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The FCC’s blind, headlong drive to “unlock” the set-top box market is disconnected from both legal and market realities. Legally speaking, and as we’ve noted on this blog many times over the past few months (see here, here and here), the set-top box proposal is nothing short of an assault on contracts, property rights, and the basic freedom of consumers to shape their own video experience.

Although much of the impulse driving the Chairman to tilt at set-top box windmills involves a distrust that MVPDs could ever do anything procompetitive, Comcast’s recent decision (actually, long in the making) to include an app from Netflix — their alleged arch-rival — on the X1 platform highlights the FCC’s poor grasp of market realities as well. And it hardly seems that Comcast was dragged kicking and screaming to this point, as many of the features it includes have been long under development and include important customer-centered enhancements:

We built this experience on the core foundational elements of the X1 platform, taking advantage of key technical advances like universal search, natural language processing, IP stream processing and a cloud-based infrastructure.  We have expanded X1’s voice control to make watching Netflix content as simple as saying, “Continue watching Daredevil.”

Yet, on the topic of consumer video choice, Chairman Wheeler lives in two separate worlds. On the one hand, he recognizes that:

There’s never been a better time to watch television in America. We have more options than ever, and, with so much competition for eyeballs, studios and artists keep raising the bar for quality content.

But, on the other hand, he asserts that when it comes to set-top boxes, there is no such choice, and consumers have suffered accordingly.

Of course, this ignores the obvious fact that nearly all pay-TV content is already available from a large number of outlets, and that competition between devices and services that deliver this content is plentiful.

In fact, ten years ago — before Apple TV, Roku, Xfinity X1 and Hulu (among too many others to list) — Gigi Sohn, Chairman Wheeler’s chief legal counsel, argued before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that:

We are living in a digital gold age and consumers… are the beneficiaries.  Consumers have numerous choices for buying digital content and for buying devices on which to play that content. (emphasis added)

And, even on the FCC’s own terms, the multichannel video market is presumptively competitive nationwide with

direct broadcast satellite (DBS) providers’ market share of multi-channel video programming distributors (MVPDs) subscribers [rising] to 33.8%. “Telco” MVPDs increased their market share to 13% and their nationwide footprint grew by 5%. Broadband service providers such as Google Fiber also expanded their footprints. Meanwhile, cable operators’ market share fell to 52.8% of MVPD subscribers.

Online video distributor (OVD) services continue to grow in popularity with consumers. Netflix now has 47 million or more subscribers in the U.S., Amazon Prime has close to 60 million, and Hulu has close to 12 million. By contrast, cable MVPD subscriptions dropped to 53.7 million households in 2014.

The extent of competition has expanded dramatically over the years, and Comcast’s inclusion of Netflix in its ecosystem is only the latest indication of this market evolution.

And to further underscore the outdated notion of focusing on “boxes,” AT&T just announced that it would be offering a fully apps-based version of its Direct TV service. And what was one of the main drivers of AT&T being able to go in this direction? It was because the company realized the good economic sense of ditching boxes altogether:

The company will be able to give consumers a break [on price] because of the low cost of delivering the service. AT&T won’t have to send trucks to install cables or set-top boxes; customers just need to download an app. 

And lest you think that Comcast’s move was merely a cynical response meant to undermine the Commissioner (although, it is quite enjoyable on that score), the truth is that Comcast has no choice but to offer services like this on its platform — and it’s been making moves like this for quite some time (see here and here). Everyone knows, MVPDs included, that apps distributed on a range of video platforms are the future. If Comcast didn’t get on board the apps train, it would have been left behind at the station.

And there is other precedent for expecting just this convergence of video offerings on a platform. For instance, Amazon’s Fire TV gives consumers the Amazon video suite — available through the Prime Video subscription — but they also give you access to apps like Netflix, Hulu. (Of course Amazon is a so-called edge provider, so when it makes the exact same sort of moves that Comcast is now making, its easy for those who insist on old market definitions to miss the parallels.)

The point is, where Amazon and Comcast are going to make their money is in driving overall usage of their platform because, inevitably, no single service is going to have every piece of content a given user wants. Long term viability in the video market is necessarily going to be about offering consumers more choice, not less. And, in this world, the box that happens to be delivering the content is basically irrelevant; it’s the competition between platform providers that matters.

As Commissioner Wheeler moves forward with his revised set-top box proposal, and on the eve of tomorrow’s senate FCC oversight hearing, we would do well to reflect on some insightful testimony regarding another of the Commission’s rulemakings from ten years ago:

We are living in a digital gold age and consumers… are the beneficiaries. Consumers have numerous choices for buying digital content and for buying devices on which to play that content. They have never had so much flexibility and so much opportunity.  

* * *

As the content industry has ramped up on-line delivery of content, it has been testing a variety of protection measures that provide both security for the industry and flexibility for consumers.

So to answer the question, can content protection and technological innovation coexist?  It is a resounding yes. Look at the robust market for on-line content distribution facilitated by the technologies and networks consumers love.

* * *

[T]he Federal Communications Commission should not become the Federal Computer Commission or the Federal Copyright Commission, and the marketplace, not the Government, is the best arbiter of what technologies succeed or fail.

That’s not the self-interested testimony of a studio or cable executive — that was Gigi Sohn, current counsel to Chairman Wheeler, speaking on behalf of Public Knowledge in 2006 before the House Energy and Commerce Committee against the FCC’s “broadcast flag” rules. Those rules, supported by a broad spectrum of rightsholders, required consumer electronics devices to respect programming conditions preventing the unauthorized transmission over the internet of digital broadcast television content.

Ms. Sohn and Public Knowledge won that fight in court, convincing the DC Circuit that Congress hadn’t given the FCC authority to impose the rules in the first place, and she successfully urged Congress not to give the FCC the authority to reinstate them.

Yet today, she and the Chairman seem to have forgotten her crucial insights from ten years ago. If the marketplace for video content was sufficiently innovative and competitive then, how can it possibly not be so now, with audiences having orders of magnitude more choices, both online and off? And if the FCC lacked authority to adopt copyright-related rules then, how does the FCC suddenly have that authority now, in the absence of any intervening congressional action?

With Section 106 of the Copyright Act, Congress granted copyright holders the exclusive rights to engage in or license the reproduction, distribution, and public performance of their works. The courts are the “backstop,” not the FCC (as Chairman Wheeler would have it), and section 629 of the Communications Act doesn’t say otherwise. All section 629 does is direct the FCC to promote a competitive market for devices to access pay-TV services from pay-TV providers. As we noted last week, it very simply doesn’t allow the FCC to interfere with the license arrangements that fill those devices, and, short of explicit congressional direction, the Commission is simply not empowered to interfere with the framework set forth in the Copyright Act.

Chairman Wheeler’s latest proposal has improved on his initial plan by, for example, moving toward an applications-based approach and away from the mandatory disaggregation of content. But it would still arrogate to the FCC the authority to stand up a licensing body for the distribution of content over pay-TV applications; set rules on the terms such licenses must, may, and may not include; and even allow the FCC itself to create terms or the entire license. Such rules would necessarily implicate the extent to which rightsholders are able to control the distribution of their content.

