Archives For Copyright

[This post is the first in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1500-4000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

There is widespread interest in the potential tools that the Biden administration’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) may use to address a range of competition-related and competition-adjacent concerns. A focal point for this interest is the potential that the FTC may use its broad authority to regulate unfair methods of competition (UMC) under Section 5 of the FTC Act to make rules that address a wide range of conduct. This “potential” is expected to become a “likelihood” with confirmation of Alvaro Bedoya, a third Democratic commissioner, expected to occur any day.

This post marks the start of a Truth on the Market symposium that brings together academics, practitioners, and other commentators to discuss issues relating to potential UMC-related rulemaking. Contributions to this symposium will cover a range of topics, including:

  • Constitutional and administrative-law limits on UMC rulemaking: does such rulemaking potentially present “major question” or delegation issues, or other issues under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA)? If so, what is the scope of permissible rulemaking?
  • Substantive issues in UMC rulemaking: costs and benefits to be considered in developing rules, prudential concerns, and similar concerns.
  • Using UMC to address competition-adjacent issues: consideration of how or whether the FTC can use its UMC authority to address firm conduct that is governed by other statutory or regulatory regimes. For instance, firms using copyright law and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to limit competitors’ ability to alter or repair products, or labor or entry issues that might be governed by licensure or similar laws.

Timing and Structure of the Symposium

Starting tomorrow, one or two contributions to this symposium will be posted each morning. During the first two weeks of the symposium, we will generally try to group posts on similar topics together. When multiple contributions are posted on the same day, they will generally be implicitly or explicitly in dialogue with each other. The first week’s contributions will generally focus on constitutional and administrative law issues relating to UMC rulemaking, while the second week’s contributions will focus on more specific substantive topics. 

Readers are encouraged to engage with these posts through comments. In addition, academics, practitioners, and other antitrust and regulatory commentators are invited to submit additional contributions for inclusion in this symposium. Such contributions may include responses to posts published by others or newly developed ideas. Interested authors should submit pieces for consideration to Gus Hurwitz and Keith Fierro Benson.

This symposium will run through at least Friday, May 6. We do not, however, anticipate, ending or closing it at that time. To the contrary, it is very likely that topics relating to FTC UMC rulemaking will continue to be timely and of interest to our community—we anticipate keeping the symposium running for the foreseeable future, and welcome submissions on an ongoing basis. Readers interested in these topics are encouraged to check in regularly for new posts, including by following the symposium page, the FTC UMC Rulemaking tag, or by subscribing to Truth on the Market for notifications of new posts.

All too frequently, vocal advocates for “Internet Freedom” imagine it exists along just a single dimension: the extent to which it permits individuals and firms to interact in new and unusual ways.

But that is not the sum of the Internet’s social value. The technologies that underlie our digital media remain a relatively new means to distribute content. It is not just the distributive technology that matters, but also the content that is distributed. Thus, the norms and laws that facilitate this interaction of content production and distribution are critical.

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.)—the chair and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Intellectual Property—recently introduced legislation that would require online service providers (OSPs) to comply with a slightly heightened set of obligations to deter copyright piracy on their platforms. This couldn’t come at a better time.

S. 3880, the SMART Copyright Act, would amend Section 512 of the Copyright Act, originally enacted as part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. Section 512, among other things, provides safe harbor for OSPs for copyright infringements by their users. The expectation at the time was that OSPs would work voluntarily with rights holders to develop industry best practices to deal with pirated content, while also allowing the continued growth of the commercial Internet.

Alas, it has become increasingly apparent in the nearly quarter-century since the DMCA was passed that the law has not adequately kept pace with the technological capabilities of digital piracy. In April 2020 alone, U.S. consumers logged 725 million visits to pirate sites for movies and television programming. Close to 90% of those visits were attributable to illegal streaming services that use internet protocol television to distribute pirated content. Such services now serve more than 9 million U.S. subscribers and generate more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

Globally, there are more than 26.6 billion annual illicit views of U.S.-produced movies and 126.7 billion views of U.S.-produced television episodes. A report produced for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by NERA Economic Consulting estimates the annual impact to the United States to be $30 to $70 billion of lost revenue, 230,000 to 560,000 of lost jobs, and between $45 and $115 billion in lower GDP.

Thus far, the most effective preventative measures produced have been filtering solutions adopted by YouTube, Facebook, and Audible Magic, but neither filtering nor other solutions have been adopted industrywide. As the U.S. Copyright Office has observed:

Throughout the Study, the Office heard from participants that Congress’ intent to have multi-stakeholder consensus drive improvements to the system has not been borne out in practice. By way of example, more than twenty years after passage of the DMCA, although some individual OSPs have deployed DMCA+ systems that are primarily open to larger content owners, not a single technology has been designated a “standard technical measure” under section 512(i). While numerous potential reasons were cited for this failure— from a lack of incentives for ISPs to participate in standards to the inappropriateness of one-size-fits-all technologies—the end result is that few widely-available tools have been created and consistently implemented across the internet ecosystem. Similarly, while various voluntary initiatives have been undertaken by different market participants to address the volume of true piracy within the system, these initiatives, although initially promising, likewise have suffered from various shortcomings, from limited participation to ultimate ineffectiveness.

Given the lack of standard technical measures (STMs), the Leahy-Tillis bill would empower the Office of the Librarian of Congress (LOC) broad latitude to recommend STMs for everything from off-the-shelf software to open-source software to general technical strategies that can be applied to a wide variety of systems. This would include the power to initiate public rulemakings in which it could either propose new STMs or revise or rescind existing STMs. The STMs could be as broad or as narrow as the LOC deems appropriate, including being tailored to specific types of content and specific types of providers. Following rulemaking, subject firms would have at least one year to adopt a given STM.

Critically, the SMART Copyright Act would not hold OSPs liable for the infringing content itself, but for failure to make reasonable efforts to accommodate the STM (or for interference with the STM). Courts finding an OSP to have violated their obligation for good-faith compliance could award an injunction, damages, and costs.

The SMART Copyright Act is a directionally correct piece of legislation with two important caveats: it all depends on the kinds of STMs that the LOC recommends and on how a “violation” is determined for the purposes of awarding damages.

The law would magnify the incentive for private firms to work together with rights holders to develop STMs that more reasonably recruit OSPs into the fight against online piracy. In this sense, the LOC would be best situated as a convener, encouraging STMs to emerge from the broad group of OSPs and rights holders. The fact that the LOC would be able to adopt STMs with or without stakeholders’ participation should provide more incentive for collaboration among the relevant parties.

Short of a voluntary set of STMs, the LOC could nonetheless rely on the technical suggestions and concerns of the multistakeholder community to discern a minimum viable set of practices that constitute best efforts to control piracy. The least desirable outcome—and, I suspect, the one most susceptible to failure—would be for the LOC to examine and select specific technologies. If implemented sensibly, the SMART Copyright Act would create a mechanism to enforce the original goals of Section 512.

The damages provisions are likewise directionally correct but need more clarity. Repeat “violations” allow courts to multiply damages awards. But there is no definition of what counts as a “violation,” nor is there adequate clarity about how a “violation” interacts with damages. For example, is a single infringement on a platform a “violation” such that if three occur, the platform faces treble damages for all the infringements in a single case? That seems unlikely.

More reasonable would be to interpret the provision as saying that a final adjudication that the platform behaved unreasonably is what counts for the purposes of calculating whether damages are multiplied. Then, within each adjudication, damages are calculated for all infringements, up to the statutory damages cap. This interpretation would put teeth in the law, but it’s just one possible interpretation. Congress would need to ensure the final language is clear.

An even better would be to make Section 512’s safe harbor contingent on an OSP’s reasonable compliance. Unreasonable behavior, in that case, provides a much more straightforward way to assess damages, without needing to leave it up to court interpretations about what counts as a “violation.” Particularly since courts have historically tended to interpret the DMCA in ways that are unfavorable to rights holders (e.g., “red flag” knowledge), it would be much better to create a simple standard here.

This is not to say there are no potential problems. Among the concerns that surround promulgating new STMs are potentially creating cybersecurity vulnerabilities, sources for privacy leaks, or accidentally chilling speech. Of course, it’s possible that there will be costs to implementing an STM, just as there are costs when private firms operate their own content-protection mechanisms. But just because harms can happen doesn’t mean they will happen, or that they are insurmountable when they do. The criticisms that have emerged have so far taken on the breathless quality of the empirically unfounded claims that 2012’s SOPA/PIPA legislation would spell doom for the Internet. If Section 512 reforms are well-calibrated and sufficiently flexible to adapt to the market realities, I think we can reasonably expect them to be, on net, beneficial.

Toward this end, the SMART Copyright Act contemplates, for each proposed STM, a public comment period and at least one meeting with relevant stakeholders, to allow time to understand its likely costs and benefits. This process would provide ample opportunities to alert the LOC to potential shortcomings.

But the criticisms do suggest a potentially valuable change to the bill’s structure. If a firm does indeed discover that a particular STM, in practice, leads to unacceptable security or privacy risks, or is systematically biased against lawful content, there should be a legal mechanism that would allow for good-faith compliance while also mitigating STMs’ unforeseen flaws. Ideally, this would involve working with the LOC in an iterative process to refine relevant compliance obligations.

Congress will soon be wrapped up in the volatile midterm elections, which could make it difficult for relatively low-salience issues like copyright to gain traction. Nonetheless, the Leahy-Tillis bill marks an important step toward addressing online piracy, and Congress should move deliberatively toward that goal.

In Fleites v. MindGeek—currently before the U.S. District Court for the District of Central California, Southern Division—plaintiffs seek to hold MindGeek subsidiary PornHub liable for alleged instances of human trafficking under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). Writing for the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE), we have filed a motion for leave to submit an amicus brief regarding whether it is valid to treat co-defendant Visa Inc. as a proper party under principles of collateral liability.

The proposed brief draws on our previous work on the law & economics of collateral liability, and argues that holding Visa liable as a participant under RICO or TVPRA would amount to stretching collateral liability far beyond what is reasonable. Such a move, we posit, would “generate a massive amount of social cost that would outweigh the potential deterrent or compensatory gains sought.”

Collateral liability can make sense when intermediaries are in a position to effectively monitor and control potential harms. That is, it can be appropriate to apply collateral liability to parties who are what is often referred to as a “least cost avoider.” As we write:

In some circumstances it is indeed proper to hold third parties liable even though they are not primary actors directly implicated in wrongdoing. Most significantly, such liability may be appropriate when a collateral actor stands in a relationship to the wrongdoing (or wrongdoers or victims) such that the threat of liability can incentivize it to take action (or refrain from taking action) to prevent or mitigate the wrongdoing. That is to say, collateral liability may be appropriate when the third party has a significant enough degree of control over the primary actors such that its actions can cause them to reduce the risk of harm at reasonable cost. Importantly, however, such liability is appropriate only when direct deterrence is insufficient and/or the third party can prevent harm at lower cost or more effectively than direct enforcement… From an economic perspective, liability should be imposed upon the party or parties best positioned to deter the harms in question, such that the costs of enforcement do not exceed the social gains realized.

