire Order as imposing common carriage — while offering the FCC a roadmap to try its hand at Net Neutrality yet again by rewriting the discrimination rule to allow for prioritized or accelerated carriage on commercially reasonable terms.

Or, if the the court decides the order is severable, it could strike down just the nondiscrimination rule — assuming the court could find either direct or ancillary jurisdiction for both the transparency rule and the non-discrimination rule.

Either way, an FCC loss will mean that negotiated arrangements for priority carriage will be governed under something more like a rule of reason. The FCC could try to create its own rule.  Or the matter could simply be left to the antitrust and consumer protection laws enforced by the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, the states and private plaintiffs. We think the latter’s definitely the best approach. But whether it is or not, it will be the controlling legal authority on the ground the day the FCC loses — unless and until the FCC issues revised rules (or Congress passes a law) that can survive judicial review.

Ultimately, we suspect the FCC will have a hard time letting go. After 79 years, it’s clearly in denial about its growing obsolescence.

William Buckley once described a conservative as “someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” Ironically, this definition applies to Professor Tim Wu’s stance against the Supreme Court applying the Constitution’s protections to the information age.

Wu admits he is going against the grain by fighting what he describes as leading liberals from the civil rights era, conservatives and economic libertarians bent on deregulation, and corporations practicing “First Amendment opportunism.” Wu wants to reorient our thinking on the First Amendment, limiting its domain to what he believes are its rightful boundaries.

But in his relatively recent piece in The New Republic and journal article in U Penn Law Review, Wu bites off more than he can chew. First, Wu does not recognize that the First Amendment is used “opportunistically” only because the New Deal revolution and subsequent jurisprudence has foreclosed all other Constitutional avenues to challenge economic regulations. Second, his positive formulation for differentiating protected speech from non-speech will lead to results counter to his stated preferences. Third, contra both conservatives like Bork and liberals like Wu, the Constitution’s protections can and should be adapted to new technologies, consistent with the original meaning.

Wu’s Irrational Lochner-Baiting

Wu makes the case that the First Amendment has been interpreted to protect things that aren’t really within the First Amendment’s purview. He starts his New Republic essay with Sorrell v. IMS (cf. TechFreedom’s Amicus Brief), describing the data mining process as something undeserving of any judicial protection. He deems the application of the First Amendment to economic regulation a revival of Lochner, evincing a misunderstanding of the case that appeals to undefended academic prejudice and popular ignorance. This is important because the economic liberty which was long protected by the Constitution, either as matter of federalism or substantive rights, no longer has any protection from government power aside from the First Amendment jurisprudence Wu decries.

Lochner v. New York is a 1905 Supreme Court case that has received more scorn, left and right, than just about any case that isn’t dealing with slavery or segregation. This has led to the phenomenon (my former Constitutional Law) Professor David Bernstein calls “Lochner-baiting,” where a commentator describes any Supreme Court decision with which he or she disagrees as Lochnerism. Wu does this throughout his New Republic piece, somehow seeing parallels between application of the First Amendment to the Internet and a Liberty of Contract case under substantive Due Process.

The idea that economic regulation should receive little judicial scrutiny is not new. In fact, it has been the operating law since at least the famous Carolene Products footnote four. However, the idea that only insular and discrete minorities should receive First Amendment protection is a novel application of law. Wu implicitly argues exactly this when he says “corporations are not the Jehovah’s Witnesses, unpopular outsiders needing a safeguard that legislators and law enforcement could not be moved to provide.” On the contrary, the application of First Amendment protections to Jehovah’s Witnesses and student protesters is part and parcel of the application of the First Amendment to advertising and data that drives the Internet. Just because Wu does not believe businesspersons need the Constitution’s protections does not mean they do not apply.

Finally, while Wu may be correct that the First Amendment should not apply to everything for which it is being asserted today, he does not seem to recognize why there is “First Amendment opportunism.” In theory, those trying to limit the power of government over economic regulation could use any number of provisions in the text of the Constitution: enumerated powers of Congress and the Tenth Amendment, the Ninth Amendment, the Contracts Clause, the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Equal Protection Clause, etc. For much of the Constitution’s history, the combination of these clauses generally restricted the growth of government over economic affairs. Lochner was just one example of courts generally putting the burden on governments to show the restrictions placed upon economic liberty are outweighed by public interest considerations.