The specifics of the regulations may be different from 2006, but the point is the same: What the FCC could not do in 2006, it cannot do today.

Imagine if you will… that a federal regulatory agency were to decide that the iPhone ecosystem was too constraining and too expensive; that consumers — who had otherwise voted for iPhones with their dollars — were being harmed by the fact that the platform was not “open” enough.

Such an agency might resolve (on the basis of a very generous reading of a statute), to force Apple to make its iOS software available to any hardware platform that wished to have it, in the process making all of the apps and user data accessible to the consumer via these new third parties, on terms set by the agency… for free.

Difficult as it may be to picture this ever happening, it is exactly the sort of Twilight Zone scenario that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is currently proposing with his new set-top box proposal.

Based on the limited information we have so far (a fact sheet and an op-ed), Chairman Wheeler’s new proposal does claw back some of the worst excesses of his initial draft (which we critiqued in our comments and reply comments to that proposal).

But it also appears to reinforce others — most notably the plan’s disregard for the right of content creators to control the distribution of their content. Wheeler continues to dismiss the complex business models, relationships, and licensing terms that have evolved over years of competition and innovation. Instead, he offers  a one-size-fits-all “solution” to a “problem” that market participants are already falling over themselves to provide.

Plus ça change…

To begin with, Chairman Wheeler’s new proposal is based on the same faulty premise: that consumers pay too much for set-top boxes, and that the FCC is somehow both prescient enough and Congressionally ordained to “fix” this problem. As we wrote in our initial comments, however,

[a]lthough the Commission asserts that set-top boxes are too expensive, the history of overall MVPD prices tells a remarkably different story. Since 1994, per-channel cable prices including set-top box fees have fallen by 2 percent, while overall consumer prices have increased by 54 percent. After adjusting for inflation, this represents an impressive overall price decrease.

And the fact is that no one buys set-top boxes in isolation; rather, the price consumers pay for cable service includes the ability to access that service. Whether the set-top box fee is broken out on subscribers’ bills or not, the total price consumers pay is unlikely to change as a result of the Commission’s intervention.

As we have previously noted, the MVPD set-top box market is an aftermarket; no one buys set-top boxes without first (or simultaneously) buying MVPD service. And as economist Ben Klein (among others) has shown, direct competition in the aftermarket need not be plentiful for the market to nevertheless be competitive:

Whether consumers are fully informed or uninformed, consumers will pay a competitive package price as long as sufficient competition exists among sellers in the [primary] market.

Engineering the set-top box aftermarket to bring more direct competition to bear may redistribute profits, but it’s unlikely to change what consumers pay.

Stripped of its questionable claims regarding consumer prices and placed in the proper context — in which consumers enjoy more ways to access more video content than ever before — Wheeler’s initial proposal ultimately rested on its promise to “pave the way for a competitive marketplace for alternate navigation devices, and… end the need for multiple remote controls.” Weak sauce, indeed.

He now adds a new promise: that “integrated search” will be seamlessly available for consumers across the new platforms. But just as universal remotes and channel-specific apps on platforms like Apple TV have already made his “multiple remotes” promise a hollow one, so, too, have competitive pressures already begun to deliver integrated search.

Meanwhile, such marginal benefits come with a host of substantial costs, as others have pointed out. Do we really need the FCC to grant itself more powers and create a substantial and coercive new regulatory regime to mandate what the market is already poised to provide?

From ignoring copyright to obliterating copyright

Chairman Wheeler’s first proposal engendered fervent criticism for the impossible position in which it placed MVPDs — of having to disregard, even outright violate, their contractual obligations to content creators.

Commendably, the new proposal acknowledges that contractual relationships between MVPDs and content providers should remain “intact.” Thus, the proposal purports to enable programmers and MVPDs to maintain “their channel position, advertising and contracts… in place.” MVPDs will retain “end-to-end” control of the display of content through their apps, and all contractually guaranteed content protection mechanisms will remain, because the “pay-TV’s software will manage the full suite of linear and on-demand programming licensed by the pay-TV provider.”

But, improved as it is, the new proposal continues to operate in an imagined world where the incredibly intricate and complex process by which content is created and distributed can be reduced to the simplest of terms, dictated by a regulator and applied uniformly across all content and all providers.

According to the fact sheet, the new proposal would “[p]rotect[] copyrights and… [h]onor[] the sanctity of contracts” through a “standard license”:

The proposed final rules require the development of a standard license governing the process for placing an app on a device or platform. A standard license will give device manufacturers the certainty required to bring innovative products to market… The license will not affect the underlying contracts between programmers and pay-TV providers. The FCC will serve as a backstop to ensure that nothing in the standard license will harm the marketplace for competitive devices.

But programming is distributed under a diverse range of contract terms. The only way a single, “standard license” could possibly honor these contracts is by forcing content providers to license all of their content under identical terms.

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that the FCC has no authority whatever to do this, for such a scheme to work, the agency would necessarily have to strip content holders of their right to govern the terms on which their content is accessed. After all, if MVPDs are legally bound to redistribute content on fixed terms, they have no room to permit content creators to freely exercise their rights to specify terms like windowing, online distribution restrictions, geographic restrictions, and the like.

In other words, the proposal simply cannot deliver on its promise that “[t]he license will not affect the underlying contracts between programmers and pay-TV providers.”

But fear not: According to the Fact Sheet, “[p]rogrammers will have a seat at the table to ensure that content remains protected.” Such largesse! One would be forgiven for assuming that the programmers’ (single?) seat will surrounded by those of other participants — regulatory advocates, technology companies, and others — whose sole objective will be to minimize content companies’ ability to restrict the terms on which their content is accessed.

And we cannot ignore the ominous final portion of the Fact Sheet’s “Standard License” description: “The FCC will serve as a backstop to ensure that nothing in the standard license will harm the marketplace for competitive devices.” Such an arrogation of ultimate authority by the FCC doesn’t bode well for that programmer’s “seat at the table” amounting to much.

Unfortunately, we can only imagine the contours of the final proposal that will describe the many ways by which distribution licenses can “harm the marketplace for competitive devices.” But an educated guess would venture that there will be precious little room for content creators and MVPDs to replicate a large swath of the contract terms they currently employ. “Any content owner can have its content painted any color that it wants, so long as it is black.”

At least we can take solace in the fact that the FCC has no authority to do what Wheeler wants it to do

And, of course, this all presumes that the FCC will be able to plausibly muster the legal authority in the Communications Act to create what amounts to a de facto compulsory licensing scheme.

A single license imposed upon all MVPDs, along with the necessary restrictions this will place upon content creators, does just as much as an overt compulsory license to undermine content owners’ statutory property rights. For every license agreement that would be different than the standard agreement, the proposed standard license would amount to a compulsory imposition of terms that the rights holders and MVPDs would not otherwise have agreed to. And if this sounds tedious and confusing, just wait until the Commission starts designing its multistakeholder Standard Licensing Oversight Process (“SLOP”)….

Unfortunately for Chairman Wheeler (but fortunately for the rest of us), the FCC has neither the legal authority, nor the requisite expertise, to enact such a regime.