The law of negligence under the common law, as well as contributory infringement under copyright law, both help illustrate this principle. Under the common law, collateral actors have a duty in only limited circumstances, when the harms are “reasonably foreseeable” and the actor has special access to particularized information about the victims or the perpetrators, as well as a special ability to control harmful conditions. Under copyright law, collateral liability is similarly limited to circumstances where collateral actors are best positioned to prevent the harm, and the benefits of holding such actors liable exceed the harms. 

Neither of these conditions are true in Fleites v. MindGeek: Visa is not the type of collateral actor that has any access to specialized information or the ability to control actual bad actors. Visa, as a card-payment network, simply processes payments. The only tool at the disposal of Visa is a giant sledgehammer: it can foreclose all transactions to particular sites that run over its network. There is no dispute that the vast majority of content hosted on sites like MindGeek is lawful, however awful one may believe pornography to be. Holding card networks liable here would create incentives to avoid processing payments for such sites altogether in order to avoid legal consequences. 

The potential costs of the theory of liability asserted here stretch far beyond Visa or this particular case. The plaintiffs’ theory would hold anyone liable who provides services that “allow[] the alleged principal actors to continue to do business.” This would mean that Federal Express, for example, would be liable for continuing to deliver packages to MindGeek’s address or that a waste-management company could be liable for providing custodial services to the building where MindGeek has an office. 

According to the plaintiffs, even the mere existence of a newspaper article alleging a company is doing something illegal is sufficient to find that professionals who have provided services to that company “participate” in a conspiracy. This would have ripple effects for professionals from many other industries—from accountants to bankers to insurance—who all would see significantly increased risk of liability.

To read the rest of the brief, see here.

Activists who railed against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) a decade ago today celebrate the 10th anniversary of their day of protest, which they credit with sending the bills down to defeat.

Much of the anti-SOPA/PIPA campaign was based on a gauzy notion of “realizing [the] democratizing potential” of the Internet. Which is fine, until it isn’t.

But despite the activists’ temporary legislative victory, the methods of combating digital piracy that SOPA/PIPA contemplated have been employed successfully around the world. It may, indeed, be time for the United States to revisit that approach, as the very real problems the legislation sought to combat haven’t gone away.

From the perspective of rightsholders, the bill’s most important feature was also its most contentious: the ability to enforce judicial “site-blocking orders.” A site-blocking order is a type of remedy sometimes referred to as a no-fault injunction. Under SOPA/PIPA, a court would have been permitted to issue orders that could be used to force a range of firms—from financial providers to ISPs—to cease doing business with or suspend the service of a website that hosted infringing content.

Under current U.S. law, even when a court finds that a site has willfully engaged in infringement, stopping the infringement can be difficult, especially when the parties and their facilities are located outside the country. While Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act does allow courts to issue injunctions, there is ambiguity as to whether it allows courts to issue injunctions that obligate online service providers (“OSP”) not directly party to a case to remove infringing material.

Section 512(j), for instance, provides for issuing injunctions “against a service provider that is not subject to monetary remedies under this section.” The “not subject to monetary remedies under this section” language could be construed to mean that such injunctions may be obtained even against OSPs that have not been found at fault for the underlying infringement. But as Motion Picture Association President Stanford K. McCoy testified in 2020:

In more than twenty years … these provisions of the DMCA have never been deployed, presumably because of uncertainty about whether it is necessary to find fault against the service provider before an injunction could issue, unlike the clear no-fault injunctive remedies available in other countries.

But while no-fault injunctions for copyright infringement have not materialized in the United States, this remedy has been used widely around the world. In fact, more than 40 countries—including Denmark, Finland, France, India, England, and Wales—have enacted or are under some obligation to enact rules allowing for no-fault injunctions that direct ISPs to disable access to websites that predominantly promote copyright infringement. 

In short, precisely the approach to controlling piracy that SOPA/PIPA envisioned has been in force around the world over the last decade. This demonstrates that, if properly tailored, no-fault injunctions are an ideal tool for courts to use in the fight to combat piracy.

If anything, we should be using the anniversary of SOPA/PIPA as an opportunity to reflect on a missed opportunity. Congress should take this opportunity to amend Section 512 to grant U.S. courts authority to issue no-fault injunctions that require OSPs to block access to sites that willfully engage in mass infringement.

Over the past decade and a half, virtually every branch of the federal government has taken steps to weaken the patent system. As reflected in President Joe Biden’s July 2021 executive order, these restraints on patent enforcement are now being coupled with antitrust policies that, in large part, adopt a “big is bad” approach in place of decades of economically grounded case law and agency guidelines.

This policy bundle is nothing new. It largely replicates the innovation policies pursued during the late New Deal and the postwar decades. That historical experience suggests that a “weak-patent/strong-antitrust” approach is likely to encourage neither innovation nor competition.

The Overlooked Shortfalls of New Deal Innovation Policy

Starting in the early 1930s, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a sequence of decisions that raised obstacles to patent enforcement. The Franklin Roosevelt administration sought to take this policy a step further, advocating compulsory licensing for all patents. While Congress did not adopt this proposal, it was partially implemented as a de facto matter through antitrust enforcement. Starting in the early 1940s and continuing throughout the postwar decades, the antitrust agencies secured judicial precedents that treated a broad range of licensing practices as per se illegal. Perhaps most dramatically, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) secured more than 100 compulsory licensing orders against some of the nation’s largest companies. 

The rationale behind these policies was straightforward. By compelling access to incumbents’ patented technologies, courts and regulators would lower barriers to entry and competition would intensify. The postwar economy declined to comply with policymakers’ expectations. Implementation of a weak-IP/strong-antitrust innovation policy over the course of four decades yielded the opposite of its intended outcome. 

Market concentration did not diminish, turnover in market leadership was slow, and private research and development (R&D) was confined mostly to the research labs of the largest corporations (who often relied on generous infusions of federal defense funding). These tendencies are illustrated by the dramatically unequal allocation of innovation capital in the postwar economy.  As of the late 1950s, small firms represented approximately 7% of all private U.S. R&D expenditures.  Two decades later, that figure had fallen even further. By the late 1970s, patenting rates had plunged, and entrepreneurship and innovation were in a state of widely lamented decline.

Why Weak IP Raises Entry Costs and Promotes Concentration

The decline in entrepreneurial innovation under a weak-IP regime was not accidental. Rather, this outcome can be derived logically from the economics of information markets.

Without secure IP rights to establish exclusivity, engage securely with business partners, and deter imitators, potential innovator-entrepreneurs had little hope to obtain funding from investors. In contrast, incumbents could fund R&D internally (or with federal funds that flowed mostly to the largest computing, communications, and aerospace firms) and, even under a weak-IP regime, were protected by difficult-to-match production and distribution efficiencies. As a result, R&D mostly took place inside the closed ecosystems maintained by incumbents such as AT&T, IBM, and GE.

Paradoxically, the antitrust campaign against patent “monopolies” most likely raised entry barriers and promoted industry concentration by removing a critical tool that smaller firms might have used to challenge incumbents that could outperform on every competitive parameter except innovation. While the large corporate labs of the postwar era are rightly credited with technological breakthroughs, incumbents such as AT&T were often slow in transforming breakthroughs in basic research into commercially viable products and services for consumers. Without an immediate competitive threat, there was no rush to do so. 

Back to the Future: Innovation Policy in the New New Deal

Policymakers are now at work reassembling almost the exact same policy bundle that ended in the innovation malaise of the 1970s, accompanied by a similar reliance on public R&D funding disbursed through administrative processes. However well-intentioned, these processes are inherently exposed to political distortions that are absent in an innovation environment that relies mostly on private R&D funding governed by price signals. 

This policy bundle has emerged incrementally since approximately the mid-2000s, through a sequence of complementary actions by every branch of the federal government.

  • In 2011, Congress enacted the America Invents Act, which enables any party to challenge the validity of an issued patent through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) Patent Trial and Appeals Board (PTAB). Since PTAB’s establishment, large information-technology companies that advocated for the act have been among the leading challengers.
  • In May 2021, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) declared its support for a worldwide suspension of IP protections over Covid-19-related innovations (rather than adopting the more nuanced approach of preserving patent protections and expanding funding to accelerate vaccine distribution).  
  • President Biden’s July 2021 executive order states that “the Attorney General and the Secretary of Commerce are encouraged to consider whether to revise their position on the intersection of the intellectual property and antitrust laws, including by considering whether to revise the Policy Statement on Remedies for Standard-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/RAND Commitments.” This suggests that the administration has already determined to retract or significantly modify the 2019 joint policy statement in which the DOJ, USPTO, and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) had rejected the view that standard-essential patent owners posed a high risk of patent holdup, which would therefore justify special limitations on enforcement and licensing activities.

The history of U.S. technology markets and policies casts great doubt on the wisdom of this weak-IP policy trajectory. The repeated devaluation of IP rights is likely to be a “lose-lose” approach that does little to promote competition, while endangering the incentive and transactional structures that sustain robust innovation ecosystems. A weak-IP regime is particularly likely to disadvantage smaller firms in biotech, medical devices, and certain information-technology segments that rely on patents to secure funding from venture capital and to partner with larger firms that can accelerate progress toward market release. The BioNTech/Pfizer alliance in the production and distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine illustrates how patents can enable such partnerships to accelerate market release.  

The innovative contribution of BioNTech is hardly a one-off occurrence. The restoration of robust patent protection in the early 1980s was followed by a sharp increase in the percentage of private R&D expenditures attributable to small firms, which jumped from about 5% as of 1980 to 21% by 1992. This contrasts sharply with the unequal allocation of R&D activities during the postwar period.

Remarkably, the resurgence of small-firm innovation following the strong-IP policy shift, starting in the late 20th century, mimics tendencies observed during the late 19th and early-20th centuries, when U.S. courts provided a hospitable venue for patent enforcement; there were few antitrust constraints on licensing activities; and innovation was often led by small firms in partnership with outside investors. This historical pattern, encompassing more than a century of U.S. technology markets, strongly suggests that strengthening IP rights tends to yield a policy “win-win” that bolsters both innovative and competitive intensity. 

An Alternate Path: ‘Bottom-Up’ Innovation Policy

To be clear, the alternative to the policy bundle of weak-IP/strong antitrust does not consist of a simple reversion to blind enforcement of patents and lax administration of the antitrust laws. A nuanced innovation policy would couple modern antitrust’s commitment to evidence-based enforcement—which, in particular cases, supports vigorous intervention—with a renewed commitment to protecting IP rights for innovator-entrepreneurs. That would promote competition from the “bottom up” by bolstering maverick innovators who are well-positioned to challenge (or sometimes partner with) incumbents and maintaining the self-starting engine of creative disruption that has repeatedly driven entrepreneurial innovation environments. Tellingly, technology incumbents have often been among the leading advocates for limiting patent and copyright protections.  

