Archives For administrative law

The Eleventh Circuit’s LabMD opinion came out last week and has been something of a rorschach test for those of us who study consumer protection law.

Neil Chilson found the result to be a disturbing sign of slippage in Congress’s command that the FTC refrain from basing enforcement on “public policy.” Berin Szóka, on the other hand, saw the ruling as a long-awaited rebuke against the FTC’s expansive notion of its “unfairness” authority. Whereas Daniel Solove and Woodrow Hartzog described the decision as “quite narrow and… far from crippling,” in part, because “[t]he opinion says very little about the FTC’s general power to enforce Section 5 unfairness.” Even among the ICLE crew, our understandings of the opinion reflect our priors, from it being best understood as expressing due process concerns about injury-based enforcement of Section 5, on the one hand, to being about the meaning of Section 5(n)’s causation requirement, on the other.

You can expect to hear lots more about these and other LabMD-related issues from us soon, but for now we want to write about the only thing more exciting than dueling histories of the FTC’s 1980 Unfairness Statement: administrative law.

While most of those watching the LabMD case come from some nexus of FTC watchers, data security specialists, and privacy lawyers, the reality is that the case itself is mostly about administrative law (the law that governs how federal agencies are given and use their power). And the court’s opinion is best understood from a primarily administrative law perspective.

From that perspective, the case should lead to some significant introspection at the Commission. While the FTC may find ways to comply with the letter of the opinion without substantially altering its approach to data security cases, it will likely face difficulty defending that approach before the courts. True compliance with this decision will require the FTC to define what makes certain data security practices unfair in a more-coherent and far-more-readily ascertainable fashion.

The devil is in the (well-specified) details

The actual holding in the case comes in Part III of the 11th Circuit’s opinion, where the court finds for LabMD on the ground that, owing to a fatal lack of specificity in the FTC’s proposed order, “the Commission’s cease and desist order is itself unenforceable.”  This is the punchline of the opinion, to which we will return. But it is worth spending some time on the path that the court takes to get there.

It should be stressed at the outset that Part II of the opinion — in which the Court walks through the conceptual and statutory framework that supports an “unfairness” claim — is surprisingly unimportant to the court’s ultimate holding. This was the meat of the case for FTC watchers and privacy and data security lawyers, and it is a fascinating exposition. Doubtless it will be the focus of most analysis of the opinion.

But, for purposes of the court’s disposition of the case, it’s of (perhaps-frustratingly) scant importance. In short, the court assumes, arguendo, that the FTC has sufficient basis to make out an unfairness claim against LabMD before moving on to Part III of the opinion analyzing the FTC’s order given that assumption.

It’s not clear why the court took this approach — and it is dangerous to assume any particular explanation (although it is and will continue to be the subject of much debate). There are several reasonable explanations for the approach, ranging from the court thinking it obvious that the FTC’s unfairness analysis was correct, to it side-stepping the thorny question of how to define injury under Section 5, to the court avoiding writing a decision that could call into question the fundamental constitutionality of a significant portion of the FTC’s legal portfolio. Regardless — and regardless of its relative lack of importance to the ultimate holding — the analysis offered in Part II bears, and will receive, significant attention.

The FTC has two basic forms of consumer protection authority: It can take action against 1) unfair acts or practices and 2) deceptive acts or practices. The FTC’s case against LabMD was framed in terms of unfairness. Unsurprisingly, “unfairness” is a broad, ambiguous concept — one that can easily grow into an amorphous blob of ill-defined enforcement authority.

As discussed by the court (as well as by us, ad nauseum), in the 1970s the FTC made very aggressive use of its unfairness authority to regulate the advertising industry, effectively usurping Congress’ authority to legislate in that area. This over-aggressive enforcement didn’t sit well with Congress, of course, and led it to shut down the FTC for a period of time until the agency adopted a more constrained understanding of the meaning of its unfairness authority. This understanding was communicated to Congress in the FTC’s 1980 Unfairness Statement. That statement was subsequently codified by Congress, in slightly modified form, as Section 5(n) of the FTC Act.

Section 5(n) states that

The Commission shall have no authority under this section or section 57a of this title to declare unlawful an act or practice on the grounds that such act or practice is unfair unless the act or practice causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition. In determining whether an act or practice is unfair, the Commission may consider established public policies as evidence to be considered with all other evidence. Such public policy considerations may not serve as a primary basis for such determination.

The meaning of Section 5(n) has been the subject of intense debate for years (for example, here, here and here). In particular, it is unclear whether Section 5(n) defines a test for what constitutes unfair conduct (that which “causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition”) or whether instead imposes a necessary, but not necessarily sufficient, condition on the extent of the FTC’s authority to bring cases. The meaning of “cause” under 5(n) is also unclear because, unlike causation in traditional legal contexts, Section 5(n) also targets conduct that is “likely to cause” harm.