Last month, the Copyright Office was clear on this score in its letter to Congress commenting on the Chairman’s original proposal:  

[I]t is important to remember that only Congress, through the exercise of its power under the Copyright Clause, and not the FCC or any other agency, has the constitutional authority to create exceptions and limitations in copyright law. While Congress has enacted compulsory licensing schemes, they have done so in response to demonstrated market failures, and in a carefully circumscribed manner.

Assuming that Section 629 of the Communications Act — the provision that otherwise empowers the Commission to promote a competitive set-top box market — fails to empower the FCC to rewrite copyright law (which is assuredly the case), the Commission will be on shaky ground for the inevitable torrent of lawsuits that will follow the revised proposal.

In fact, this new proposal feels more like an emergency pivot by a panicked Chairman than an actual, well-grounded legal recommendation. While the new proposal improves upon the original, it retains at its core the same ill-informed, ill-advised and illegal assertion of authority that plagued its predecessor.

The American concept of “the rule of law” (see here) is embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and in the constitutional principles of separation of powers, an independent judiciary, a government under law, and equality of all before the law (see here).  It holds that the executive must comply with the law because ours is “a government of laws, and not of men,” or, as Justice Anthony Kennedy put it in a 2006 address to the American Bar Association, “that the Law is superior to, and thus binds, the government and all its officials.”  (See here.)  More specifically, and consistent with these broader formulations, the late and great legal philosopher Friedrich Hayek wrote that the rule of law “means the government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand – rules which make it possible to see with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and to plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge.”  (See here.)  In other words, as former Boston University Law School Dean Ron Cass put it, the rule of law involves “a system of binding rules” adopted and applied by a valid government authority that embody “clarity, predictability, and equal applicability.”  (See here.)

Regrettably, by engaging in regulatory overreach and ignoring statutory limitations on the scope of their authority, federal administrative agencies have shown scant appreciation for rule of law restraints under the current administration (see here and here for commentaries on this problem by Heritage Foundation scholars).  Although many agencies could be singled out, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) actions in recent years have been especially egregious (see here).

A prime example of regulatory overreach by the FCC that flouted the rule of law was its promulgation in 2015 of an order preempting state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that prevented municipally-owned broadband providers from providing broadband service beyond their geographic boundaries (Municipal Broadband Order, see here).   As a matter of substance, this decision ignored powerful economic evidence that municipally-provided broadband services often involve wasteful subsidies for financially–troubled government-owned providers that interfere with effective private sector competition and are economically harmful (my analysis is here).   As a legal matter, the Municipal Broadband Order went beyond the FCC’s statutory authority and raises grave constitutional problems, thereby ignoring the constitutional limitations placed on the exercise of governmental powers that lie at the heart of the rule of law (see here).  The Order lacked a sound legal footing in basing its authority on Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which merely authorizes the FCC to promote local broadband competition and investment (a goal which the Order did not advance) and says nothing about preemption.   In addition, the FCC’s invocation of preemption authority trenched upon the power of the states to control their subordinate governmental entities, guaranteed to them by the Constitution as an essential element of their sovereignty in our federal system (see here).   What’s more, the Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina municipal broadband systems that had requested FCC preemption imposed content-based restrictions on users of their network that raised serious First Amendment issues (see here).   Specifically, those systems’ bans on the transmittal of various sorts of “abusive” language appeared to be too broad to withstand First Amendment “strict scrutiny.”  Moreover, by requiring prospective broadband enrollees to agree not to sue their provider as an initial condition of service, two of the municipal systems arguably unconstitutionally coerced users to forgo exercise of their First Amendment rights.

Fortunately, on August 10, 2016, in Tennessee v. FCC, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit struck down the Municipal Broadband Order, pithily stating:

The FCC order essentially serves to re-allocate decision-making power between the states and their municipalities. This is shown by the fact that no federal statute or FCC regulation requires the municipalities to expand or otherwise to act in contravention of the preempted state statutory provisions. This preemption by the FCC of the allocation of power between a state and its subdivisions requires at least a clear statement in the authorizing federal legislation. The FCC relies upon § 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 for the authority to preempt in this case, but that statute falls far short of such a clear statement. The preemption order must accordingly be reversed.

The Sixth Circuit’s decision has important policy ramifications that extend beyond the immediate controversy, as Free State Foundation Scholars Randolph May and Seth Cooper explain:

The FCC’s Municipal Broadband Preemption Order would have turned constitutional federalism inside out by severing local political subdivisions’ accountability from the states governments that created them. Had the agency’s order been upheld, the FCC surely would have preempted several other state laws restricting municipalities’ ownership and operation of broadband networks. Several state governments would have been locked into an unwise policy of favoring municipal broadband business ventures with a track record of legal and proprietary conflicts of interest, expensive financial failures, and burdensome debts for local taxpayers.

The avoidance of a series of bad side effects in a corner of the regulatory world is not, however, sufficient grounds for breaking out the champagne.  From a global perspective, the Sixth Circuit’s Tennessee v. FCC decision, while helpful, does not address the broader problem of agency disregard for the limitations of constitutional federalism and the rule of law.  Administrative overreach, like a chronic debilitating virus, saps the initiative of the private sector (and, more generally, the body politic) and undermines its vitality.  In addition, not all federal judges can be counted on to rein in legally unjustified rules (which in any event impose costly delay and uncertainty, even if they are eventually overturned).  What is needed is an administration that emphasizes by word and deed that it is committed to constitutionalist rule of law principles – and insists that its appointees (including commissioners of independent agencies) share that philosophy.  Let us hope that we do not have to wait too long for such an administration.

Copyright law, ever a sore point in some quarters, has found a new field of battle in the FCC’s recent set-top box proposal. At the request of members of Congress, the Copyright Office recently wrote a rather thorough letter outlining its view of the FCC’s proposal on rightsholders.

In sum, the CR’s letter was an even-handed look at the proposal which concluded:

As a threshold matter, it seems critical that any revised proposal respect the authority of creators to manage the exploitation of their copyrighted works through private licensing arrangements, because regulatory actions that undermine such arrangements would be inconsistent with the rights granted under the Copyright Act.

This fairly uncontroversial statement of basic legal principle was met with cries of alarm. And Stanford’s CIS had a post from Affiliated Scholar Annemarie Bridy that managed to trot out breathless comparisons to inapposite legal theories while simultaneously misconstruing the “fair use” doctrine (as well as how Copyright law works in the video market, for that matter).

Look out! Lochner is coming!

In its letter the Copyright Office warned the FCC that its proposed rules have the potential to disrupt the web of contracts that underlie cable programming, and by extension, risk infringing the rights of copyright holders to commercially exploit their property. This analysis actually tracks what Geoff Manne and I wrote in both our initial comment and our reply comment to the set-top box proposal.

Yet Professor Bridy seems to believe that, notwithstanding the guarantees of both the Constitution and Section 106 of the Copyright Act, the FCC should have the power to abrogate licensing contracts between rightsholders and third parties.  She believes that

[t]he Office’s view is essentially that the Copyright Act gives right holders not only the limited range of rights enumerated in Section 106 (i.e., reproduction, preparation of derivative works, distribution, public display, and public performance), but also a much broader and more amorphous right to “manage the commercial exploitation” of copyrighted works in whatever ways they see fit and can accomplish in the marketplace, without any regulatory interference from the government.