Advocates of a weak-patent/strong-antitrust policy believe it will enhance competitive and innovative intensity in technology markets. History suggests that this combination is likely to produce the opposite outcome.  

Jonathan M. Barnett is the Torrey H. Webb Professor of Law at the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law. This post is based on the author’s recent publications, Innovators, Firms, and Markets: The Organizational Logic of Intellectual Property (Oxford University Press 2021) and “The Great Patent Grab,” in Battles Over Patents: History and the Politics of Innovation (eds. Stephen H. Haber and Naomi R. Lamoreaux, Oxford University Press 2021).

In recent years, a diverse cross-section of advocates and politicians have leveled criticisms at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and its grant of legal immunity to interactive computer services. Proposed legislative changes to the law have been put forward by both Republicans and Democrats.

It remains unclear whether Congress (or the courts) will amend Section 230, but any changes are bound to expand the scope, uncertainty, and expense of content risks. That’s why it’s important that such changes be developed and implemented in ways that minimize their potential to significantly disrupt and harm online activity. This piece focuses on those insurable content risks that most frequently result in litigation and considers the effect of the direct and indirect costs caused by frivolous suits and lawfare, not just the ultimate potential for a court to find liability. The experience of the 1980s asbestos-litigation crisis offers a warning of what could go wrong.

Enacted in 1996, Section 230 was intended to promote the Internet as a diverse medium for discourse, cultural development, and intellectual activity by shielding interactive computer services from legal liability when blocking or filtering access to obscene, harassing, or otherwise objectionable content. Absent such immunity, a platform hosting content produced by third parties could be held equally responsible as the creator for claims alleging defamation or invasion of privacy.

In the current legislative debates, Section 230’s critics on the left argue that the law does not go far enough to combat hate speech and misinformation. Critics on the right claim the law protects censorship of dissenting opinions. Legal challenges to the current wording of Section 230 arise primarily from what constitutes an “interactive computer service,” “good faith” restriction of content, and the grant of legal immunity, regardless of whether the restricted material is constitutionally protected. 

While Congress and various stakeholders debate various alternate statutory frameworks, several test cases simultaneously have been working their way through the judicial system and some states have either passed or are considering legislation to address complaints with Section 230. Some have suggested passing new federal legislation classifying online platforms as common carriers as an alternate approach that does not involve amending or repealing Section 230. Regardless of the form it may take, change to the status quo is likely to increase the risk of litigation and liability for those hosting or publishing third-party content.

The Nature of Content Risk

The class of individuals and organizations exposed to content risk has never been broader. Any information, content, or communication that is created, gathered, compiled, or amended can be considered “material” which, when disseminated to third parties, may be deemed “publishing.” Liability can arise from any step in that process. Those who republish material are generally held to the same standard of liability as if they were the original publisher. (See, e.g., Rest. (2d) of Torts § 578 with respect to defamation.)

Digitization has simultaneously reduced the cost and expertise required to publish material and increased the potential reach of that material. Where it was once limited to books, newspapers, and periodicals, “publishing” now encompasses such activities as creating and updating a website; creating a podcast or blog post; or even posting to social media. Much of this activity is performed by individuals and businesses who have only limited experience with the legal risks associated with publishing.

This is especially true regarding the use of third-party material, which is used extensively by both sophisticated and unsophisticated platforms. Platforms that host third-party-generated content—e.g., social media or websites with comment sections—have historically engaged in only limited vetting of that content, although this is changing. When combined with the potential to reach consumers far beyond the original platform and target audience—lasting digital traces that are difficult to identify and remove—and the need to comply with privacy and other statutory requirements, the potential for all manner of “publishers” to incur legal liability has never been higher.

Even sophisticated legacy publishers struggle with managing the litigation that arises from these risks. There are a limited number of specialist counsel, which results in higher hourly rates. Oversight of legal bills is not always effective, as internal counsel often have limited resources to manage their daily responsibilities and litigation. As a result, legal fees often make up as much as two-thirds of the average claims cost. Accordingly, defense spending and litigation management are indirect, but important, risks associated with content claims.

Effective risk management is any publisher’s first line of defense. The type and complexity of content risk management varies significantly by organization, based on its size, resources, activities, risk appetite, and sophistication. Traditional publishers typically have a formal set of editorial guidelines specifying policies governing the creation of content, pre-publication review, editorial-approval authority, and referral to internal and external legal counsel. They often maintain a library of standardized contracts; have a process to periodically review and update those wordings; and a process to verify the validity of a potential licensor’s rights. Most have formal controls to respond to complaints and to retraction/takedown requests.

Insuring Content Risks

Insurance is integral to most publishers’ risk-management plans. Content coverage is present, to some degree, in most general liability policies (i.e., for “advertising liability”). Specialized coverage—commonly referred to as “media” or “media E&O”—is available on a standalone basis or may be packaged with cyber-liability coverage. Terms of specialized coverage can vary significantly, but generally provides at least basic coverage for the three primary content risks of defamation, copyright infringement, and invasion of privacy.

Insureds typically retain the first dollar loss up to a specific dollar threshold. They may also retain a coinsurance percentage of every dollar thereafter in partnership with their insurer. For example, an insured may be responsible for the first $25,000 of loss, and for 10% of loss above that threshold. Such coinsurance structures often are used by insurers as a non-monetary tool to help control legal spending and to incentivize an organization to employ effective oversight of counsel’s billing practices.

The type and amount of loss retained will depend on the insured’s size, resources, risk profile, risk appetite, and insurance budget. Generally, but not always, increases in an insured’s retention or an insurer’s attachment (e.g., raising the threshold to $50,000, or raising the insured’s coinsurance to 15%) will result in lower premiums. Most insureds will seek the smallest retention feasible within their budget. 

Contract limits (the maximum coverage payout available) will vary based on the same factors. Larger policyholders often build a “tower” of insurance made up of multiple layers of the same or similar coverage issued by different insurers. Two or more insurers may partner on the same “quota share” layer and split any loss incurred within that layer on a pre-agreed proportional basis.  

Navigating the strategic choices involved in developing an insurance program can be complex, depending on an organization’s risks. Policyholders often use commercial brokers to aide them in developing an appropriate risk-management and insurance strategy that maximizes coverage within their budget and to assist with claims recoveries. This is particularly important for small and mid-sized insureds who may lack the sophistication or budget of larger organizations. Policyholders and brokers try to minimize the gaps in coverage between layers and among quota-share participants, but such gaps can occur, leaving a policyholder partially self-insured.

An organization’s options to insure its content risk may also be influenced by the dynamics of the overall insurance market or within specific content lines. Underwriters are not all created equal; it is a challenging responsibility requiring a level of prediction, and some underwriters may fail to adequately identify and account for certain risks. It can also be challenging to accurately measure risk aggregation and set appropriate reserves. An insurer’s appetite for certain lines and the availability of supporting reinsurance can fluctuate based on trends in the general capital markets. Specialty media/content coverage is a small niche within the global commercial insurance market, which makes insurers in this line more sensitive to these general trends.

Litigation Risks from Changes to Section 230

A full repeal or judicial invalidation of Section 230 generally would make every platform responsible for all the content they disseminate, regardless of who created the material requiring at least some additional editorial review. This would significantly disadvantage those platforms that host a significant volume of third-party content. Internet service providers, cable companies, social media, and product/service review companies would be put under tremendous strain, given the daily volume of content produced. To reduce the risk that they serve as a “deep pocket” target for plaintiffs, they would likely adopt more robust pre-publication screening of content and authorized third-parties; limit public interfaces; require registration before a user may publish content; employ more reactive complaint response/takedown policies; and ban problem users more frequently. Small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs), as well as those not focused primarily on the business of publishing, would likely avoid many interactive functions altogether. 

A full repeal would be, in many ways, a blunderbuss approach to dealing with criticisms of Section 230, and would cause as many or more problems as it solves. In the current polarized environment, it also appears unlikely that Congress will reach bipartisan agreement on amended language for Section 230, or to classify interactive computer services as common carriers, given that the changes desired by the political left and right are so divergent. What may be more likely is that courts encounter a test case that prompts them to clarify the application of the existing statutory language—i.e., whether an entity was acting as a neutral platform or a content creator, whether its conduct was in “good faith,” and whether the material is “objectionable” within the meaning of the statute.

A relatively greater frequency of litigation is almost inevitable in the wake of any changes to the status quo, whether made by Congress or the courts. Major litigation would likely focus on those social-media platforms at the center of the Section 230 controversy, such as Facebook and Twitter, given their active role in these issues, deep pockets and, potentially, various admissions against interest helpful to plaintiffs regarding their level of editorial judgment. SMEs could also be affected in the immediate wake of a change to the statute or its interpretation. While SMEs are likely to be implicated on a smaller scale, the impact of litigation could be even more damaging to their viability if they are not adequately insured.

Over time, the boundaries of an amended Section 230’s application and any consequential effects should become clearer as courts develop application criteria and precedent is established for different fact patterns. Exposed platforms will likely make changes to their activities and risk-management strategies consistent with such developments. Operationally, some interactive features—such as comment sections or product and service reviews—may become less common.

In the short and medium term, however, a period of increased and unforeseen litigation to resolve these issues is likely to prove expensive and damaging. Insurers of content risks are likely to bear the brunt of any changes to Section 230, because these risks and their financial costs would be new, uncertain, and not incorporated into historical pricing of content risk. 

Remembering the Asbestos Crisis

The introduction of a new exposure or legal risk can have significant financial effects on commercial insurance carriers. New and revised risks must be accounted for in the assumptions, probabilities, and load factors used in insurance pricing and reserving models. Even small changes in those values can have large aggregate effects, which may undermine confidence in those models, complicate obtaining reinsurance, or harm an insurer’s overall financial health.

For example, in the 1980s, certain courts adopted the triple-trigger and continuous trigger methods[1] of determining when a policyholder could access coverage under an “occurrence” policy for asbestos claims. As a result, insurers paid claims under policies dating back to the early 1900s and, in some cases, under all policies from that date until the date of the claim. Such policies were written when mesothelioma related to asbestos was unknown and not incorporated into the policy pricing.

Insurers had long-since released reserves from the decades-old policy years, so those resources were not available to pay claims. Nor could underwriters retroactively increase premiums for the intervening years and smooth out the cost of these claims. This created extreme financial stress for impacted insurers and reinsurers, with some ultimately rendered insolvent. Surviving carriers responded by drastically reducing coverage and increasing prices, which resulted in a major capacity shortage that resolved only after the creation of the Bermuda insurance and reinsurance market. 