Section 5(n) concludes with an important, but also somewhat inscrutable, discussion of the role of “public policy” in the Commission’s unfairness enforcement, indicating that that Commission is free to consider “established public policies” as evidence of unfair conduct, but may not use such considerations “as a primary basis” for its unfairness enforcement.

Just say no to public policy

Section 5 empowers and directs the FTC to police unfair business practices, and there is little reason to think that bad data security practices cannot sometimes fall under its purview. But the FTC’s efforts with respect to data security (and, for that matter, privacy) over the past nearly two decades have focused extensively on developing what it considers to be a comprehensive jurisprudence to address data security concerns. This creates a distinct impression that the FTC has been using its unfairness authority to develop a new area of public policy — to legislate data security standards, in other words — as opposed to policing data security practices that are unfair under established principles of unfairness.

This is a subtle distinction — and there is frankly little guidance for understanding when the agency is acting on the basis of public policy versus when it is proscribing conduct that falls within the meaning of unfairness.

But it is an important distinction. If it is the case — or, more precisely, if the courts think that it is the case — that the FTC is acting on the basis of public policy, then the FTC’s data security efforts are clearly problematic under Section 5(n)’s prohibition on the use of public policy as the primary basis for unfairness actions.

And this is where the Commission gets itself into trouble. The Commission’s efforts to develop its data security enforcement program looks an awful lot like something being driven by public policy, and not so much as merely enforcing existing policy as captured by, in the LabMD court’s words (echoing the FTC’s pre-Section 5(n) unfairness factors), “well-established legal standard[s], whether grounded in statute, the common law, or the Constitution.”

The distinction between effecting public policy and enforcing legal norms is… not very clear. Nonetheless, exploring and respecting that distinction is an important task for courts and agencies.

Unfortunately, this case does not well describe how to make that distinction. The opinion is more than a bit muddled and difficult to clearly interpret. Nonetheless, reading the court’s dicta in Part II is instructive. It’s clearly the case that some bad security practices, in some contexts, can be unfair practices. So the proper task for the FTC is to discover how to police “unfairness” within data security cases rather than setting out to become a first-order data security enforcement agency.

How does public policy become well-established law?

Part II of the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion — even if dicta — is important for future interpretations of Section 5 cases. The court goes to great lengths to demonstrate, based on the FTC’s enforcement history and related Congressional rebukes, that the Commission may not rely upon vague “public policy” standards for bringing “unfairness” actions.

But this raises a critical question about the nature of the FTC’s unfairness authority. The Commission was created largely to police conduct that could not readily be proscribed by statute or simple rules. In some cases this means conduct that is hard to label or describe in text with any degree of precision — “I know it when I see it” kinds of acts and practices. In other cases, it may refer to novel or otherwise unpredictable conduct that could not be foreseen by legislators or regulators. In either case, the very purpose of the FTC is to be able to protect consumers from conduct that is not necessarily proscribed elsewhere.

This means that the Commission must have some ability to take action against “unfair” conduct that has not previously been enshrined as “unfair” in “well-established legal standard[s], whether grounded in statute, the common law, or the Constitution.” But that ability is not unbounded, of course.

The court explained that the Commission could expound upon what acts fall within the meaning of “unfair” in one of two ways: It could use its rulemaking authority to issue Congressionally reviewable rules, or it could proceed on a case-by-case basis.

In either case, the court’s discussion of how the Commission is to determine what is “unfair” within the constraints of Section 5(n) is frustratingly vague. The earlier parts of the opinion tell us that unfairness is to be adjudged based upon “well-established legal standards,” but here the court tells us that the scope of unfairness can be altered — that is, those well-established legal standards can be changed — through adjudication. It is difficult to square what the court means by this. Regardless, it is the guidance that we have been given by the court.

This is Admin Law 101

And yet perhaps there is some resolution to this conundrum in administrative law. For administrative law scholars, the 11th Circuit’s discussion of the permissibility of agencies developing binding legal norms using either rulemaking or adjudication procedures, is straight out of Chenery II.

Chenery II is a bedrock case of American administrative law, standing broadly for the proposition (as echoed by the 11th Circuit) that agencies can generally develop legal rules through either rulemaking or adjudication, that there may be good reasons to use either in any given case, and that (assuming Congress has empowered the agency to use both) it is primarily up to the agency to determine which approach is preferable in any given case.

But, while Chenery II certainly allows agencies to proceed on a case-by-case basis, that permission is not a broad license to eschew the development of determinate legal standards. And the reason is fairly obvious: if an agency develops rules that are difficult to know ex ante, they can hardly provide guidance for private parties as they order their affairs.