What in the world does this even mean? A necessary logical corollary of the Section 106 rights includes the right to exploit works commercially as rightsholders see fit. Otherwise, what could it possibly mean to have the right to control the reproduction or distribution of a work? The truth is that Section 106 sets out a general set of rights that inhere in rightsholders with respect to their protected works, and that commercial exploitation is merely a subset of this total bundle of rights.

The ability to contract with other parties over these rights is also a necessary corollary of the property rights recognized in Section 106. After all, the right to exclude implies by necessity the right to include. Which is exactly what a licensing arrangement is.

But wait, there’s more — she actually managed to pull out the Lochner bogeyman to validate her argument!

The Office’s absolutist logic concerning freedom of contract in the copyright licensing domain is reminiscent of the Supreme Court’s now-infamous reasoning in Lochner v. New York, a 1905 case that invalidated a state law limiting maximum working hours for bakers on the ground that it violated employer-employee freedom of contract. The Court in Lochner deprived the government of the ability to provide basic protections for workers in a labor environment that subjected them to unhealthful and unsafe conditions. As Julie Cohen describes it, “‘Lochner’ has become an epithet used to characterize an outmoded, over-narrow way of thinking about state and federal economic regulation; it goes without saying that hardly anybody takes the doctrine it represents seriously.”

This is quite a leap of logic, as there is precious little in common between the letter from the Copyright Office and the Lochner opinion aside from the fact that both contain the word “contracts” in their pages.  Perhaps the most critical problem with Professor Bridy’s analogy is the fact that Lochner was about a legislature interacting with the common law system of contract, whereas the FCC is a body subordinate to Congress, and IP is both constitutionally and statutorily guaranteed. A sovereign may be entitled to interfere with the operation of common law, but an administrative agency does not have the same sort of legal status as a legislature when redefining general legal rights.

The key argument that Professor Bridy offered in support of her belief that the FCC should be free to abrogate contracts at will is that “[r]egulatory limits on private bargains may come in the form of antitrust laws or telecommunications laws or, as here, telecommunications regulations that further antitrust ends.”  However, this completely misunderstand U.S. constitutional doctrine.

In particular, as Geoff Manne and I discussed in our set-top box comments to the FCC, using one constitutional clause to end-run another constitutional clause is generally a no-no:

Regardless of whether or how well the rules effect the purpose of Sec. 629, copyright violations cannot be justified by recourse to the Communications Act. Provisions of the Communications Act — enacted under Congress’s Commerce Clause power — cannot be used to create an end run around limitations imposed by the Copyright Act under the Constitution’s Copyright Clause. “Congress cannot evade the limits of one clause of the Constitution by resort to another,” and thus neither can an agency acting within the scope of power delegated to it by Congress. Establishing a regulatory scheme under the Communications Act whereby compliance by regulated parties forces them to violate content creators’ copyrights is plainly unconstitutional.

Congress is of course free to establish the implementation of the Copyright Act as it sees fit. However, unless Congress itself acts to change that implementation, the FCC — or any other party — is not at liberty to interfere with rightsholders’ constitutionally guaranteed rights.

You Have to Break the Law Before You Raise a Defense

Another bone of contention upon which Professor Bridy gnaws is a concern that licensing contracts will abrogate an alleged right to “fair use” by making the defense harder to muster:  

One of the more troubling aspects of the Copyright Office’s letter is the length to which it goes to assert that right holders must be free in their licensing agreements with MVPDs to bargain away the public’s fair use rights… Of course, the right of consumers to time-shift video programming for personal use has been enshrined in law since Sony v. Universal in 1984. There’s no uncertainty about that particular fair use question—none at all.

The major problem with this reasoning (notwithstanding the somewhat misleading drafting of Section 107) is that “fair use” is not an affirmative right, it is an affirmative defense. Despite claims that “fair use” is a right, the Supreme Court has noted on at least two separate occasions (1, 2) that Section 107 was “structured… [as]… an affirmative defense requiring a case-by-case analysis.”

Moreover, important as the Sony case is, it does not not establish that “[t]here’s no uncertainty about [time-shifting as a] fair use question—none at all.” What it actually establishes is that, given the facts of that case, time-shifting was a fair use. Not for nothing the Sony Court notes at the outset of its opinion that

An explanation of our rejection of respondents’ unprecedented attempt to impose copyright liability upon the distributors of copying equipment requires a quite detailed recitation of the findings of the District Court.

But more generally, the Sony doctrine stands for the proposition that:

“The limited scope of the copyright holder’s statutory monopoly, like the limited copyright duration required by the Constitution, reflects a balance of competing claims upon the public interest: creative work is to be encouraged and rewarded, but private motivation must ultimately serve the cause of promoting broad public availability of literature, music, and the other arts. The immediate effect of our copyright law is to secure a fair return for an ‘author’s’ creative labor. But the ultimate aim is, by this incentive, to stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good. ‘The sole interest of the United States and the primary object in conferring the monopoly,’ this Court has said, ‘lie in the general benefits derived by the public from the labors of authors.’ Fox Film Corp. v. Doyal, 286 U. S. 123, 286 U. S. 127. See Kendall v. Winsor, 21 How. 322, 62 U. S. 327-328; Grant v. Raymond, 6 Pet. 218, 31 U. S. 241-242. When technological change has rendered its literal terms ambiguous, the Copyright Act must be construed in light of this basic purpose.” Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken, 422 U. S. 151, 422 U. S. 156 (1975) (footnotes omitted).

In other words, courts must balance competing interests to maximize “the general benefits derived by the public,” subject to technological change and other criteria that might shift that balance in any particular case.  

Thus, even as an affirmative defense, nothing is guaranteed. The court will have to walk through a balancing test, and only after that point, and if the accused party’s behavior has not tipped the scales against herself, will the court find the use a “fair use.”  

As I noted before,

Not surprisingly, other courts are inclined to follow the Supreme Court. Thus the Eleventh Circuit, the Southern District of New York, and the Central District of California (here and here), to name but a few, all explicitly refer to fair use as an affirmative defense. Oh, and the Ninth Circuit did too, at least until Lenz.

The Lenz case was an interesting one because, despite the above noted Supreme Court precedent treating “fair use” as a defense, it is one of the very few cases that has held “fair use” to be an affirmative right (in that case, the court decided that Section 1201 of the DMCA required consideration of “fair use” as a part of filling out a take-down notice). And in doing so, it too tried to rely on Sony to restructure the nature of “fair use.” But as I have previously written, “[i]t bears noting that the Court in Sony Corp. did not discuss whether or not fair use is an affirmative defense, whereas Acuff Rose (decided 10 years after Sony Corp.) and Harper & Row decisions do.”

Further, even the Eleventh Circuit, which the Ninth relied upon in Lenz, later clarified its position that the above-noted Supreme Court precedent definitely binds lower courts, and that “fair use” is in fact an affirmative defense.