The asbestos-related liability crisis represented a perfect storm that is unlikely to be replicated. Given the ubiquitous nature of digital content, however, any drastic or misconceived changes to Section 230 protections could still cause significant disruption to the commercial insurance market. 

Content risk is covered, at least in part, by general liability and many cyber policies, but it is not currently a primary focus for underwriters. Specialty media underwriters are more likely to be monitoring Section 230 risk, but the highly competitive market will make it difficult for them to respond to any changes with significant price increases. In addition, the current market environment for U.S. property and casualty insurance generally is in the midst of correcting for years of inadequate pricing, expanding coverage, developing exposures, and claims inflation. It would be extremely difficult to charge an adequate premium increase if the potential severity of content risk were to increase suddenly.

In the face of such risk uncertainty and challenges to adequately increasing premiums, underwriters would likely seek to reduce their exposure to online content risks, i.e., by reducing the scope of coverage, reducing limits, and increasing retentions. How these changes would manifest, and the pain for all involved, would likely depend on how quickly such changes in policyholders’ risk profiles manifest. 

Small or specialty carriers caught unprepared could be forced to exit the market if they experienced a sharp spike in claims or unexpected increase in needed reserves. Larger, multiline carriers may respond by voluntarily reducing or withdrawing their participation in this space. Insurers exposed to ancillary content risk may simply exclude it from cover if adequate price increases are impractical. Such reactions could result in content coverage becoming harder to obtain or unavailable altogether. This, in turn, would incentivize organizations to limit or avoid certain digital activities.

Finding a More Thoughtful Approach

The tension between calls for reform of Section 230 and the potential for disrupting online activity does not mean that political leaders and courts should ignore these issues. Rather, it means that what’s required is a thoughtful, clear, and predictable approach to any changes, with the goal of maximizing the clarity of the changes and their application and minimizing any resulting litigation. Regardless of whether accomplished through legislation or the judicial process, addressing the following issues could minimize the duration and severity of any period of harmful disruption regarding content-risk:

  1. Presumptive immunity – Including an express statement in the definition of “interactive computer service,” or inferring one judicially, to clarify that platforms hosting third-party content enjoy a rebuttable presumption that statutory immunity applies would discourage frivolous litigation as courts establish precedent defining the applicability of any other revisions. 
  1. Specify the grounds for losing immunity – Clarify, at a minimum, what constitutes “good faith” with respect to content restrictions and further clarify what material is or is not “objectionable,” as it relates to newsworthy content or actions that trigger loss of immunity.
  1. Specify the scope and duration of any loss of immunity – Clarify whether the loss of immunity is total, categorical, or specific to the situation under review and the duration of that loss of immunity, if applicable.
  1. Reinstatement of immunity, subject to burden-shifting – Clarify what a platform must do to reinstate statutory immunity on a go-forward basis and clarify that it bears the burden of proving its go-forward conduct entitled it to statutory protection.
  1. Address associated issues – Any clarification or interpretation should address other issues likely to arise, such as the effect and weight to be given to a platform’s application of its community standards, adherence to neutral takedown/complain procedures, etc. Care should be taken to avoid overcorrecting and creating a “heckler’s veto.” 
  1. Deferred effect – If change is made legislatively, the effective date should be deferred for a reasonable time to allow platforms sufficient opportunity to adjust their current risk-management policies, contractual arrangements, content publishing and storage practices, and insurance arrangements in a thoughtful, orderly fashion that accounts for the new rules.

Ultimately, legislative and judicial stakeholders will chart their own course to address the widespread dissatisfaction with Section 230. More important than any of these specific policy suggestions is the principle underpins them: that any changes incorporate due consideration for the potential direct and downstream harm that can be caused if policy is not clear, comprehensive, and designed to minimize unnecessary litigation. 

It is no surprise that, in the years since Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was passed, the environment and risks associated with digital platforms have evolved or that those changes have created a certain amount of friction in the law’s application. Policymakers should employ a holistic approach when evaluating their legislative and judicial options to revise or clarify the application of Section 230. Doing so in a targeted, predictable fashion should help to mitigate or avoid the risk of increased litigation and other unintended consequences that might otherwise prove harmful to online platforms in the commercial insurance market.

Aaron Tilley is a senior insurance executive with more than 16 years of commercial insurance experience in executive management, underwriting, legal, and claims working in or with the U.S., Bermuda, and London markets. He has served as chief underwriting officer of a specialty media E&O and cyber-liability insurer and as coverage counsel representing international insurers with respect to a variety of E&O and advertising liability claims


[1] The triple-trigger method allowed a policy to be accessed based on the date of the injury-in-fact, manifestation of injury, or exposure to substances known to cause injury. The continuous trigger allowed all policies issued by an insurer, not just one, to be accessed if a triggering event could be established during the policy period.

Policy discussions about the use of personal data often have “less is more” as a background assumption; that data is overconsumed relative to some hypothetical optimal baseline. This overriding skepticism has been the backdrop for sweeping new privacy regulations, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

More recently, as part of the broad pushback against data collection by online firms, some have begun to call for creating property rights in consumers’ personal data or for data to be treated as labor. Prominent backers of the idea include New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang and computer scientist Jaron Lanier.

The discussion has escaped the halls of academia and made its way into popular media. During a recent discussion with Tesla founder Elon Musk, comedian and podcast host Joe Rogan argued that Facebook is “one gigantic information-gathering business that’s decided to take all of the data that people didn’t know was valuable and sell it and make f***ing billions of dollars.” Musk appeared to agree.

The animosity exhibited toward data collection might come as a surprise to anyone who has taken Econ 101. Goods ideally end up with those who value them most. A firm finding profitable ways to repurpose unwanted scraps is just the efficient reallocation of resources. This applies as much to personal data as to literal trash.

Unfortunately, in the policy sphere, few are willing to recognize the inherent trade-off between the value of privacy, on the one hand, and the value of various goods and services that rely on consumer data, on the other. Ideally, policymakers would look to markets to find the right balance, which they often can. When the transfer of data is hardwired into an underlying transaction, parties have ample room to bargain.

But this is not always possible. In some cases, transaction costs will prevent parties from bargaining over the use of data. The question is whether such situations are so widespread as to justify the creation of data property rights, with all of the allocative inefficiencies they entail. Critics wrongly assume the solution is both to create data property rights and to allocate them to consumers. But there is no evidence to suggest that, at the margin, heightened user privacy necessarily outweighs the social benefits that new data-reliant goods and services would generate. Recent experience in the worlds of personalized medicine and the fight against COVID-19 help to illustrate this point.

Data Property Rights and Personalized Medicine

The world is on the cusp of a revolution in personalized medicine. Advances such as the improved identification of biomarkers, CRISPR genome editing, and machine learning, could usher a new wave of treatments to markedly improve health outcomes.

Personalized medicine uses information about a person’s own genes or proteins to prevent, diagnose, or treat disease. Genetic-testing companies like 23andMe or Family Tree DNA, with the large troves of genetic information they collect, could play a significant role in helping the scientific community to further medical progress in this area.

However, despite the obvious potential of personalized medicine, many of its real-world applications are still very much hypothetical. While governments could act in any number of ways to accelerate the movement’s progress, recent policy debates have instead focused more on whether to create a system of property rights covering personal genetic data.

Some raise concerns that it is pharmaceutical companies, not consumers, who will reap the monetary benefits of the personalized medicine revolution, and that advances are achieved at the expense of consumers’ and patients’ privacy. They contend that data property rights would ensure that patients earn their “fair” share of personalized medicine’s future profits.

But it’s worth examining the other side of the coin. There are few things people value more than their health. U.S. governmental agencies place the value of a single life at somewhere between $1 million and $10 million. The commonly used quality-adjusted life year metric offers valuations that range from $50,000 to upward of $300,000 per incremental year of life.

It therefore follows that the trivial sums users of genetic-testing kits might derive from a system of data property rights would likely be dwarfed by the value they would enjoy from improved medical treatments. A strong case can be made that policymakers should prioritize advancing the emergence of new treatments, rather than attempting to ensure that consumers share in the profits generated by those potential advances.

These debates drew increased attention last year, when 23andMe signed a strategic agreement with the pharmaceutical company Almirall to license the rights related to an antibody Almirall had developed. Critics pointed out that 23andMe’s customers, whose data had presumably been used to discover the potential treatment, received no monetary benefits from the deal. Journalist Laura Spinney wrote in The Guardian newspaper:

23andMe, for example, asks its customers to waive all claims to a share of the profits arising from such research. But given those profits could be substantial—as evidenced by the interest of big pharma—shouldn’t the company be paying us for our data, rather than charging us to be tested?

In the deal’s wake, some argued that personal health data should be covered by property rights. A cardiologist quoted in Fortune magazine opined: “I strongly believe that everyone should own their medical data—and they have a right to that.” But this strong belief, however widely shared, ignores important lessons that law and economics has to teach about property rights and the role of contractual freedom.

Why Do We Have Property Rights?

Among the many important features of property rights is that they create “excludability,” the ability of economic agents to prevent third parties from using a given item. In the words of law professor Richard Epstein:

[P]roperty is not an individual conception, but is at root a social conception. The social conception is fairly and accurately portrayed, not by what it is I can do with the thing in question, but by who it is that I am entitled to exclude by virtue of my right. Possession becomes exclusive possession against the rest of the world…

Excludability helps to facilitate the trade of goods, offers incentives to create those goods in the first place, and promotes specialization throughout the economy. In short, property rights create a system of exclusion that supports creating and maintaining valuable goods, services, and ideas.

But property rights are not without drawbacks. Physical or intellectual property can lead to a suboptimal allocation of resources, namely market power (though this effect is often outweighed by increased ex ante incentives to create and innovate). Similarly, property rights can give rise to thickets that significantly increase the cost of amassing complementary pieces of property. Often cited are the historic (but contested) examples of tolling on the Rhine River or the airplane patent thicket of the early 20th century. Finally, strong property rights might also lead to holdout behavior, which can be addressed through top-down tools, like eminent domain, or private mechanisms, like contingent contracts.

In short, though property rights—whether they cover physical or information goods—can offer vast benefits, there are cases where they might be counterproductive. This is probably why, throughout history, property laws have evolved to achieve a reasonable balance between incentives to create goods and to ensure their efficient allocation and use.

Personal Health Data: What Are We Trying to Incentivize?

There are at least three critical questions we should ask about proposals to create property rights over personal health data.

  1. What goods or behaviors would these rights incentivize or disincentivize that are currently over- or undersupplied by the market?
  2. Are goods over- or undersupplied because of insufficient excludability?
  3. Could these rights undermine the efficient use of personal health data?

Much of the current debate centers on data obtained from direct-to-consumer genetic-testing kits. In this context, almost by definition, firms only obtain consumers’ genetic data with their consent. In western democracies, the rights to bodily integrity and to privacy generally make it illegal to administer genetic tests against a consumer or patient’s will. This makes genetic information naturally excludable, so consumers already benefit from what is effectively a property right.