Chenery II places an important caveat on the use of case-by-case adjudication. Much like the judges in the LabMD opinion, the Chenery II court was concerned with specificity and clarity, and tells us that agencies may not rely on vague bases for their rules or enforcement actions and expect courts to “chisel” out the details. Rather:

If the administrative action is to be tested by the basis upon which it purports to rest, that basis must be set forth with such clarity as to be understandable. It will not do for a court to be compelled to guess at the theory underlying the agency’s action; nor can a court be expected to chisel that which must be precise from what the agency has left vague and indecisive. In other words, ‘We must know what a decision means before the duty becomes ours to say whether it is right or wrong.’ (emphasis added)

The parallels between the 11th Circuit’s opinion in LabMD and the Supreme Court’s opinion in Chenery II 70 years earlier are uncanny. It is also not very surprising that the 11th Circuit opinion would reflect the principles discussed in Chenery II, nor that it would do so without reference to Chenery II: these are, after all, bedrock principles of administrative law.  

The principles set out in Chenery II, of course, do not answer the data-security law question whether the FTC properly exercised its authority in this (or any) case under Section 5. But they do provide an intelligible basis for the court sidestepping this question, and asking whether the FTC sufficiently defined what it was doing in the first place.  

Conclusion

The FTC’s data security mission has been, in essence, a voyage of public policy exploration. Its method of case-by-case adjudication, based on ill-defined consent decrees, non-binding guidance documents, and broadly-worded complaints creates the vagueness that the Court in Chenery II rejected, and that the 11th Circuit held results in unenforceable remedies.

Even in its best light, the Commission’s public materials are woefully deficient as sources of useful (and legally-binding) guidance. In its complaints the FTC does typically mention some of the facts that led it to investigate, and presents some rudimentary details of how those facts relate to its Section 5 authority. Yet the FTC issues complaints based merely on its “reason to believe” that an unfair act has taken place. This is a far different standard than that faced in district court, and undoubtedly leads the Commission to construe facts liberally in its own favor.

Moreover, targets of complaints settle for myriad reasons, and no outside authority need review the sufficiency of a complaint as part of a settlement. And the consent orders themselves are largely devoid of legal and even factual specificity. As a result, the FTC’s authority to initiate an enforcement action  is effectively based on an ill-defined series of hunches — hardly a sufficient basis for defining a clear legal standard.

So, while the court’s opinion in this case was narrowly focused on the FTC’s proposed order, the underlying legal analysis that supports its holding should be troubling to the Commission.

The specificity the 11th Circuit demands in the remedial order must exist no less in the theories of harm the Commission alleges against targets. And those theories cannot be based on mere public policy preferences. Courts that follow the Eleventh Circuit’s approach — which indeed Section 5(n) reasonably seems to require — will look more deeply into the Commission’s allegations of “unreasonable” data security in order to determine if it is actually attempting to pursue harms by proving something like negligence, or is instead simply ascribing “unfairness” to certain conduct that the Commission deems harmful.

The FTC may find ways to comply with the letter of this particular opinion without substantially altering its overall approach — but that seems unlikely. True compliance with this decision will require the FTC to respect real limits on its authority and to develop ascertainable data security requirements out of much more than mere consent decrees and kitchen-sink complaints.

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

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

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

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

A refresher on the Chevron debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judicial independence moderates politicization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

At this point, only the most masochistic and cynical among DC’s policy elite actually desire for the net neutrality conflict to continue. And yet, despite claims that net neutrality principles are critical to protecting consumers, passage of the current Congressional Review Act (“CRA”) disapproval resolution in Congress would undermine consumer protection and promise only to drag out the fight even longer.

The CRA resolution is primarily intended to roll back the FCC’s re-re-classification of broadband as a Title I service under the Communications Act in the Restoring Internet Freedom Order (“RIFO”). The CRA allows Congress to vote to repeal rules recently adopted by federal agencies; upon a successful CRA vote, the rules are rescinded and the agency is prohibited from adopting substantially similar rules in the future.

But, as TechFreedom has noted, it’s not completely clear that a CRA on a regulatory classification decision will work quite the way Congress intends it and could just trigger more litigation cycles, largely because it is unclear what parts of the RIFO are actually “rules” subject to the CRA. Harold Feld has written a critique of TechFreedom’s position, arguing, in effect, that of course the RIFO is a rule; TechFreedom responded with a pretty devastating rejoinder.

But this exchange really demonstrates TechFreedom’s central argument: It is sufficiently unclear how or whether the CRA will apply to the various provisions of the RIFO, such that the only things the CRA is guaranteed to do are 1) to strip consumers of certain important protections — it would take away the FCC’s transparency requirements for ISPs, and imperil privacy protections currently ensured by the FTC — while 2) prolonging the already interminable litigation and political back-and-forth over net neutrality.