The Lochner court actually protected a small bakery run by immigrants from special interest legislation aimed at putting them out of business on behalf of bigger, established competitors. Shifting this burden away from government and towards the individual is not clearly the good thing Wu assumes. Applying the same Liberty of Contract doctrine, the Supreme Court struck down legislation enforcing housing segregation in Buchanan v. Warley and legislation outlawing the teaching of the German language in Meyer v. Nebraska. After the New Deal revolution, courts chose to apply only rational basis review to economic regulation, and would need to find a new way to protect fundamental rights that were once classified as economic in nature. The burden shifted to individuals to prove an economic regulation is not loosely related to any conceivable legitimate governmental purpose.

Now, the only Constitutional avenue left for a winnable challenge of economic regulation is the First Amendment. Under the rational basis test, the Tenth Circuit in Powers v. Harris actually found that protecting businesses from competition is a legitimate state interest. This is why the cat owner Wu references in his essay and describes in more detail in his law review article brought a First Amendment claim against a regime requiring licensing of his talking cat show: there is basically no other Constitutional protection against burdensome economic regulation.

The More You Edit, the More Your <sic> Protected?

In his law review piece, Machine Speech, Wu explains that the First Amendment has a functionality requirement. He points out that the First Amendment has never been interpreted to mean, and should not mean, that all communication is protected. Wu believes the dividing lines between protected and unprotected speech should be whether the communicator is a person attempting to communicate a specific message in a non-mechanical way to another, and whether the communication at issue is more speech than conduct. The first test excludes carriers and conduits that handle or process information but have an ultimately functional relationship with it–like Federal Express or a telephone company. The second excludes tools, those works that are purely functional like navigational charts, court filings, or contracts.

Of course, Wu admits the actual application of his test online can be difficult. In his law review article he deals with some easy cases, like the obvious application of the First Amendment to blog posts, tweets, and video games, and non-application to Google Maps. Of course, harder cases are the main target of his article: search engines, automated concierges, and other algorithm-based services. At the very end of his law review article, Wu finally states how to differentiate between protected speech and non-speech in such cases:

The rule of thumb is this: the more the concierge merely tells the user about himself, the more like a tool and less like protected speech the program is. The more the programmer puts in place his opinion, and tries to influence the user, the more likely there will be First Amendment coverage. These are the kinds of considerations that ultimately should drive every algorithmic output case that courts could encounter.

Unfortunately for Wu, this test would lead to results counterproductive to his goals.

Applying this rationale to Google, for instance, would lead to the perverse conclusion that the more the allegations against the company about tinkering with its algorithm to disadvantage competitors are true, the more likely Google would receive First Amendment protection. And if Net Neutrality advocates are right that ISPs are restricting consumer access to content, then the analogy to the newspaper in Tornillo becomes a good one–ISPs have a right to exercise editorial discretion and mandating speech would be unconstitutional. The application of Wu’s test to search engines and ISPs effectively puts them in a “use it or lose it” position with their First Amendment rights that courts have rejected. The idea that antitrust and FCC regulations can apply without First Amendment scrutiny only if search engines and ISPs are not doing anything requiring antitrust or FCC scrutiny is counterproductive to sound public policy–and presumably, the regulatory goals Wu holds.

First Amendment Dynamism

The application of the First Amendment to the Internet Age does not involve large leaps of logic from current jurisprudence. As Stuart Minor Benjamin shows in his article in the same issue of the U Penn Law Review, the bigger leap would be to follow Wu’s recommendations. We do not need a 21st Century First Amendment that some on the left have called for—the original one will do just fine.

This is because the Constitution’s protections can be dynamically applied, consistent with original meaning. Wu’s complaint is that he does not like how the First Amendment has evolved. Even his points that have merit, though, seem to indicate a stasis mentality. In her book, The Future and Its Enemies, Virginia Postrel described this mentality as a preference for a “controlled, uniform society that changes only with permission from some central authority.” But the First Amendment’s text is not a grant of power to the central authority to control or permit anything. It actually restricts government from intervening into the open-ended society where creativity and enterprise, operating under predictable rules, generate progress in unpredictable ways.

The application of current First Amendment jurisprudence to search engines, ISPs, and data mining will not necessarily create a world where machines have rights. Wu is right that the line must be drawn somewhere, but his technocratic attempt to empower government officials to control innovation is short-sighted. Ultimately, the First Amendment is as much about protecting the individuals who innovate and create online as those in the offline world. Such protection embraces the future instead of fearing it.