When consumers decide to use a genetic-testing kit, the terms set by the testing firm generally stipulate how their personal data will be used. 23andMe has a detailed policy to this effect, as does Family Tree DNA. In the case of 23andMe, consumers can decide whether their personal information can be used for the purpose of scientific research:

You have the choice to participate in 23andMe Research by providing your consent. … 23andMe Research may study a specific group or population, identify potential areas or targets for therapeutics development, conduct or support the development of drugs, diagnostics or devices to diagnose, predict or treat medical or other health conditions, work with public, private and/or nonprofit entities on genetic research initiatives, or otherwise create, commercialize, and apply this new knowledge to improve health care.

Because this transfer of personal information is hardwired into the provision of genetic-testing services, there is space for contractual bargaining over the allocation of this information. The right to use personal health data will go toward the party that values it most, especially if information asymmetries are weeded out by existing regulations or business practices.

Regardless of data property rights, consumers have a choice: they can purchase genetic-testing services and agree to the provider’s data policy, or they can forgo the services. The service provider cannot obtain the data without entering into an agreement with the consumer. While competition between providers will affect parties’ bargaining positions, and thus the price and terms on which these services are provided, data property rights likely will not.

So, why do consumers transfer control over their genetic data? The main reason is that genetic information is inaccessible and worthless without the addition of genetic-testing services. Consumers must pass through the bottleneck of genetic testing for their genetic data to be revealed and transformed into usable information. It therefore makes sense to transfer the information to the service provider, who is in a much stronger position to draw insights from it. From the consumer’s perspective, the data is not even truly “transferred,” as the consumer had no access to it before the genetic-testing service revealed it. The value of this genetic information is then netted out in the price consumers pay for testing kits.

If personal health data were undersupplied by consumers and patients, testing firms could sweeten the deal and offer them more in return for their data. U.S. copyright law covers original compilations of data, while EU law gives 15 years of exclusive protection to the creators of original databases. Legal protections for trade secrets could also play some role. Thus, firms have some incentives to amass valuable health datasets.

But some critics argue that health data is, in fact, oversupplied. Generally, such arguments assert that agents do not account for the negative privacy externalities suffered by third-parties, such as adverse-selection problems in insurance markets. For example, Jay Pil Choi, Doh Shin Jeon, and Byung Cheol Kim argue:

Genetic tests are another example of privacy concerns due to informational externalities. Researchers have found that some subjects’ genetic information can be used to make predictions of others’ genetic disposition among the same racial or ethnic category.  … Because of practical concerns about privacy and/or invidious discrimination based on genetic information, the U.S. federal government has prohibited insurance companies and employers from any misuse of information from genetic tests under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).

But if these externalities exist (most of the examples cited by scholars are hypothetical), they are likely dwarfed by the tremendous benefits that could flow from the use of personal health data. Put differently, the assertion that “excessive” data collection may create privacy harms should be weighed against the possibility that the same collection may also lead to socially valuable goods and services that produce positive externalities.

In any case, data property rights would do little to limit these potential negative externalities. Consumers and patients are already free to agree to terms that allow or prevent their data from being resold to insurers. It is not clear how data property rights would alter the picture.

Proponents of data property rights often claim they should be associated with some form of collective bargaining. The idea is that consumers might otherwise fail to receive their “fair share” of genetic-testing firms’ revenue. But what critics portray as asymmetric bargaining power might simply be the market signaling that genetic-testing services are in high demand, with room for competitors to enter the market. Shifting rents from genetic-testing services to consumers would undermine this valuable price signal and, ultimately, diminish the quality of the services.

Perhaps more importantly, to the extent that they limit the supply of genetic information—for example, because firms are forced to pay higher prices for data and thus acquire less of it—data property rights might hinder the emergence of new treatments. If genetic data is a key input to develop personalized medicines, adopting policies that, in effect, ration the supply of that data is likely misguided.

Even if policymakers do not directly put their thumb on the scale, data property rights could still harm pharmaceutical innovation. If existing privacy regulations are any guide—notably, the previously mentioned GDPR and CCPA, as well as the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)—such rights might increase red tape for pharmaceutical innovators. Privacy regulations routinely limit firms’ ability to put collected data to new and previously unforeseen uses. They also limit parties’ contractual freedom when it comes to gathering consumers’ consent.

At the margin, data property rights would make it more costly for firms to amass socially valuable datasets. This would effectively move the personalized medicine space further away from a world of permissionless innovation, thus slowing down medical progress.

In short, there is little reason to believe health-care data is misallocated. Proposals to reallocate rights to such data based on idiosyncratic distributional preferences threaten to stifle innovation in the name of privacy harms that remain mostly hypothetical.

Data Property Rights and COVID-19

The trade-off between users’ privacy and the efficient use of data also has important implications for the fight against COVID-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic, several promising initiatives have been thwarted by privacy regulations and concerns about the use of personal data. This has potentially prevented policymakers, firms, and consumers from putting information to its optimal social use. High-profile issues have included:

Each of these cases may involve genuine privacy risks. But to the extent that they do, those risks must be balanced against the potential benefits to society. If privacy concerns prevent us from deploying contact tracing or green passes at scale, we should question whether the privacy benefits are worth the cost. The same is true for rules that prohibit amassing more data than is strictly necessary, as is required by data-minimization obligations included in regulations such as the GDPR.

If our initial question was instead whether the benefits of a given data-collection scheme outweighed its potential costs to privacy, incentives could be set such that competition between firms would reduce the amount of data collected—at least, where minimized data collection is, indeed, valuable to users. Yet these considerations are almost completely absent in the COVID-19-related privacy debates, as they are in the broader privacy debate. Against this backdrop, the case for personal data property rights is dubious.

Conclusion

The key question is whether policymakers should make it easier or harder for firms and public bodies to amass large sets of personal data. This requires asking whether personal data is currently under- or over-provided, and whether the additional excludability that would be created by data property rights would offset their detrimental effect on innovation.

Swaths of personal data currently lie untapped. With the proper incentive mechanisms in place, this idle data could be mobilized to develop personalized medicines and to fight the COVID-19 outbreak, among many other valuable uses. By making such data more onerous to acquire, property rights in personal data might stifle the assembly of novel datasets that could be used to build innovative products and services.

On the other hand, when dealing with diffuse and complementary data sources, transaction costs become a real issue and the initial allocation of rights can matter a great deal. In such cases, unlike the genetic-testing kits example, it is not certain that users will be able to bargain with firms, especially where their personal information is exchanged by third parties.

If optimal reallocation is unlikely, should property rights go to the person covered by the data or to the collectors (potentially subject to user opt-outs)? Proponents of data property rights assume the first option is superior. But if the goal is to produce groundbreaking new goods and services, granting rights to data collectors might be a superior solution. Ultimately, this is an empirical question.

As Richard Epstein puts it, the goal is to “minimize the sum of errors that arise from expropriation and undercompensation, where the two are inversely related.” Rather than approach the problem with the preconceived notion that initial rights should go to users, policymakers should ensure that data flows to those economic agents who can best extract information and knowledge from it.

As things stand, there is little to suggest that the trade-offs favor creating data property rights. This is not an argument for requisitioning personal information or preventing parties from transferring data as they see fit, but simply for letting markets function, unfettered by misguided public policies.

Critics of big tech companies like Google and Amazon are increasingly focused on the supposed evils of “self-preferencing.” This refers to when digital platforms like Amazon Marketplace or Google Search, which connect competing services with potential customers or users, also offer (and sometimes prioritize) their own in-house products and services. 

The objection, raised by several members and witnesses during a Feb. 25 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, is that it is unfair to third parties that use those sites to allow the site’s owner special competitive advantages. Is it fair, for example, for Amazon to use the data it gathers from its service to design new products if third-party merchants can’t access the same data? This seemingly intuitive complaint was the basis for the European Commission’s landmark case against Google

But we cannot assume that something is bad for competition just because it is bad for certain competitors. A lot of unambiguously procompetitive behavior, like cutting prices, also tends to make life difficult for competitors. The same is true when a digital platform provides a service that is better than alternatives provided by the site’s third-party sellers. 

It’s probably true that Amazon’s access to customer search and purchase data can help it spot products it can undercut with its own versions, driving down prices. But that’s not unusual; most retailers do this, many to a much greater extent than Amazon. For example, you can buy AmazonBasics batteries for less than half the price of branded alternatives, and they’re pretty good.

There’s no doubt this is unpleasant for merchants that have to compete with these offerings. But it is also no different from having to compete with more efficient rivals who have lower costs or better insight into consumer demand. Copying products and seeking ways to offer them with better features or at a lower price, which critics of self-preferencing highlight as a particular concern, has always been a fundamental part of market competition—indeed, it is the primary way competition occurs in most markets. 

Store-branded versions of iPhone cables and Nespresso pods are certainly inconvenient for those companies, but they offer consumers cheaper alternatives. Where such copying may be problematic (say, by deterring investments in product innovations), the law awards and enforces patents and copyrights to reward novel discoveries and creative works, and trademarks to protect brand identity. But in the absence of those cases where a company has intellectual property, this is simply how competition works. 

The fundamental question is “what benefits consumers?” Services like Yelp object that they cannot compete with Google when Google embeds its Google Maps box in Google Search results, while Yelp cannot do the same. But for users, the Maps box adds valuable information to the results page, making it easier to get what they want. Google is not making Yelp worse by making its own product better. Should it have to refrain from offering services that benefit its users because doing so might make competing products comparatively less attractive?

Self-preferencing also enables platforms to promote their offerings in other markets, which is often how large tech companies compete with each other. Amazon has a photo-hosting app that competes with Google Photos and Apple’s iCloud. It recently emailed its customers to promote it. That is undoubtedly self-preferencing, since other services cannot market themselves to Amazon’s customers like this, but if it makes customers aware of an alternative they might not have otherwise considered, that is good for competition. 

This kind of behavior also allows companies to invest in offering services inexpensively, or for free, that they intend to monetize by preferencing their other, more profitable products. For example, Google invests in Android’s operating system and gives much of it away for free precisely because it can encourage Android customers to use the profitable Google Search service. Despite claims to the contrary, it is difficult to see this sort of cross-subsidy as harmful to consumers.

Self-preferencing can even be good for competing services, including third-party merchants. In many cases, it expands the size of their potential customer base. For example, blockbuster video games released by Sony and Microsoft increase demand for games by other publishers because they increase the total number of people who buy Playstations and Xboxes. This effect is clear on Amazon’s Marketplace, which has grown enormously for third-party merchants even as Amazon has increased the number of its own store-brand products on the site. By making the Amazon Marketplace more attractive, third-party sellers also benefit.