The CRA is political theater

The CRA resolution effort is not about good Internet regulatory policy; rather, it’s pure political opportunism ahead of the midterms. Democrats have recognized net neutrality as a good wedge issue because of its low political opportunity cost. The highest-impact costs of over-regulating broadband through classification decisions are hard to see: Rather than bad things happening, the costs arrive in the form of good things not happening. Eventually those costs work their way to customers through higher access prices or less service — especially in rural areas most in need of it — but even these effects take time to show up and, when they do, are difficult to pin on any particular net neutrality decision, including the CRA resolution. Thus, measured in electoral time scales, prolonging net neutrality as a painful political issue — even though actual resolution of the process by legislation would be the sensible course — offers tremendous upside for political challengers and little cost.  

The truth is, there is widespread agreement that net neutrality issues need to be addressed by Congress: A constant back and forth between the FCC (and across its own administrations) and the courts runs counter to the interests of consumers, broadband companies, and edge providers alike. Virtually whatever that legislative solution ends up looking like, it would be an improvement over the unstable status quo.

There have been various proposals from Republicans and Democrats — many of which contain provisions that are likely bad ideas — but in the end, a bill passed with bipartisan input should have the virtue of capturing an open public debate on the issue. Legislation won’t be perfect, but it will be tremendously better than the advocacy playground that net neutrality has become.

What would the CRA accomplish?

Regardless of what one thinks of the substantive merits of TechFreedom’s arguments on the CRA and the arcana of legislative language distinguishing between agency “rules” and “orders,” if the CRA resolution is successful (a prospect that is a bit more likely following the Senate vote to pass it) what follows is pretty clear.

The only certain result of the the CRA resolution becoming law would be to void the transparency provisions that the FCC introduced in the RIFO — the one part of the Order that is pretty clearly a “rule” subject to CRA review — and it would disable the FCC from offering another transparency rule in its place. Everything else is going to end up — surprise! — before the courts, which would serve only to keep the issues surrounding net neutrality unsettled for another several years. (A cynic might suggest that this is, in fact, the goal of net neutrality proponents, for whom net neutrality has been and continues to have important political valence.)

And if the CRA resolution withstands the inevitable legal challenge to its rescision of the rest of the RIFO, it would also (once again) remove broadband privacy from the FTC’s purview, placing it back into the FCC’s lap — which is already prohibited from adopting privacy rules following last year’s successful CRA resolution undoing the Wheeler FCC’s broadband privacy regulations. The result is that we could be left without any broadband privacy regulator at all — presumably not the outcome strong net neutrality proponents want — but they persevere nonetheless.

Moreover, TechFreedom’s argument that the CRA may not apply to all parts of the RIFO could have a major effect on whether or not Congress is even accomplishing anything at all (other than scoring political points) with this vote. It could be the case that the CRA applies only to “rules” and not “orders,” or it could be the case that even if the CRA does apply to the RIFO, its passage would not force the FCC to revive the abrogated 2015 Open Internet Order, as proponents of the CRA vote hope.

Whatever one thinks of these arguments, however, they are based on a sound reading of the law and present substantial enough questions to sustain lengthy court challenges. Thus, far from a CRA vote actually putting to rest the net neutrality issue, it is likely to spawn litigation that will drag out the classification uncertainty question for at least another year (and probably more, with appeals).

Stop playing net neutrality games — they aren’t fun

Congress needs to stop trying to score easy political points on this issue while avoiding the hard and divisive work of reaching a compromise on actual net neutrality legislation. Despite how the CRA is presented in the popular media, a CRA vote is the furthest thing from a simple vote for net neutrality: It’s a political calculation to avoid accountability.

Unexpectedly, on the day that the white copy of the upcoming repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order was published, a mobile operator in Portugal with about 7.5 million subscribers is garnering a lot of attention. Curiously, it’s not because Portugal is a beautiful country (Iker Casillas’ Instagram feed is dope) nor because Portuguese is a beautiful romance language.

Rather it’s because old-fashioned misinformation is being peddled to perpetuate doomsday images that Portuguese ISPs have carved the Internet into pieces — and if the repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order passes, the same butchery is coming to an AT&T store near you.

Much ado about data

This tempest in the teacup is about mobile data plans, specifically the ability of mobile subscribers to supplement their data plan (typically ranging from 200 MB to 3 GB per month) with additional 10 GB data packages containing specific bundles of apps – messaging apps, social apps, video apps, music apps, and email and cloud apps. Each additional 10 GB data package costs EUR 6.99 per month and Meo (the mobile operator) also offers its own zero rated apps. Similar plans have been offered in Portugal since at least 2012.