Thus, to say that rightsholders’ licensing contracts somehow impinge a “right” of fair use completely puts the cart before the horse. Remember, as an affirmative defense, “fair use” is an excuse for otherwise infringing behavior, and rightsholders are well within their constitutional and statutory rights to avoid potential infringing uses.

Think about it this way. When you commit a crime you can raise a defense: for instance, an insanity defense. But just because you might be excused for committing a crime if a court finds you were not operating with full faculties, this does not entitle every insane person to go out and commit that crime. The insanity defense can be raised only after a crime is committed, and at that point it will be examined by a judge and jury to determine if applying the defense furthers the overall criminal law scheme.

“Fair use” works in exactly the same manner. And even though Sony described how time- and space-shifting were potentially permissible, it did so only by determining on those facts that the balancing test came out to allow it. So, maybe a particular time-shifting use would be “fair use.” But maybe not. More likely, in this case, even the allegedly well-established “fair use” of time-shifting in the context of today’s digital media, on-demand programing, Netflix and the like may not meet that burden.

And what this means is that a rightsholder does not have an ex ante obligation to consider whether a particular contractual clause might in some fashion or other give rise to a “fair use” defense.

The contrary point of view makes no sense. Because “fair use” is a defense, forcing parties to build “fair use” considerations into their contractual negotiations essentially requires them to build in an allowance for infringement — and one that a court might or might not ever find appropriate in light of the requisite balancing of interests. That just can’t be right.

Instead, I think this article is just a piece of the larger IP-skeptic movement. I suspect that when “fair use” was in its initial stages of development, it was intended as a fairly gentle softening on the limits of intellectual property — something like the “public necessity” doctrine in common law with respect to real property and trespass. However, that is just not how “fair use” advocates see it today. As Geoff Manne has noted, the idea of “permissionless innovation” has wrongly come to mean “no contracts required (or permitted)”:  

[Permissionless innovation] is used to justify unlimited expansion of fair use, and is extended by advocates to nearly all of copyright…, which otherwise requires those pernicious licenses (i.e., permission) from others.

But this position is nonsense — intangible property is still property. And at root, property is just a set of legal relations between persons that defines their rights and obligations with respect to some “thing.” It doesn’t matter if you can hold that thing in your hand or not. As property, IP can be subject to transfer and control through voluntarily created contracts.

Even if “fair use” were some sort of as-yet unknown fundamental right, it would still be subject to limitations upon it by other rights and obligations. To claim that “fair use” should somehow trump the right of a property holder to dispose of the property as she wishes is completely at odds with our legal system.

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.

Moreover,

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 ssrn.com/abstract=2808848.

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.

In recent years much ink has been spilled on the problem of online privacy breaches, involving the unauthorized use of personal information transmitted over the Internet.  Internet privacy concerns are warranted.  According to a 2016 National Telecommunications and Information Administration survey of Internet-using households, 19 percent of such households (representing nearly 19 million households) reported that they had been affected by an online security breach, identity theft, or similar malicious activity during the 12 months prior to the July 2015 survey.  Security breaches appear to be more common among the most intensive Internet-using households – 31 percent of those using at least five different types of online devices suffered such breaches.  Security breach statistics, of course, do not directly measure the consumer welfare losses attributable to the unauthorized use of personal data that consumers supply to Internet service providers and to the websites which they visit.

What is the correct overall approach government should take in dealing with Internet privacy problems?  In addressing this question, it is important to focus substantial attention on the effects of online privacy regulation on economic welfare.  In particular, policies should aim at addressing Internet privacy problems in a manner that does not unduly harm the private sector or deny opportunities to consumers who are not being harmed.  The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the federal government’s primary consumer protection agency, has been the principal federal regulator of online privacy practices.  Very recently, however, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has asserted the authority to regulate the privacy practices of broadband Internet service providers, and is proposing an extremely burdensome approach to such regulation that would, if implemented, have harmful economic consequences.

In March 2016, FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen succinctly summarized the FTC’s general approach to online privacy-related enforcement under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which proscribes unfair or deceptive acts or practices:

[U]nfairness establishes a baseline prohibition on practices that the overwhelming majority of consumers would never knowingly approve. Above that baseline, consumers remain free to find providers that match their preferences, and our deception authority governs those arrangements. . . .  The FTC’s case-by-case enforcement of our unfairness authority shapes our baseline privacy practices.  Like the common law, this incremental approach has proven both relatively predictable and adaptable as new technologies and business models emerge.

In November 2015, Professor (and former FTC Commissioner) Joshua Wright argued the FTC’s approach is insufficiently attuned to economic analysis, in particular, the “tradeoffs between the value to consumers and society of the free flow and exchange of data and the creation of new products and services on the one hand, against the value lost by consumers from any associated reduction in privacy.”  Nevertheless, on balance, FTC enforcement in this area generally is restrained and somewhat attentive to cost-benefit considerations.  (This undoubtedly reflects the fact (see my Heritage Legal Memorandum, here) that the statutory definition of “unfairness” in Section 5(n) of the FTC Act embodies cost-benefit analysis, and that the FTC’s Policy Statement on Deception requires detriment to consumers acting reasonably in the circumstances.)  In other words, federal enforcement policy with respect to online privacy, although it could be improved, is in generally good shape.

Or it was in good shape.  Unfortunately, on April 1, 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to inject itself into “privacy space” by issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking entitled “Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services.”  This “Privacy NPRM” sets forth detailed rules that, if adopted, would impose onerous privacy obligations on “Broadband Internet Access Service” (BIAS) Providers, the firms that provide the cables, wires, and telecommunications equipment through which Internet traffic flows – primarily cable (Comcast, for example) and telephone (Verizon, for example) companies.   The Privacy NPRM reclassifies BIAS provision as a “common carrier” service, thereby totally precluding the FTC from regulating BIAS Providers’ privacy practices (since the FTC is barred by law from regulating common carriers, under 15 U.S. Code § 45(a)(2)).  Put simply, the NPRM required BIAS Providers “to obtain express consent in advance of practically every use of a customer[s] data”, without regard to the effects of such a requirement on economic welfare.  All other purveyors of Internet services, however – in particular, the large numbers of “edge providers” that generate Internet content and services (Google, Amazon, and Facebook, for example) – are exempt from the new FCC regulatory requirements.  In short, the Privacy NPRM establishes a two-tier privacy regulatory system, with BIAS Providers subject to tight FCC privacy rules, while all other Internet service firms are subject to more nuanced, case-by-case, effects-based evaluation of their privacy practices by the FTC.  This disparate regulatory approach is peculiar (if not wholly illogical), since edge providers in general have greater access than BIAS Providers to consumers’ non-public information, and thus may appear to pose a greater threat to consumers’ interest in privacy.

The FCC’s proposal to regulate BIAS Providers’ privacy practices represents bad law and horrible economic policy.  First, it undermines the rule of law by extending the FCC’s authority beyond its congressional mandate.  It does this by basing its regulation of a huge universe of information exchanges on Section 222 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a narrow provision aimed at a very limited type of customer-related data obtained in connection with old-style voice telephony transmissions.  This is egregious regulatory overreach.  Second, if implemented, it will harm consumers, producers, and the overall economic by imposing a set of sweeping opt-in consent requirements on BIAS Providers, without regard to private sector burdens or actual consumer welfare (see here); by reducing BIAS Provider revenues and thereby dampening investment that is vital to the continued growth of and innovation in Internet-related industries (see here); by reducing the ability of BIAS Providers to provide welfare-enhancing competitive pressure on providers on Internet edge providers (see here); and by raising consumer prices for Internet services and deny discount programs desired by consumers (see here).