All platforms are open or closed to varying degrees. Retail “platforms,” for example, exist on a spectrum on which Craigslist is more open and neutral than eBay, which is more so than Amazon, which is itself relatively more so than, say, Walmart.com. Each position on this spectrum offers its own benefits and trade-offs for consumers. Indeed, some customers’ biggest complaint against Amazon is that it is too open, filled with third parties who leave fake reviews, offer counterfeit products, or have shoddy returns policies. Part of the role of the site is to try to correct those problems by making better rules, excluding certain sellers, or just by offering similar options directly. 

Regulators and legislators often act as if the more open and neutral, the better, but customers have repeatedly shown that they often prefer less open, less neutral options. And critics of self-preferencing frequently find themselves arguing against behavior that improves consumer outcomes, because it hurts competitors. But that is the nature of competition: what’s good for consumers is frequently bad for competitors. If we have to choose, it’s consumers who should always come first.

The European Court of Justice issued its long-awaited ruling Dec. 9 in the Groupe Canal+ case. The case centered on licensing agreements in which Paramount Pictures granted absolute territorial exclusivity to several European broadcasters, including Canal+.

Back in 2015, the European Commission charged six U.S. film studios, including Paramount,  as well as British broadcaster Sky UK Ltd., with illegally limiting access to content. The crux of the EC’s complaint was that the contractual agreements to limit cross-border competition for content distribution ran afoul of European Union competition law. Paramount ultimately settled its case with the commission and agreed to remove the problematic clauses from its contracts. This affected third parties like Canal+, who lost valuable contractual protections. 

While the ECJ ultimately upheld the agreements on what amounts to procedural grounds (Canal+ was unduly affected by a decision to which it was not a party), the case provides yet another example of the European Commission’s misguided stance on absolute territorial licensing, sometimes referred to as “geo-blocking.”

The EC’s long-running efforts to restrict geo-blocking emerge from its attempts to harmonize trade across the EU. Notably, in its Digital Single Market initiative, the Commission envisioned

[A] Digital Single Market is one in which the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured and where individuals and businesses can s​eamlessly access and exercise online activities under conditions of f​air competition,​ and a high level of consumer and personal data protection, irrespective of their nationality or place of residence.

This policy stance has been endorsed consistently by the European Court of Justice. In the 2011 Murphy decision, for example, the court held that agreements between rights holders and broadcasters infringe European competition when they categorically prevent the latter from supplying “decoding devices” to consumers located in other member states. More precisely, while rights holders can license their content on a territorial basis, they cannot restrict so-called “passive sales”; broadcasters can be prevented from actively chasing consumers in other member states, but not from serving them altogether. If this sounds Kafkaesque, it’s because it is.

The problem with the ECJ’s vision is that it elides the complex factors that underlie a healthy free-trade zone. Geo-blocking frequently is misunderstood or derided by consumers as an unwarranted restriction on their consumption preferences. It doesn’t feel “fair” or “seamless” when a rights holder can decide who can access their content and on what terms. But that doesn’t mean geo-blocking is a nefarious or socially harmful practice. Quite the contrary: allowing creators to create different sets of distribution options offers both a return to the creators as well as more choice in general to consumers. 

In economic terms, geo-blocking allows rights holders to engage in third-degree price discrimination; that is, they have the ability to charge different prices for different sets of consumers. This type of pricing will increase total welfare so long as it increases output. As Hal Varian puts it:

If a new market is opened up because of price discrimination—a market that was not previously being served under the ordinary monopoly—then we will typically have a Pareto improving welfare enhancement.

Another benefit of third-degree price discrimination is that, by shifting some economic surplus from consumers to firms, it can stimulate investment in much the same way copyright and patents do. Put simply, the prospect of greater economic rents increases the maximum investment firms will be willing to make in content creation and distribution.

For these reasons, respecting parties’ freedom to license content as they see fit is likely to produce much more efficient outcomes than annulling those agreements through government-imposed “seamless access” and “fair competition” rules. Part of the value of copyright law is in creating space to contract by protecting creators’ property rights. Without geo-blocking, the enforcement of licensing agreements would become much more difficult. Laws restricting copyright owners’ ability to contract freely reduce allocational efficiency, as well as the incentives to create in the first place. Further, when individual creators have commercial and creative autonomy, they gain a degree of predictability that can ensure they will continue to produce content in the future. 

The European Union would do well to adopt a more nuanced understanding of the contractual relationships between producers and distributors. 

More than two decades after Congress sought to strike a balance between the interests of creators and service providers with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), it is clear that Section 512 of the Copyright Act has failed to create the right incentives to curb online copyright infringement. Indeed, as a May report from the U.S. Copyright Office concluded, the “original intended balance has been tilted askew.”

As laid out in the DMCA, Section 512’s goal was to “preserve strong incentives for service providers and copyright owners to cooperate to detect and deal with copyright infringements” while simultaneously providing “greater certainty to service providers concerning their legal exposure for infringements.” While the law has certainly accomplished the latter, it has been at the expense of the former.

The good news is that Congress has taken notice. Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.)—the chair and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property—have held a series of hearings on potential reforms to the Copyright Act, with another scheduled for Dec. 15. Tillis also recently solicited feedback to guide a discussion draft of reform legislation he intends to make public shortly after the hearing. (Our answers to Tillis’ questionnaire can be found here.) 

The problem

Back in 1998, there were reasons for lawmakers to believe Section 512 would help Internet users, copyright holders and online service providers (OSPs) alike. Holding OSPs culpable for any misuse of copyrighted material in the vast amount of user-generated content they carry would create unreasonable litigation risk and hinder development of online distribution services. That would be bad for Internet users, for copyright holders who benefit from the lawful dissemination of their content and for the OSPs themselves. In that sense, providing OSPs limited liability protection for collaborating to curb piracy was seen as a way to create a healthier online ecosystem to everyone’s advantage.

But as Section 512 has been applied by the courts, OSPs need do little more than respond to takedown notices from copyright holders. At that point, the copyrighted content has already been unlawfully disseminated and damage has already been done. Moreover, in the interim, service providers can continue to monetize the infringing content through ad placement or other mechanisms. In essence, Section 512 has in practice given OSPs an economic incentive to do as little as possible to prevent infringement for as long as possible so that they can avoid costs and continue to generate revenue. That is antithetical to the copyright system, which is supposed to give copyright holders the ability to determine how their content is disseminated and to negotiate compensation.

Such concerns are compounded by the fact that a single unauthorized version of a copyrighted work on one Internet site may quickly be replicated into hundreds of versions at hundreds of sites across the globe. Copyright holders must scour the entire Internet for unauthorized versions of their content in a constant state of notice-sending, only to have the content continue to pop up. That is a costly and time-consuming burden for any copyright holder. The burden is even greater for independent creators who do not have their own content-protection departments. The hours and days they lose policing the Internet for their copyrighted material is time they could be spending on their craft.

Potential solutions

Proper safe harbors should encourage OSPs to help prevent copyrighted content from being improperly disseminated. Ideally, such rules could also encourage OSPs to license content. That would enable them and their users to benefit from the content without litigation risk, but while respecting copyright holders’ rights. One of the benefits of intermediaries is that they can more efficiently negotiate such agreements with copyright holders than the copyright holders could with each of the service providers’ many users.

But the near-complete absence of intermediary liability means OSPs have little incentive to curb piracy or license content. As a condition of receiving safe harbor protection, OSPs should be required to take reasonable steps: 1) to prevent infringement and 2) to stop, upon notice, infringement that has already occurred. Such steps would include:

  • Authentication of Identities. Ensuring online service providers know their users’ true identities would discourage those users from engaging in piracy, while also making it harder for users to simply change account names once caught. It would also help copyright holders to seek redress, including in cases where all they want is to ask users to cease unintentional infringement. Identities could generally remain confidential, disclosed to third parties only when needed to resolve a case of infringement.
  • Education Measures. Unintentional infringement might be avoided if OSPs briefly explained to users the principles of copyright and fair use and asked whether they were transmitting content that contained someone else’s copyrighted work. Such explanations and inquiries should be provided at the point a user seeks to disseminate content. Links could be included pointing to more detailed information on the Copyright Office’s site.
  • Revisions to the Knowledge Standard. According to the text of Section 512, to be protected by the safe harbors, OSPs must not have either “actual knowledge” of infringement or be “aware of facts or circumstances from which infringing activity is apparent.” This awareness of facts or circumstances is often referred to as “red flag” knowledge. But courts have all but read this standard out of the statute. The statute should be revised to make clear that OSPs are required to act when infringement is apparent, even if they have not been alerted to a specific instance of infringement by a copyright holder.
  • Preservation of Rights Management Information. Digital works often have embedded data indicating who the copyright holders are and how the content may be used. OSPs should be held culpable if they negligently, recklessly or knowingly remove that data. Copyright holders should not be required, as is the case today, to demonstrate that the online service provider acted with an intent to facilitate infringement. The lack of accurate rights-management information makes it harder for copyright holders to enforce their rights, as well as for individuals willing to license content to determine who to approach to do so. OSPs should thus have an obligation to ensure that rights-management information included by a copyright holder remains intact, especially since OSPs often monetize that content through advertising or other means.
  • Filtering and Staydown: Allowing all copyright holders to provide “fingerprints” of their content would enable OSPs to prevent copyrighted content from being unlawfully uploaded or otherwise disseminated. It could also help ensure that any copyrighted content that slips through and is subsequently taken down manages to stay down. Preventing unauthorized dissemination through filtering could also reduce the number of takedown notices copyright holders would need to send and OSPs would need to process—saving everyone time, hassle and money. Filtering technologies, such as Google’s Content ID, already exist, although Google does not make it available to all copyright holders. The EU has recently adopted filtering requirements. A U.S. filtering requirement would help to foster a market for the creation of additional filtering solutions.
  • Adoption of Standard Technical Measures. Section 512(i) requires OSPs to accommodate standard technical measures for preventing piracy that have been developed through a voluntary, consensus process. The immunity from liability that the safe harbors provide, however, reduces OSPs’ incentive to collaborate to develop standard technical measures. The Copyright Office should be authorized to certify certain solutions as standard technical measures, and even to commission the creation of additional ones. This would help foster a market for such measures.
  • Improving the Takedown Process. The statute allows copyright holders to provide representative lists in their notices for takedown, rather than require them to itemize every URL for takedown. Yet OSPs often impose technicalities before they will act on a representative list. The Copyright Office should be authorized to create model forms deemed to provide adequate notice, as well as to specify what kind of information is both necessary and sufficient to require takedown.
  • Effective Repeat Infringer Policies. The statute already requires OSPs to have policies to terminate service to repeat infringers, and to reasonably implement those policies. Courts have historically interpreted those requirements rather laxly. The Copyright Office should be authorized to create a model repeat-infringer policy deemed to comply with the requirement.