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These data packages are a clear win for mobile subscribers, especially pre-paid subscribers who tend to be at a lower income level than post-paid subscribers. They allow consumers to customize their plan beyond their mobile broadband subscription, enabling them to consume data in ways that are better attuned to their preferences. Without access to these data packages, consuming an additional 10 GB of data would cost each user an additional EUR 26 per month and require her to enter into a two year contract.

These discounted data packages also facilitate product differentiation among mobile operators that offer a variety of plans. Keeping with the Portugal example, Vodafone Portugal offers 20 GB of additional data for certain apps (Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, and Skype, among others) with the purchase of a 3 GB mobile data plan. Consumers can pick which operator offers the best plan for them.

In addition, data packages like the ones in question here tend to increase the overall consumption of content, reduce users’ cost of obtaining information, and allow for consumers to experiment with new, less familiar apps. In short, they are overwhelmingly pro-consumer.

Even if Portugal actually didn’t have net neutrality rules, this would be the furthest thing from the apocalypse critics make it out to be.

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Net Neutrality in Portugal

But, contrary to activists’ misinformation, Portugal does have net neutrality rules. The EU implemented its net neutrality framework in November 2015 as a regulation, meaning that the regulation became the law of the EU when it was enacted, and national governments, including Portugal, did not need to transpose it into national legislation.

While the regulation was automatically enacted in Portugal, the regulation and the 2016 EC guidelines left the decision of whether to allow sponsored data and zero rating plans (the Regulation likely classifies data packages at issue here to be zero rated plans because they give users a lot of data for a low price) in the hands of national regulators. While Portugal is still formulating the standard it will use to evaluate sponsored data and zero rating under the EU’s framework, there is little reason to think that this common practice would be disallowed in Portugal.

On average, in fact, despite its strong net neutrality regulation, the EU appears to be softening its stance toward zero rating. This was evident in a recent EC competition policy authority (DG-Comp) study concluding that there is little reason to believe that such data practices raise concerns.

The activists’ willful misunderstanding of clearly pro-consumer data plans and purposeful mischaracterization of Portugal as not having net neutrality rules are inflammatory and deceitful. Even more puzzling for activists (but great for consumers) is their position given there is nothing in the 2015 Open Internet Order that would prevent these types of data packages from being offered in the US so long as ISPs are transparent with consumers.

It’s fitting that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently compared his predecessor’s jettisoning of the FCC’s light touch framework for Internet access regulation without hard evidence to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s James Harden trade. That infamous deal broke up a young nucleus of three of the best players in the NBA in 2012 because keeping all three might someday create salary cap concerns. What few saw coming was a new TV deal in 2015 that sent the salary cap soaring.

If it’s hard to predict how the market will evolve in the closed world of professional basketball, predictions about the path of Internet innovation are an order of magnitude harder — especially for those making crucial decisions with a lot of money at stake.

The FCC’s answer for what it considered to be the dangerous unpredictability of Internet innovation was to write itself a blank check of authority to regulate ISPs in the 2015 Open Internet Order (OIO), embodied in what is referred to as the “Internet conduct standard.” This standard expanded the scope of Internet access regulation well beyond the core principle of preserving openness (i.e., ensuring that any legal content can be accessed by all users) by granting the FCC the unbounded, discretionary authority to define and address “new and novel threats to the Internet.”

When asked about what the standard meant (not long after writing it), former Chairman Tom Wheeler replied,

We don’t really know. We don’t know where things will go next. We have created a playing field where there are known rules, and the FCC will sit there as a referee and will throw the flag.

Somehow, former Chairman Wheeler would have us believe that an amorphous standard that means whatever the agency (or its Enforcement Bureau) says it means created a playing field with “known rules.” But claiming such broad authority is hardly the light-touch approach marketed to the public. Instead, this ill-conceived standard allows the FCC to wade as deeply as it chooses into how an ISP organizes its business and how it manages its network traffic.

Such an approach is destined to undermine, rather than further, the objectives of Internet openness, as embodied in Chairman Powell’s 2005 Internet Policy Statement:

To foster creation, adoption and use of Internet broadband content, applications, services and attachments, and to ensure consumers benefit from the innovation that comes from competition.

Instead, the Internet conduct standard is emblematic of how an off-the-rails quest to heavily regulate one specific component of the complex Internet ecosystem results in arbitrary regulatory imbalances — e.g., between ISPs and over-the-top (OTT) or edge providers that offer similar services such as video streaming or voice calling.

As Boston College Law Professor, Dan Lyons, puts it:

While many might assume that, in theory, what’s good for Netflix is good for consumers, the reality is more complex. To protect innovation at the edge of the Internet ecosystem, the Commission’s sweeping rules reduce the opportunity for consumer-friendly innovation elsewhere, namely by facilities-based broadband providers.