What’s worse, the FCC’s proposed involvement in online privacy oversight comes at a time of increased Internet privacy regulation by foreign countries, much of it highly intrusive and lacking in economic sophistication.  A particularly noteworthy effort to clarify cross-national legal standards is the Privacy Shield, a 2016 United States – European Union agreement that establishes regulatory online privacy protection norms, backed by FTC enforcement, that U.S. companies transmitting data into Europe may choose to accept on a voluntary basis.  (If they do not accede to the Shield, they may be subject to uncertain and heavy-handed European sanctions.)  The Privacy NPRM, if implemented, will create an additional concern for BIAS Providers, since they will have to evaluate the implications of new FCC regulation (rather than simply rely on FTC oversight) in deciding whether to opt in to the Shield’s standards and obligations.

In sum, the FCC’s Privacy NPRM would, if implemented, harm consumers and producers, slow innovation, and offend the rule of law.  This prompts four recommendations.

  • The FCC should withdraw the NPRM and leave it to the FTC to oversee all online privacy practices, under its Section 5 unfairness and deception authority. The adoption of the Privacy Shield, which designates the FTC as the responsible American privacy oversight agency, further strengthens the case against FCC regulation in this area. 
  • In overseeing online privacy practices, the FTC should employ a very light touch that stresses economic analysis and cost-benefit considerations. Moreover, it should avoid requiring that rigid privacy policy conditions be kept in place for long periods of time through consent decree conditions, in order to allow changing market conditions to shape and improve business privacy policies. 
  • Moreover, the FTC should borrow a page from former FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright by implementing an “economic approach” to privacy. Under such an approach:  

o             FTC economists would help make the Commission a privacy “thought leader” by developing a rigorous academic research agenda on the economics of privacy, featuring the economic evaluation of industry sectors and practices; 

o             the FTC would bear the burden of proof of showing that violations of a company’s privacy policy are material to consumer decision-making;

o             FTC economists would report independently to the FTC about proposed privacy-related enforcement initiatives; and

o             the FTC would publish the views of its Bureau of Economics in all privacy-related consent decrees that are placed on the public record.   

  • The FTC should encourage the European Commission and other foreign regulators to take into account the economics of privacy in developing their privacy regulatory policies. In so doing, it should emphasize that innovation is harmed, the beneficial development of the Internet is slowed, and consumer welfare and rights are undermined through highly prescriptive regulation in this area (well-intentioned though it may be).  Relatedly, the FTC and other U.S. Government negotiators should argue against adoption of a “one-size-fits-all” global privacy regulation framework.   Such a global framework could harmfully freeze into place over-regulatory policies and preclude beneficial experimentation in alternative forms of “lighter-touch” regulation and enforcement. 

While no panacea, these recommendations would help deter (or, at least, constrain) the economically harmful government micromanagement of businesses’ privacy practices, in the United States and abroad.

Yesterday, the International Center for Law & Economics filed reply comments in the docket of the FCC’s Broadband Privacy NPRM. ICLE was joined in its comments by the following scholars of law & economics:

  • Babette E. Boliek, Associate Professor of Law, Pepperdine School of Law
  • Adam Candeub, Professor of Law, Michigan State University College of Law
  • Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, Assistant Professor of Law, Nebraska College of Law
  • Daniel Lyons, Associate Professor, Boston College Law School
  • Geoffrey A. Manne, Executive Director, International Center for Law & Economics
  • Paul H. Rubin, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics, Emory University Department of Economics

As in our initial comments, we drew on the economic scholarship of multi-sided platforms to argue that the FCC failed to consider the ways in which asymmetric regulation will ultimately have negative competitive effects and harm consumers. The FCC and some critics claimed that ISPs are gatekeepers deserving of special regulation — a case that both the FCC and the critics failed to make.

The NPRM fails adequately to address these issues, to make out an adequate case for the proposed regulation, or to justify treating ISPs differently than other companies that collect and use data.

Perhaps most important, the NPRM also fails to acknowledge or adequately assess the actual market in which the use of consumer data arises: the advertising market. Whether intentionally or not, this NPRM is not primarily about regulating consumer privacy; it is about keeping ISPs out of the advertising business. But in this market, ISPs are upstarts challenging the dominant position of firms like Google and Facebook.

Placing onerous restrictions upon ISPs alone results in either under-regulation of edge providers or over-regulation of ISPs within the advertising market, without any clear justification as to why consumer privacy takes on different qualities for each type of advertising platform. But the proper method of regulating privacy is, in fact, the course that both the FTC and the FCC have historically taken, and which has yielded a stable, evenly administered regime: case-by-case examination of actual privacy harms and a minimalist approach to ex ante, proscriptive regulations.

We also responded to particular claims made by New America’s Open Technology Institute about the expectations of consumers regarding data collection online, the level of competitiveness in the marketplace, and the technical realities that differentiate ISPs from edge providers.

OTI attempts to substitute its own judgment of what consumers (should) believe about their data for that of consumers themselves. And in the process it posits a “context” that can and will never shift as new technology and new opportunities emerge. Such a view of consumer expectations is flatly anti-innovation and decidedly anti-consumer, consigning broadband users to yesterday’s technology and business models. The rule OTI supports could effectively forbid broadband providers from offering consumers the option to trade data for lower prices.

Our reply comments went on to point out that much of the basis upon which the NPRM relies — and alleged lack of adequate competition among ISPs — was actually a “manufactured scarcity” based upon the Commission’s failure to properly analyze the relevant markets.

The Commission’s claim that ISPs, uniquely among companies in the modern data economy, face insufficient competition in the broadband market is… insufficiently supported. The flawed manner in which the Commission has defined the purported relevant market for broadband distorts the analysis upon which the proposed rules are based, and manufactures a false scarcity in order to justify unduly burdensome privacy regulations for ISPs. Even the Commission’s own data suggest that consumer choice is alive and well in broadband… The reality is that there is in fact enough competition in the broadband market to offer privacy-sensitive consumers options if they are ever faced with what they view as overly invasive broadband business practices. According to the Commission, as of December 2014, 74% of American homes had a choice of two or more wired ISPs delivering download speeds of at least 10 Mbps, and 88% had a choice of at least two providers of 3 Mbps service. Meanwhile, 93% of consumers have access to at least three mobile broadband providers. Looking forward, consumer choice at all download speeds is increasing at rapid rates due to extensive network upgrades and new entry in a highly dynamic market.

Finally, we rebutted the contention that predictive analytics was a magical tool that would enable ISPs to dominate information gathering and would, consequently, lead to consumer harms — even where ISPs had access only to seemingly trivial data about users.