In addition to creating baseline requirements such as the ones listed above, the Copyright Act should be revised to provide additional tools to resolve disputes. Creating a small claims process, as provided in the CASE Act, could alleviate the burdens of litigation for smaller copyright holders, smaller OSPs and individual users. Also, courts ordinarily have authority to issue no-fault injunctions to third parties when doing so is necessary to effectuate their rulings. In the copyright context, even when U.S. courts have ruled that websites have willfully engaged in infringement, ceasing the infringement can be difficult, especially when the parties and their facilities are located outside the United States. Courts should be clearly authorized to issue no-fault injunctions requiring OSPs to block access to sites that the courts have ruled are willfully engaged in mass infringement. Such orders are already available to courts in many other countries and have not, as some hyperbolically predict, “broken the Internet.”

Revising the Copyright Act as described above would encourage OSPs both to prevent the initial infringement and to more effectively curtail continued infringement that has slipped through. OSPs could decline to implement these content-protection requirements, but they would lose the safe harbors and be subject to the ordinary standards of copyright liability. OSPs also might more widely choose to license copyrighted works that are likely to appear on their platforms. That would benefit copyright holders and Internet consumers alike. The providers themselves might even find it leads to increased use of their service—as well as increased profits.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Kristian Stout, (Associate Director, International Center for Law & Economics]


The ongoing pandemic has been an opportunity to explore different aspects of the human condition. For myself, I have learned that, despite a deep commitment to philosophical (neo- or classical-) liberalism, at heart I am pragmatic. I would prefer a society that optimizes for more individual liberty, but I am emphatically not someone who would even entertain the idea of using crises to advance my agenda when it is not clearly in service to amelioration of immediate problems.

Sadly, I have also learned that there are those who are not similarly pragmatic, and are willing to advance their ideological agenda come hell or high water. In this regard, I was disappointed yesterday to see the Gurry IP/COVID Letter passing around Twitter calling for widespread, worldwide interference with the property rights of IPR holders. 

The letter calls for a scattershot set of “remedies” to the crisis that would open access to copyright- and patent-protected inventions and content, including (among other things): 

  • voluntary licensing and non-enforcement of IP;
  • abrogation of IPR by WIPO members using the  “flexibility” in the international IP regime; 
  • the removal of geographical restrictions on IP licenses;
  • forcing patents into COVID-19 patent pools; and 
  • the implementation of compulsory licensing. 

And, unlike many prior efforts to push the envelope on weakening IP protections, the Gurry Letter also calls for measures that would weaken trade secrets and expose confidential business information in order to “achieve universal and equitable access to COVID-19 medicines and medical technologies as soon as reasonably possible.”

Notably, nothing in the letter suggests that any of these measures should be regarded as temporary.

We all want treatments for infection, vaccines for prevention, and ample supply of personal protective equipment as soon as possible, but if all the demands in this letter were met, it would do little to increase the supply of any of these things in the short term, while undermining incentives to develop new treatments, vaccines and better preventative tools in the long run. 

Fundamentally, the letter  reflects a willingness to use the COVID-19 pandemic to pursue an agenda that lacks merit and would be dismissed in the normal course of affairs. 

What is most certainly the case is that we need more innovation now, and we need it faster. There is no reason to believe that mandating open source status or forcing compulsory licensing on the firms doing that work will encourage that work to proceed with all due haste—and every indication that the opposite is the case. 

Where there are short term shortages of certain products that might be produced in much larger quantities by relaxing IP, companies are responding by doing just that—voluntarily. But this is fundamentally different from the imposition of unlimited compulsory licenses.

Further, private actors have displayed an impressive willingness to provide free or low cost access to technologies and content—without government coercion. The following is a short list of some of the content and inventions that have been opened up:

Culture, Fitness & Entertainment

  • HBO Will Stream 500 Hours of Free Programming, Including Full Seasons of ‘Veep,’ ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Silicon Valley’”
  • Dozens (or more) of artists, both famous and lesser known, are releasing free back catalog performances or are taking part in free live streaming sessions on social media platforms. Notably, viewers are often welcome to donate or “pay what they” want to help support these artists (more on this below).
  • The NBA, NFL, and NHL are offering free access to their back catalogue of games.
  • A large array of music production software can now be used free on extended trials for 3 months (or completely free and unlimited in some cases). 
  • CBS All Access expanded its free trial period.
  • Neil Gaiman and Harper Collins granted permission to Levar Burton to livestream readings from their catalogs.
  • Disney is releasing movies early onto its (paid) Disney+ services.
  • Gold’s Gym is providing free access to its app-based workouts.
  • The Met is streaming free recordings of its Live in HD series.
  • The Seattle Symphony is offering free access to some of its recorded performances.
  • The UK National Theater is streaming some of its most popular plays for free.
  • Andrew Lloyd Weber is streaming his shows online for free.

Science, News & Education

  • Scholastica released free content intended to help educate students stuck at home while sheltering-in-place. 
  • Nearly 100 academic journals, societies, institutes, and companies signed a commitment to make research and data on COVID-19 freely available, at least for the duration of the outbreak.
  • The Atlantic lifted paywall restrictions on access to its COVID-19-related content.
  • The New England Journal of Medicine is allowing free access to COVID-19-related resources.
  • The Lancet allows free access to research it publishes on COVID-19.
  • All material published by theBMJ on the coronavirus outbreak is freely available.
  • The AAAS-published Science allows free access to its coronavirus research and commentary.
  • Elsevier gave full access to its content on its COVID-19 Information Center for PubMed Central and other public health databases.
  • The American Economic Association announced open access to all of its journals until the end of June.
  • JSTOR expanded free access to some of its scholarship.

Medicine & Technology

  • The Global Center for Medical Design is developing license-free PPE designs that can be quickly implemented by manufacturers.
  • Medtronic published “design specifications for the Puritan Bennett 560 (PB560) to allow innovators, inventors, start-ups, and academic institutions to leverage their own expertise and resources to evaluate options for rapid ventilator manufacturing.” It additionally provided software licenses for this technology.
  • AbbVie announced it won’t enforce its patent rights for Kaletra—a drug that may provide treatment for COVID-19 infections. Israel had earlier indicated it would impose compulsory licenses for the drug, but AbbVie is allowing use worldwide. The company, moreover, had donated supplies of the drug to China earlier in the year when the outbreak first became apparent.
  • Google is working with health researchers to provide anonymized and aggregated user location data. 
  • Cisco has extended free licenses and expanded usage counts at no extra charge for three of its security technologies to help strained IT teams and partners ready themselves and their clients for remote work.”
  • Microsoft is offering free subscriptions to its Teams product for six months.
  • Zoom expanded its free access and other limitations for educational institutions around the world.

Incentivize innovation, now more than ever

In addition to undermining the short-term incentives to draw more research resources into the fight against COVID-19, using this crisis to weaken the IP regime will cause long-term damage to the economies of the world. We still will need creators making new cultural products and researchers developing new medicines and technologies; weakening the IP regime will undermine the delicate set of incentives that cultural and scientific production depends upon. 

Any clear-eyed assessment of the broader course of the pandemic and the response to it gives lie to the notion that IP rights are oppressive or counterproductive. It is the pharmaceutical industry—hated as they may be in some quarters—that will be able to marshall the resources and expertise to develop treatments and vaccines. And it is artists and educators producing cultural content who (theoretically) depend on the licensing revenues of their creations for survival. 

In fact, one of the things that the pandemic has exposed is the fragility of artists’ livelihoods and the callousness with which they are often treated. Shortly after the lockdowns began in the US, the well-established rock musician David Crosby said in an interview that, if he could not tour this year, he would face tremendous financial hardship. 

As unfortunate as that may be for Crosby, a world-famous musician, imagine how much harder it is for struggling musicians who can hardly hope to achieve a fraction of Crosby’s success for their own tours, let alone for licensing. If David Crosby cannot manage well for a few months on the revenue from his popular catalog, what hope do small artists have?

Indeed, the flood of unable-to-tour artists who are currently offering “donate what you can” streaming performances are a symptom of the destructive assault on IPR exemplified in the letter. For decades, these artists have been told that they can only legitimately make money through touring. Although the potential to actually make a living while touring is possibly out of reach for many or most artists,  those that had been scraping by have now been brought to the brink of ruin as the ability to tour is taken away. 

There are certainly ways the various IP regimes can be improved (like, for instance, figuring out how to help creators make a living from their creations), but now is not the time to implement wishlist changes to an otherwise broadly successful rights regime. 

And, critically, there is a massive difference between achieving wider distribution of intellectual property voluntarily as opposed to through government fiat. When done voluntarily the IP owner determines the contours and extent of “open sourcing” so she can tailor increased access to her own needs (including the need to eat and pay rent). In some cases this may mean providing unlimited, completely free access, but in other cases—where the particular inventor or creator has a different set of needs and priorities—it may be something less than completely open access. When a rightsholder opts to “open source” her property voluntarily, she still retains the right to govern future use (i.e. once the pandemic is over) and is able to plan for reductions in revenue and how to manage future return on investment. 

Our lawmakers can consider if a particular situation arises where a particular piece of property is required for the public good, should the need arise. Otherwise, as responsible individuals, we should restrain ourselves from trying to capitalize on the current crisis to ram through our policy preferences. 

Every 5 years, Congress has to reauthorize the sunsetting provisions of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA). And the deadline for renewing the law is quickly approaching (Dec. 31). While sunsetting is, in the abstract, seemingly a good thing to ensure rules don’t become outdated, there are an interlocking set of interest groups who, generally speaking, only support reauthorizing the law because they are locked in a regulatory stalemate. STELA no longer represents an optimal outcome for many if not most of the affected parties. The time is now for finally allowing STELA to sunset, and using this occasion to further reform the underlying regulatory morass it is built upon.

Since the creation of STELA in 1988, much has changed in the marketplace. At the time of the 1992 Cable Act (the first year data from the FCC’s Video Competition Reports is available), cable providers served 95% of multichannel video subscribers. Now, the power of cable has waned to the extent that 2 of the top 4 multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) are satellite providers, without even considering the explosion in competition from online video distributors like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Given these developments, Congress should reconsider whether STELA is necessary at all, along with the whole complex regulatory structure undergirding it, and consider the relative simplicity with which copyright and antitrust law are capable of adequately facilitating the market for broadcast content negotiations. An approach building upon that contemplated in the bipartisan Modern Television Act of 2019 by Congressman Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-CA)—which would repeal the compulsory license/retransmission consent regime for both cable and satellite—would be a step in the right direction.

A brief history of STELA

STELA, originally known as the 1988 Satellite Home Viewer Act, was originally justified as necessary to promote satellite competition against incumbent cable networks and to give satellite companies stronger negotiating positions against network broadcasters. In particular, the goal was to give satellite providers the ability to transmit terrestrial network broadcasts to subscribers. To do this, this regulatory structure modified the Communications Act and the Copyright Act. 