This is no recipe for innovation, nor does it coherently distinguish between practices that might impede competition and innovation on the Internet and those that are merely politically disfavored, for any reason or no reason at all.

Free data madness

The Internet conduct standard’s unholy combination of unfettered discretion and the impulse to micromanage can (and will) be deployed without credible justification to the detriment of consumers and innovation. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the confusion surrounding the regulation of “free data.”

Free data, like T-Mobile’s Binge On program, is data consumed by a user that has been subsidized by a mobile operator or a content provider. The vertical arrangements between operators and content providers creating the free data offerings provide many benefits to consumers, including enabling subscribers to consume more data (or, for low-income users, to consume data in the first place), facilitating product differentiation by mobile operators that offer a variety of free data plans (including allowing smaller operators the chance to get a leg up on competitors by assembling a market-share-winning plan), increasing the overall consumption of content, and reducing users’ cost of obtaining information. It’s also fundamentally about experimentation. As the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) recently explained:

Offering some services at subsidized or zero prices frees up resources (and, where applicable, data under a user’s data cap) enabling users to experiment with new, less-familiar alternatives. Where a user might not find it worthwhile to spend his marginal dollar on an unfamiliar or less-preferred service, differentiated pricing loosens the user’s budget constraint, and may make him more, not less, likely to use alternative services.

In December 2015 then-Chairman Tom Wheeler used his newfound discretion to launch a 13-month “inquiry” into free data practices before preliminarily finding some to be in violation of the standard. Without identifying any actual harm, Wheeler concluded that free data plans “may raise” economic and public policy issues that “may harm consumers and competition.”

After assuming the reins at the FCC, Chairman Pai swiftly put an end to that nonsense, saying that the Commission had better things to do (like removing barriers to broadband deployment) than denying free data plans that expand Internet access and are immensely popular, especially among low-income Americans.

The global morass of free data regulation

But as long as the Internet conduct standard remains on the books, it implicitly grants the US’s imprimatur to harmful policies and regulatory capriciousness in other countries that look to the US for persuasive authority. While Chairman Pai’s decisive intervention resolved the free data debate in the US (at least for now), other countries are still grappling with whether to prohibit the practice, allow it, or allow it with various restrictions.

In Europe, the 2016 EC guidelines left the decision of whether to allow the practice in the hands of national regulators. Consequently, some regulators — in Hungary, Sweden, and the Netherlands (although there the ban was recently overturned in court) — have banned free data practices  while others — in Denmark, Germany, Spain, Poland, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine — have not. And whether or not they allow the practice, regulators (e.g., Norway’s Nkom and the UK’s Ofcom) have lamented the lack of regulatory certainty surrounding free data programs, a state of affairs that is compounded by a lack of data on the consequences of various approaches to their regulation.

In Canada this year, the CRTC issued a decision adopting restrictive criteria under which to evaluate free data plans. The criteria include assessing the degree to which the treatment of data is agnostic, whether the free data offer is exclusive to certain customers or certain content providers, the impact on Internet openness and innovation, and whether there is financial compensation involved. The standard is open-ended, and free data plans as they are offered in the US would “likely raise concerns.”

Other regulators are contributing to the confusion through ambiguously framed rules, such as that of the Chilean regulator, Subtel. In a 2014 decision, it found that a free data offer of specific social network apps was in breach of Chile’s Internet rules. In contrast to what is commonly reported, however, Subtel did not ban free data. Instead, it required mobile operators to change how they promote such services, requiring them to state that access to Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp were offered “without discounting the user’s balance” instead of “at no cost.” It also required them to disclose the amount of time the offer would be available, but imposed no mandatory limit.

In addition to this confusing regulatory make-work governing how operators market free data plans, the Chilean measures also require that mobile operators offer free data to subscribers who pay for a data plan, in order to ensure free data isn’t the only option users have to access the Internet.

The result is that in Chile today free data plans are widely offered by Movistar, Claro, and Entel and include access to apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, Pokemon Go, Waze, Snapchat, Apple Music, Spotify, Netflix or YouTube — even though Subtel has nominally declared such plans to be in violation of Chile’s net neutrality rules.

Other regulators are searching for palatable alternatives to both flex their regulatory muscle to govern Internet access, while simultaneously making free data work. The Indian regulator, TRAI, famously banned free data in February 2016. But the story doesn’t end there. After seeing the potential value of free data in unserved and underserved, low-income areas, TRAI proposed implementing government-sanctioned free data. The proposed scheme would provide rural subscribers with 100 MB of free data per month, funded through the country’s universal service fund. To ensure that there would be no vertical agreements between content providers and mobile operators, TRAI recommended introducing third parties, referred to as “aggregators,” that would facilitate mobile-operator-agnostic arrangements.