Some comments in support of the proposed rules attempt to cast ISPs as all powerful by virtue of their access to apparently trivial data — IP addresses, access timing, computer ports, etc. — because of the power of predictive analytics. These commenters assert that the possibility of predictive analytics coupled with a large data set undermines research that demonstrates that ISPs, thanks to increasing encryption, do not have access to any better quality data, and probably less quality data, than edge providers themselves have.

But this is a curious bit of reasoning. It essentially amounts to the idea that, not only should consumers be permitted to control with whom their data is shared, but that all other parties online should be proscribed from making their own independent observations about consumers. Such a rule would be akin to telling supermarkets that they are not entitled to observe traffic patterns in their stores in order to place particular products in relatively more advantageous places, for example. But the reality is that most data is noise; simply having more of it is not necessarily a boon, and predictive analytics is far from a panacea. In fact, the insights gained from extensive data collection are frequently useless when examining very large data sets, and are better employed by single firms answering particular questions about their users and products.

Our full reply comments are available here.

In the wake of the recent OIO decision, separation of powers issues should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind. In reaching its decision, the DC Circuit relied upon Chevron to justify its extreme deference to the FCC. The court held, for instance, that

Our job is to ensure that an agency has acted “within the limits of [Congress’s] delegation” of authority… and that its action is not “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.”… Critically, we do not “inquire as to whether the agency’s decision is wise as a policy matter; indeed, we are forbidden from substituting our judgment for that of the agency.”… Nor do we inquire whether “some or many economists would disapprove of the [agency’s] approach” because “we do not sit as a panel of referees on a professional economics journal, but as a panel of generalist judges obliged to defer to a reasonable judgment by an agency acting pursuant to congressionally delegated authority.

The DC Circuit’s decision takes a broad view of Chevron deference and, in so doing, ignores or dismisses some of the limits placed upon the doctrine by cases like Michigan v. EPA and UARG v. EPA (though Judge Williams does bring up UARG in dissent).

Whatever one thinks of the validity of the FCC’s approach to regulating the Internet, there is no question that it has, at best, a weak statutory foothold. Without prejudging the merits of the OIO, or the question of deference to agencies that find “[regulatory] elephants in [statutory] mouseholes,”  such broad claims of authority, based on such limited statutory language, should give one pause. That the court upheld the FCC’s interpretation of the Act without expressing reservations, suggesting any limits, or admitting of any concrete basis for challenging the agency’s authority beyond circular references to “abuse of discretion” is deeply troubling.

Separation of powers is a fundamental feature of our democracy, and one that has undoubtedly contributed to the longevity of our system of self-governance. Not least among the important features of separation of powers is the ability of courts to review the lawfulness of legislation and executive action.

The founders presciently realized the dangers of allowing one part of the government to centralize power in itself. In Federalist 47, James Madison observed that

The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, selfappointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny. Were the federal Constitution, therefore, really chargeable with the accumulation of power, or with a mixture of powers, having a dangerous tendency to such an accumulation, no further arguments would be necessary to inspire a universal reprobation of the system. (emphasis added)

The modern administrative apparatus has become the sort of governmental body that the founders feared and that we have somehow grown to accept. The FCC is not alone in this: any member of the alphabet soup that constitutes our administrative state, whether “independent” or otherwise, is typically vested with great, essentially unreviewable authority over the economy and our daily lives.

As Justice Thomas so aptly put it in his must-read concurrence in Michigan v. EPA:

Perhaps there is some unique historical justification for deferring to federal agencies, but these cases reveal how paltry an effort we have made to understand it or to confine ourselves to its boundaries. Although we hold today that EPA exceeded even the extremely permissive limits on agency power set by our precedents, we should be alarmed that it felt sufficiently emboldened by those precedents to make the bid for deference that it did here. As in other areas of our jurisprudence concerning administrative agencies, we seem to be straying further and further from the Constitution without so much as pausing to ask why. We should stop to consider that document before blithely giving the force of law to any other agency “interpretations” of federal statutes.

Administrative discretion is fantastic — until it isn’t. If your party is the one in power, unlimited discretion gives your side the ability to run down a wish list, checking off controversial items that could never make it past a deliberative body like Congress. That same discretion, however, becomes a nightmare under extreme deference as political opponents, newly in power, roll back preferred policies. In the end, regulation tends toward the extremes, on both sides, and ultimately consumers and companies pay the price in the form of excessive regulatory burdens and extreme uncertainty.

In theory, it is (or should be) left to the courts to rein in agency overreach. Unfortunately, courts have been relatively unwilling to push back on the administrative state, leaving the task up to Congress. And Congress, too, has, over the years, found too much it likes in agency power to seriously take on the structural problems that give agencies effectively free reign. At least, until recently.

In March of this year, Representative Ratcliffe (R-TX) proposed HR 4768: the Separation of Powers Restoration Act (“SOPRA”). Arguably this is first real effort to fix the underlying problem since the 1995 “Comprehensive Regulatory Reform Act” (although, it should be noted, SOPRA is far more targeted than was the CRRA). Under SOPRA, 5 U.S.C. § 706 — the enacted portion of the APA that deals with judicial review of agency actions —  would be amended to read as follows (with the new language highlighted):

(a) To the extent necessary to decision and when presented, the reviewing court shall determine the meaning or applicability of the terms of an agency action and decide de novo all relevant questions of law, including the interpretation of constitutional and statutory provisions, and rules made by agencies. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, this subsection shall apply in any action for judicial review of agency action authorized under any provision of law. No law may exempt any such civil action from the application of this section except by specific reference to this section.

These changes to the scope of review would operate as a much-needed check on the unlimited discretion that agencies currently enjoy. They give courts the ability to review “de novo all relevant questions of law,” which includes agencies’ interpretations of their own rules.

The status quo has created a negative feedback cycle. The Chevron doctrine, as it has played out, gives outsized incentives to both the federal agencies, as well as courts, to essentially disregard Congress’s intended meaning for particular statutes. Today an agency can write rules and make decisions safe in the knowledge that Chevron will likely insulate it from any truly serious probing by a district court with regards to how well the agency’s action actually matches up with congressional intent or with even rudimentary cost-benefit analysis.

Defenders of the administrative state may balk at changing this state of affairs, of course. But defending an institution that is almost entirely immune from judicial and legal review seems to be a particularly hard row to hoe.

Public Knowledge, for instance, claims that

Judicial deference to agency decision-making is critical in instances where Congress’ intent is unclear because it balances each branch of government’s appropriate role and acknowledges the realities of the modern regulatory state.

To quote Justice Scalia, an unfortunate champion of the Chevron doctrine, this is “pure applesauce.”

The very core of the problem that SOPRA addresses is that the administrative state is not a proper branch of government — it’s a shadow system of quasi-legislation and quasi-legal review. Congress can be chastened by popular vote. Judges who abuse discretion can be overturned (or impeached). The administrative agencies, on the other hand, are insulated through doctrines like Chevron and Auer, and their personnel subject more or less to the political whims of the executive branch.

Even agencies directly under the control of the executive branch  — let alone independent agencies — become petrified caricatures of their original design as layers of bureaucratic rule and custom accrue over years, eventually turning the organization into an entity that serves, more or less, to perpetuate its own existence.