With the 1988 Satellite Home Viewer Act, Congress created a compulsory license for satellite retransmissions under Section 119 of the Copyright Act. This compulsory license provision mandated, just as the Cable Act did for cable providers, that satellite would have the right to certain network broadcast content in exchange for a government-set price (despite the fact that local network affiliates don’t necessarily own the copyrights themselves). The retransmission consent provision requires satellite providers (and cable providers under the Cable Act) to negotiate with network broadcasters for the fee to be paid for the right to network broadcast content. 

Alternatively, broadcasters can opt to impose must-carry provisions on cable and satellite  in lieu of retransmission consent negotiations. These provisions require satellite and cable operators to carry many channels from network broadcasters in order to have access to their content. As ICLE President Geoffrey Manne explained to Congress previously:

The must-carry rules require that, for cable providers offering 12 or more channels in their basic tier, at least one-third of these be local broadcast retransmissions. The forced carriage of additional, less-favored local channels results in a “tax on capacity,” and at the margins causes a reduction in quality… In the end, must-carry rules effectively transfer significant programming decisions from cable providers to broadcast stations, to the detriment of consumers… Although the ability of local broadcasters to opt in to retransmission consent in lieu of must-carry permits negotiation between local broadcasters and cable providers over the price of retransmission, must-carry sets a floor on this price, ensuring that payment never flows from broadcasters to cable providers for carriage, even though for some content this is surely the efficient transaction.

The essential question about the reauthorization of STELA regards the following provisions: 

  1. an exemption from retransmission consent requirements for satellite operators for the carriage of distant network signals to “unserved households” while maintaining the compulsory license right for those signals (modification of the compulsory license/retransmission consent regime);
  2. the prohibition on exclusive retransmission consent contracts between MVPDs and network broadcasters (per se ban on a business model); and
  3. the requirement that television broadcast stations and MVPDs negotiate in good faith (nebulous negotiating standard reviewed by FCC).

This regulatory scheme was supposed to sunset after 5 years. Instead of actually sunsetting, Congress has consistently reauthorized STELA ( in 1994, 1999, 2004, 2010, and 2014).

Each time, satellite companies like DirecTV & Dish Network, as well as interest groups representing rural customers who depend heavily on satellite for cable television, strongly supported the renewal of the legislation. Over time, though, the reauthorization has led to amendments supported by major players from each side of the negotiating table and broad support for what is widely considered “must-pass” legislation. In other words, every affected industry found something they liked about the compromise legislation.

As it stands, the sunset provision of STELA has meant that it gives each side negotiating leverage during the next round of reauthorization talks, and often concessions are drawn. But rather than simplifying this regulatory morass, STELA reauthorization simply extends rules that have outlived their purpose.

Current marketplace competition undermines the necessity of STELA reauthorization

The marketplace is very different in 2019 than it was when STELA’s predecessors were adopted and reauthorized. No longer is it the case that cable dominates and that satellite and other providers need a leg up just to compete. Moreover, there are now services that didn’t even exist when the STELA framework was first developed. Competition is thriving.

Wikipedia:

RankServiceSubscribersProviderType
1.Xfinity21,986,000ComcastCable
2.DirecTV19,222,000AT&TSatellite
3.Spectrum16,606,000CharterCable
4.Dish9,905,000Dish NetworkSatellite
5.Verizon Fios TV4,451,000VerizonFiber-Optic
6.Cox Cable TV4,015,000Cox EnterprisesCable
7.U-Verse TV3,704,000AT&TFiber-Optic
8.Optimum/Suddenlink3,307,500Altice USACable
9.Sling TV*2,417,000Dish NetworkLive Streaming
10.Hulu with Live TV2,000,000Hulu(Disney, Comcast, AT&T)Live Streaming
11.DirecTV Now1,591,000AT&TLive Streaming
12.YouTube TV1,000,000Google(Alphabet)Live Streaming
13.Frontier FiOS838,000FrontierFiber-Optic
14.Mediacom776,000MediacomCable
15.PlayStation Vue500,000SonyLive Streaming
16.CableOne Cable TV326,423Cable OneCable
17.FuboTV250,000FuboTVLive Streaming

A 2018 accounting of the largest MVPDs by subscribers shows that satellite is 2 of the top 4, and that over-the-top services like Sling TV, Hulu with LiveTV, and YouTube TV are gaining significantly. And this does not even consider (non-live) streaming services such as Netflix (approximately 60 million US subscribers), Hulu (about 28 million US subscribers) and Amazon Prime Video (which has about 40 million users in the US). It is not clear from these numbers that satellite needs special rules in order to compete with cable, or that the complex regulatory regime underlying STELA is necessary anymore.

On the contrary, there seems to be a lot of reason to believe that content is king, and the market for the distribution of that content is thriving. Competition among platforms is intense, not only among MVPDs like Comcast, DirecTV, Charter, and Dish Network, but from streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and HBONow. Distribution networks heavily invest in exclusive content to attract consumers. There is no reason to think that we need selective forbearance from the byzantine regulations in this space in order to promote satellite adoption when satellite companies are just as good as any at contracting for high-demand content (for instance DirecTV with NFL Sunday Ticket). 

A better way forward: Streamlined regulation in the form of copyright and antitrust

As Geoffrey Manne said in his Congressional testimony on STELA reauthorization back in 2013: 

behind all these special outdated regulations are laws of general application that govern the rest of the economy: antitrust and copyright. These are better, more resilient rules. They are simple rules for a complex world. They will stand up far better as video technology evolves–and they don’t need to be sunsetted.

Copyright law establishes clearly defined rights, thereby permitting efficient bargaining between content owners and distributors. But under the compulsory license system, the copyright holders’ right to a performance license is fundamentally abridged. Retransmission consent normally requires fees to be paid for the content that MVPDs have available to them. But STELA exempts certain network broadcasts (“distant signals” for “unserved households”) from retransmission consent requirements. This reduces incentives to develop content subject to STELA, which at the margin harms both content creators and viewers. It also gives satellite an unfair advantage vis-a-vis cable in those cases it does not need to pay ever-rising retransmission consent fees. Ironically, it also reduces the incentive for satellite providers (DirecTV, at least) to work to provide local content to some rural consumers. Congress should reform the law to allow copyright holders to have their full rights under the Copyright Act again. Congress should also repeal the compulsory license and must-carry provisions that work at cross-purposes and allow true marketplace negotiations.

The initial allocation of property rights guaranteed under copyright law would allow for MVPDs, including satellite providers, to negotiate with copyright holders for content, and thereby realize a more efficient set of content distribution outcomes than is otherwise possible. Under the compulsory license/retransmission consent regime underlying both STELA and the Cable Act, the outcomes at best approximate those that would occur through pure private ordering but in most cases lead to economically inefficient results because of the thumb on the scale in favor of the broadcasters. 

In a similar way, just as copyright law provides a superior set of bargaining conditions for content negotiation, antitrust law provides a superior mechanism for policing potentially problematic conduct between the firms involved. Under STELA, the FCC polices transactions with a “good faith” standard. In an important sense, this ambiguous regulatory discretion provides little information to prospective buyers and sellers of licenses as to what counts as “good faith” negotiations (aside from the specific practices listed).

By contrast, antitrust law, guided by the consumer welfare standard and decades of case law, is designed both to deter potential anticompetitive foreclosure and also to provide a clear standard for firms engaged in the marketplace. The effect of relying on antitrust law to police competitive harms is — as the name of the standard suggest — a net increase in the welfare of consumers, the ultimate beneficiaries of a well functioning market. 

For instance, consider a hypothetical dispute between a network broadcaster and a satellite provider. Under the FCC’s “good faith” oversight, bargaining disputes, which are increasingly resulting in blackouts, are reviewed for certain negotiating practices deemed to be unfair, 47 CFR § 76.65(b)(1), and by a more general “totality of the circumstances” standard, 47 CFR § 76.65(b)(2). This is both over- and under-inclusive as the negotiating practices listed in (b)(1) may have procompetitive benefits in certain circumstances, and the (b)(2) totality of the circumstances standard is vague and ill-defined. By comparison, antitrust claims would be adjudicated through a foreseeable process with reference to a consumer welfare standard illuminated by economic evidence and case law.

If a satellite provider alleges anticompetitive foreclosure by a refusal to license, its claims would be subject to analysis under the Sherman Act. In order to prove its case, it would need to show that the network broadcaster has power in a properly defined market and is using that market power to foreclose competition by leveraging its ownership over network content to the detriment of consumer welfare. A court would then analyze whether this refusal of a duty to deal is a violation of antitrust law under the Trinko and Aspen Skiing standards. Economic evidence would need to be introduced that supports the allegation. 

And, critically, in this process, the defendants would be entitled to raise evidence in their case — both evidence suggesting that there was no foreclosure, as well as evidence of procompetitive justifications for decisions that otherwise may be considered foreclosure. Ultimately, a court, bound by established, nondiscretionary standards would weigh the evidence and make a determination. It is, of course, possible, that a review for “good faith” conduct could reach the correct result, but there is simply not a similarly rigorous process available to consistently push it in that direction.

The above-mentioned Modern Television Act of 2019 does represent a step in the right direction, as it would repeal the compulsory license/retransmission consent regime applied to both cable and satellite operators. However, it is imperfect as it does leave must carry requirements in place for local content and retains the “good faith” negotiating standard to be enforced by the FCC. 

Expiration is better than the status quo even if fundamental reform is not possible

Some scholars who have written on this issue, and very much agree that fundamental reform is needed, nonetheless argue that STELA should be renewed if more fundamental reforms like those described above can’t be achieved. For instance, George Ford recently wrote that 

With limited days left in the legislative calendar before STELAR expires, there is insufficient time for a sensible solution to this complex issue. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) has offered a “clean” STELAR reauthorization bill to maintain the status quo, which would provide Congress with some much-needed breathing room to begin tackling the gnarly issue of how broadcast signals can be both widely retransmitted and compensated. Congress and the Trump administration should welcome this opportunity.

However, even in a world without more fundamental reform, it is not clear that satellite needs distant signals in order to compete with cable. The number of “short markets”—i.e. those without access to all four local network broadcasts—implicated by the loss of distant signals is relatively few. Regardless of how bad the overall regulatory scheme needs to be updated, it makes no sense to continue to preserve STELA’s provisions that benefit satellite when it is no longer necessary on competition grounds.

Conclusion

Congress should not only let STELA sunset, but it should consider reforming the entire compulsory license/retransmission consent regime as the Modern Television Act of 2019 aims to do. In fact, reformers should look to go even further in repealing must-carry provisions and the good faith negotiating standard enforced by the FCC. Copyright and antitrust law are much better rules for this constantly evolving space than the current sector-specific rules. 

For previous work from ICLE on STELA see The Future of Video Marketplace Regulation (written testimony of ICLE President Geoffrey Manne from June 12, 2013) and Joint Comments of ICLE and TechFreedom, In the Matter of STELA Reauthorization and Video Programming Reform (March 19, 2014).