The result is a nonsensical, if vaguely well-intentioned, threading of the needle between the perceived need to (over-)regulate access providers and the determination to expand access. Notwithstanding the Indian government’s awareness that free data will help to close the digital divide and enhance Internet access, in other words, it nonetheless banned private markets from employing private capital to achieve that very result, preferring instead non-market processes which are unlikely to be nearly as nimble or as effective — and yet still ultimately offer “non-neutral” options for consumers.

Thinking globally, acting locally (by ditching the Internet conduct standard)

Where it is permitted, free data is undergoing explosive adoption among mobile operators. Currently in the US, for example, all major mobile operators offer some form of free data or unlimited plan to subscribers. And, as a result, free data is proving itself as a business model for users’ early stage experimentation and adoption of augmented reality, virtual reality and other cutting-edge technologies that represent the Internet’s next wave — but that also use vast amounts of data. Were the US to cut off free data at the legs under the OIO absent hard evidence of harm, it would substantially undermine this innovation.

The application of the nebulous Internet conduct standard to free data is a microcosm of the current incoherence: It is a rule rife with a parade of uncertainties and only theoretical problems, needlessly saddling companies with enforcement risk, all in the name of preserving and promoting innovation and openness. As even some of the staunchest proponents of net neutrality have recognized, only companies that can afford years of litigation can be expected to thrive in such an environment.

In the face of confusion and uncertainty globally, the US is now poised to provide leadership grounded in sound policy that promotes innovation. As ICLE noted last month, Chairman Pai took a crucial step toward re-imposing economic rigor and the rule of law at the FCC by questioning the unprecedented and ill-supported expansion of FCC authority that undergirds the OIO in general and the Internet conduct standard in particular. Today the agency will take the next step by voting on Chairman Pai’s proposed rulemaking. Wherever the new proceeding leads, it’s a welcome opportunity to analyze the issues with a degree of rigor that has thus far been appallingly absent.

And we should not forget that there’s a direct solution to these ambiguities that would avoid the undulations of subsequent FCC policy fights: Congress could (and should) pass legislation implementing a regulatory framework grounded in sound economics and empirical evidence that allows for consumers to benefit from the vast number of procompetitive vertical agreements (such as free data plans), while still facilitating a means for policing conduct that may actually harm consumers.

The Golden State Warriors are the heavy odds-on favorite to win another NBA Championship this summer, led by former OKC player Kevin Durant. And James Harden is a contender for league MVP. We can’t always turn back the clock on a terrible decision, hastily made before enough evidence has been gathered, but Chairman Pai’s efforts present a rare opportunity to do so.

So I’ve just finished writing a book (hence my long hiatus from Truth on the Market).  Now that the draft is out of my hands and with the publisher (Cambridge University Press), I figured it’s a good time to rejoin my colleagues here at TOTM.  To get back into the swing of things, I’m planning to produce a series of posts describing my new book, which may be of interest to a number of TOTM readers.  I’ll get things started today with a brief overview of the project.

The book is titled How to Regulate: A Guide for Policy Makers.  A topic of that enormity could obviously fill many volumes.  I sought to address the matter in a single, non-technical book because I think law schools often do a poor job teaching their students, many of whom are future regulators, the substance of sound regulation.  Law schools regularly teach administrative law, the procedures that must be followed to ensure that rules have the force of law.  Rarely, however, do law schools teach students how to craft the substance of a policy to address a new perceived problem (e.g., What tools are available? What are the pros and cons of each?).

Economists study that matter, of course.  But economists are often naïve about the difficulty of transforming their textbook models into concrete rules that can be easily administered by business planners and adjudicators.  Many economists also pay little attention to the high information requirements of the policies they propose (i.e., the Hayekian knowledge problem) and the susceptibility of those policies to political manipulation by well-organized interest groups (i.e., public choice concerns).

How to Regulate endeavors to provide both economic training to lawyers and law students and a sense of the “limits of law” to the economists and other policy wonks who tend to be involved in crafting regulations.  Below the fold, I’ll give a brief overview of the book.  In later posts, I’ll describe some of the book’s specific chapters. Continue Reading…

There must have been a great gnashing of teeth in Chairman Wheeler’s office this morning as the FCC announced that it was pulling the Chairman’s latest modifications to the set-top box proposal from its voting agenda. This is surely but a bump in the road for the Chairman; he will undoubtedly press ever onward in his quest to “fix” a market that is flooded with competition and consumer choice. But, as we stop to take a breath for a moment while this latest FCC adventure is temporarily paused, there is a larger issue worth considering: the lack of transparency at the FCC.

Although the Commission has an unfortunate tradition of non-disclosure surrounding many of its regulatory proposals, the problem has seemingly been exacerbated by Chairman Wheeler’s aggressive agenda and his intransigence in the face of overwhelming and rigorous criticism.