Other supporters of the status quo actually identify the unreviewable see-saw of agency discretion as a feature, not a bug:

Even people who agree with the anti-government premises of the sponsors [of SOPRA] should recognize that a change in the APA standard of review is an inapt tool for advancing that agenda. It is shortsighted, because it ignores the fact that, over time, political administrations change. Sometimes the administration in office will generally be in favor of deregulation, and in these circumstances a more intrusive standard of judicial review would tend to undercut that administration’s policies just as surely as it may tend to undercut a more progressive administration’s policies when the latter holds power. The APA applies equally to affirmative regulation and to deregulation.

But presidential elections — far from justifying this extreme administrative deference — actually make the case for trimming the sails of the administrative state. Presidential elections have become an important part about how candidates will wield the immense regulatory power vested in the executive branch.

Thus, for example, as part of his presidential bid, Jeb Bush indicated he would use the EPA to roll back every policy that Obama had put into place. One of Donald Trump’s allies suggested that Trump “should turn off [CNN’s] FCC license” in order to punish the news agency. And VP hopeful Elizabeth Warren has suggested using the FDIC to limit the growth of financial institutions, and using the FCC and FTC to tilt the markets to make it easier for the small companies to get an advantage over the “big guys.”

Far from being neutral, technocratic administrators of complex social and economic matters, administrative agencies have become one more political weapon of majority parties as they make the case for how their candidates will use all the power at their disposal — and more — to work their will.

As Justice Thomas, again, noted in Michigan v. EPA:

In reality…, agencies “interpreting” ambiguous statutes typically are not engaged in acts of interpretation at all. Instead, as Chevron itself acknowledged, they are engaged in the “formulation of policy.” Statutory ambiguity thus becomes an implicit delegation of rulemaking authority, and that authority is used not to find the best meaning of the text, but to formulate legally binding rules to fill in gaps based on policy judgments made by the agency rather than Congress.

And this is just the thing: SOPRA would bring far-more-valuable predictability and longevity to our legal system by imposing a system of accountability on the agencies. Currently, commissions often believe they can act with impunity (until the next election at least), and even the intended constraints of the APA frequently won’t do much to tether their whims to statute or law if they’re intent on deviating. Having a known constraint (or, at least, a reliable process by which judicial constraint may be imposed) on their behavior will make them think twice about exactly how legally and economically sound proposed rules and other actions are.

The administrative state isn’t going away, even if SOPRA were passed; it will continue to be the source of the majority of the rules under which our economy operates. We have long believed that a benefit of our judicial system is its consistency and relative lack of politicization. If this is a benefit for interpreting laws when agencies aren’t involved, it should also be a benefit when they are involved. Particularly as more and more law emanates from agencies rather than Congress, the oversight of largely neutral judicial arbiters is an essential check on the administrative apparatus’ “accumulation of all powers.”

The interest of judges tends to include a respect for the development of precedent that yields consistent and transparent rules for all future litigants and, more broadly, for economic actors and consumers making decisions in the shadow of the law. This is markedly distinct from agencies which, more often than not, promote the particular, shifting, and often-narrow political sentiments of the day.

Whether a Republican- or a Democrat— appointed district judge reviews an agency action, that judge will be bound (more or less) by the precedent that came before, regardless of the judge’s individual political preferences. Contrast this with the FCC’s decision to reclassify broadband as a Title II service, for example, where previously it had been committed to the idea that broadband was an information service, subject to an entirely different — and far less onerous — regulatory regime.  Of course, the next FCC Chairman may feel differently, and nothing would stop another regulatory shift back to the pre-OIO status quo. Perhaps more troublingly, the enormous discretion afforded by courts under current standards of review would permit the agency to endlessly tweak its rules — forbearing from some regulations but not others, un-forbearing, re-interpreting, etc., with precious few judicial standards available to bring certainty to the rules or to ensure their fealty to the statute or the sound economics that is supposed to undergird administrative decisionmaking.

SOPRA, or a bill like it, would have required the Commission to actually be accountable for its historical regulations, and would force it to undergo at least rudimentary economic analysis to justify its actions. This form of accountability can only be to the good.

The genius of our system is its (potential) respect for the rule of law. This is an issue that both sides of the aisle should be able to get behind: minority status is always just one election cycle away. We should all hope to see SOPRA — or some bill like it — gain traction, rooted in long-overdue reflection on just how comfortable we are as a polity with a bureaucratic system increasingly driven by unaccountable discretion.

Last week the International Center for Law & Economics filed comments on the FCC’s Broadband Privacy NPRM. ICLE was joined in its comments by the following scholars of law & economics:

  • Babette E. Boliek, Associate Professor of Law, Pepperdine School of Law
  • Adam Candeub, Professor of Law, Michigan State University College of Law
  • Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, Assistant Professor of Law, Nebraska College of Law
  • Daniel Lyons, Associate Professor, Boston College Law School
  • Geoffrey A. Manne, Executive Director, International Center for Law & Economics
  • Paul H. Rubin, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics, Emory University Department of Economics

As we note in our comments:

The Commission’s NPRM would shoehorn the business models of a subset of new economy firms into a regime modeled on thirty-year-old CPNI rules designed to address fundamentally different concerns about a fundamentally different market. The Commission’s hurried and poorly supported NPRM demonstrates little understanding of the data markets it proposes to regulate and the position of ISPs within that market. And, what’s more, the resulting proposed rules diverge from analogous rules the Commission purports to emulate. Without mounting a convincing case for treating ISPs differently than the other data firms with which they do or could compete, the rules contemplate disparate regulatory treatment that would likely harm competition and innovation without evident corresponding benefit to consumers.

In particular, we focus on the FCC’s failure to justify treating ISPs differently than other competitors, and its failure to justify more stringent treatment for ISPs in general:

In short, the Commission has not made a convincing case that discrimination between ISPs and edge providers makes sense for the industry or for consumer welfare. The overwhelming body of evidence upon which other regulators have relied in addressing privacy concerns urges against a hard opt-in approach. That same evidence and analysis supports a consistent regulatory approach for all competitors, and nowhere advocates for a differential approach for ISPs when they are participating in the broader informatics and advertising markets.

With respect to the proposed opt-in regime, the NPRM ignores the weight of economic evidence on opt-in rules and fails to justify the specific rules it prescribes. Of most significance is the imposition of this opt-in requirement for the sharing of non-sensitive data.

On net opt-in regimes may tend to favor the status quo, and to maintain or grow the position of a few dominant firms. Opt-in imposes additional costs on consumers and hurts competition — and it may not offer any additional protections over opt-out. In the absence of any meaningful evidence or rigorous economic analysis to the contrary, the Commission should eschew imposing such a potentially harmful regime on broadband and data markets.

Finally, we explain that, although the NPRM purports to embrace a regulatory regime consistent with the current “federal privacy regime,” and particularly the FTC’s approach to privacy regulation, it actually does no such thing — a sentiment echoed by a host of current and former FTC staff and commissioners, including the Bureau of Consumer Protection staff, Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen, former Chairman Jon Leibowitz, former Commissioner Josh Wright, and former BCP Director Howard Beales.

Our full comments are available here.