Perhaps nowhere was this attitude more apparent than with his handling of the Open Internet Order, which was plagued with enough process problems to elicit a call for a delay of the Commission’s vote on the initial rules from Democratic Commissioner Rosenworcel, and a strong rebuke from the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee prior to the Commission’s vote on the final rules (which were not disclosed to the public until after the vote).

But the same cavalier dismissal of public and stakeholder input has plagued the Chairman’s beleaguered set-top box proposal, as well.

As Commissioner Pai noted before Congress in March:

The FCC continues to choose opacity over transparency. The decisions we make impact hundreds of millions of Americans and thousands of small businesses. And yet to the public, to Congress, and even to the Commissioners at the FCC, the agency’s work remains a black box.

Take this simple proposition: The public should be able to see what we’re voting on before we vote on it. That’s how Congress works, as you know. Anyone can look up any pending bill right now by going to congress.gov. And that’s how many state commissions work too. But not the FCC.

Exhibit A in Commissioner Pai’s lament was the set-top box proceeding:

Instead, the public gets to see only what the Chairman’s Office deigns to release, so controversial policy proposals can be (and typically are) hidden in a wave of media adulation. That happened just last month when the agency proposed changes to its set-top-box rules but tried to mislead content producers and the public about whether set-top box manufacturers would be permitted to insert their own advertisements into programming streams.

Now, although the Chairman’s initial proposal was eventually released, we have only a fact sheet and an op-ed by Chairman Wheeler on which to judge the purportedly substantial changes embodied in his latest version.

Even Democrats in Congress have recognized the process problems that have plagued this proceeding. As Senator Feinstein (D-CA) urged in a recent letter to Chairman Wheeler:

Given the significance of this proceeding, I ask that you make public the new proposal under consideration by the Commission, so that all interested stakeholders, members of Congress, copyright experts, and others can comment on the potential copyright implications of the new proposal before the Commission votes on it.

And as Senator Heller (R-NV) wrote in a letter to Chairman Wheeler this week:

I believe it is unacceptable that the FCC has not released the text of this proposal before Thursday’s vote. A three-page fact sheet does not provide enough details for Congress to conduct proper oversight of this rulemaking that will significantly impact both consumers and industry…. I encourage you to release the text immediately so that the American public has a full understanding of what is being considered by the Commission….

Of course, this isn’t a new problem at the FCC. In fact, before he supported Chairman Wheeler’s efforts to impose Open Internet rules without sufficient public disclosure, then-Senator Obama decried then-Chairman Martin’s efforts to enact new media ownership rules with insufficient process in 2007:

Repealing the cross ownership rules and retaining the rest of our existing regulations is not a proposal that has been put out for public comment; the proper process for vetting it is not in closed door meetings with lobbyists or in selective leaks to the New York Times.

Although such a proposal may pass the muster of a federal court, Congress and the public have the right to review any specific proposal and decide whether or not it constitutes sound policy. And the Commission has the responsibility to defend any new proposal in public discourse and debate.

And although you won’t find them complaining this time (because this time they want the excessive intervention that the NPRM seems to contemplate), regulatory advocates lamented just exactly this sort of secrecy at the Commission when Chairman Genachowski proposed his media ownership rules in 2012. At that time Free Press angrily wrote:

[T]he Commission still has not made public its actual media ownership order…. Furthermore, it’s disingenuous for the FCC to suggest that its process now is more transparent than the one former Chairman Martin used to adopt similar rules. Genachowski’s FCC has yet to publish any details of its final proposal, offering only vague snippets in press releases… despite the president’s instruction to rulemaking agencies to conduct any significant business in open meetings with opportunities for members of the public to have their voices heard.

As Free Press noted, President Obama did indeed instruct “agencies to conduct any significant business in open meetings with opportunities for members of the public to have their voices heard.” In his Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, his first executive action, the president urged that:

Public engagement enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Knowledge is widely dispersed in society, and public officials benefit from having access to that dispersed knowledge. Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information.

The resulting Open Government Directive calls on executive agencies to

take prompt steps to expand access to information by making it available online in open formats. With respect to information, the presumption shall be in favor of openness….

The FCC is not an “executive agency,” and so is not directly subject to the Directive. But the Chairman’s willingness to stray so far from basic principles of transparency is woefully inconsistent with the basic principles of good government and the ideals of heightened transparency claimed by this administration.

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

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

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

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

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

Plus ça change…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From ignoring copyright to obliterating copyright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moreover,

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

Kent Barnett & Christopher J. Walker, Chevron In the Circuit Courts 61, Figure 14 (2016), available at ssrn.com/abstract=2808848.

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

As  that study demonstrates,

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

As we conclude:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Knowledge, for instance, claims that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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