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

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

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

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

Look out! Lochner is coming!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Have to Break the Law Before You Raise a Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I noted before,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moreover,

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

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

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

As  that study demonstrates,

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

As we conclude:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our full reply comments are available here.

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

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

As we note in our comments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our full comments are available here.

While we all wait on pins and needles for the DC Circuit to issue its long-expected ruling on the FCC’s Open Internet Order, another federal appeals court has pushed back on Tom Wheeler’s FCC for its unremitting “just trust us” approach to federal rulemaking.

The case, round three of Prometheus, et al. v. FCC, involves the FCC’s long-standing rules restricting common ownership of local broadcast stations and their extension by Tom Wheeler’s FCC to the use of joint sales agreements (JSAs). (For more background see our previous post here). Once again the FCC lost (it’s now only 1 for 3 in this case…), as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals took the Commission to task for failing to establish that its broadcast ownership rules were still in the public interest, as required by law, before it decided to extend those rules.

While much of the opinion deals with the FCC’s unreasonable delay (of more than 7 years) in completing two Quadrennial Reviews in relation to its diversity rules, the court also vacated the FCC’s rule expanding its duopoly rule (or local television ownership rule) to ban joint sales agreements without first undertaking the reviews.

We (the International Center for Law and Economics, along with affiliated scholars of law, economics, and communications) filed an amicus brief arguing for precisely this result, noting that

the 2014 Order [] dramatically expands its scope by amending the FCC’s local ownership attribution rules to make the rule applicable to JSAs, which had never before been subject to it. The Commission thereby suddenly declares unlawful JSAs in scores of local markets, many of which have been operating for a decade or longer without any harm to competition. Even more remarkably, it does so despite the fact that both the DOJ and the FCC itself had previously reviewed many of these JSAs and concluded that they were not likely to lessen competition. In doing so, the FCC also fails to examine the empirical evidence accumulated over the nearly two decades some of these JSAs have been operating. That evidence shows that many of these JSAs have substantially reduced the costs of operating TV stations and improved the quality of their programming without causing any harm to competition, thereby serving the public interest.

The Third Circuit agreed that the FCC utterly failed to justify its continued foray into banning potentially pro-competitive arrangements, finding that

the Commission violated § 202(h) by expanding the reach of the ownership rules without first justifying their preexisting scope through a Quadrennial Review. In Prometheus I we made clear that § 202(h) requires that “no matter what the Commission decides to do to any particular rule—retain, repeal, or modify (whether to make more or less stringent)—it must do so in the public interest and support its decision with a reasoned analysis.” Prometheus I, 373 F.3d at 395. Attribution of television JSAs modifies the Commission’s ownership rules by making them more stringent. And, unless the Commission determines that the preexisting ownership rules are sound, it cannot logically demonstrate that an expansion is in the public interest. Put differently, we cannot decide whether the Commission’s rationale—the need to avoid circumvention of ownership rules—makes sense without knowing whether those rules are in the public interest. If they are not, then the public interest might not be served by closing loopholes to rules that should no longer exist.

Perhaps this decision will be a harbinger of good things to come. The FCC — and especially Tom Wheeler’s FCC — has a history of failing to justify its rules with anything approaching rigorous analysis. The Open Internet Order is a case in point. We will all be better off if courts begin to hold the Commission’s feet to the fire and throw out their rules when the FCC fails to do the work needed to justify them.

On Friday the the International Center for Law & Economics filed comments with the FCC in response to Chairman Wheeler’s NPRM (proposed rules) to “unlock” the MVPD (i.e., cable and satellite subscription video, essentially) set-top box market. Plenty has been written on the proposed rulemaking—for a few quick hits (among many others) see, e.g., Richard Bennett, Glenn Manishin, Larry Downes, Stuart Brotman, Scott Wallsten, and me—so I’ll dispense with the background and focus on the key points we make in our comments.

Our comments explain that the proposal’s assertion that the MVPD set-top box market isn’t competitive is a product of its failure to appreciate the dynamics of the market (and its disregard for economics). Similarly, the proposal fails to acknowledge the complexity of the markets it intends to regulate, and, in particular, it ignores the harmful effects on content production and distribution the rules would likely bring about.

“Competition, competition, competition!” — Tom Wheeler

“Well, uh… just because I don’t know what it is, it doesn’t mean I’m lying.” — Claude Elsinore

At root, the proposal is aimed at improving competition in a market that is already hyper-competitive. As even Chairman Wheeler has admitted,

American consumers enjoy unprecedented choice in how they view entertainment, news and sports programming. You can pretty much watch what you want, where you want, when you want.

Of course, much of this competition comes from outside the MVPD market, strictly speaking—most notably from OVDs like Netflix. It’s indisputable that the statute directs the FCC to address the MVPD market and the MVPD set-top box market. But addressing competition in those markets doesn’t mean you simply disregard the world outside those markets.

The competitiveness of a market isn’t solely a function of the number of competitors in the market. Even relatively constrained markets like these can be “fully competitive” with only a few competing firms—as is the case in every market in which MVPDs operate (all of which are presumed by the Commission to be subject to “effective competition”).

The truly troubling thing, however, is that the FCC knows that MVPDs compete with OVDs, and thus that the competitiveness of the “MVPD market” (and the “MVPD set-top box market”) isn’t solely a matter of direct, head-to-head MVPD competition.

How do we know that? As I’ve recounted before, in a recent speech FCC General Counsel Jonathan Sallet approvingly explained that Commission staff recommended rejecting the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger precisely because of the alleged threat it posed to OVD competitors. In essence, Sallet argued that Comcast sought to undertake a $45 billion merger primarily—if not solely—in order to ameliorate the competitive threat to its subscription video services from OVDs:

Simply put, the core concern came down to whether the merged firm would have an increased incentive and ability to safeguard its integrated Pay TV business model and video revenues by limiting the ability of OVDs to compete effectively.…

Thus, at least when it suits it, the Chairman’s office appears not only to believe that this competitive threat is real, but also that Comcast, once the largest MVPD in the country, believes so strongly that the OVD competitive threat is real that it was willing to pay $45 billion for a mere “increased ability” to limit it.

UPDATE 4/26/2016

And now the FCC has approved the Charter/Time Warner Cable, imposing conditions that, according to Wheeler,

focus on removing unfair barriers to video competition. First, New Charter will not be permitted to charge usage-based prices or impose data caps. Second, New Charter will be prohibited from charging interconnection fees, including to online video providers, which deliver large volumes of internet traffic to broadband customers. Additionally, the Department of Justice’s settlement with Charter both outlaws video programming terms that could harm OVDs and protects OVDs from retaliation—an outcome fully supported by the order I have circulated today.

If MVPDs and OVDs don’t compete, why would such terms be necessary? And even if the threat is merely potential competition, as we note in our comments (citing to this, among other things),

particularly in markets characterized by the sorts of technological change present in video markets, potential competition can operate as effectively as—or even more effectively than—actual competition to generate competitive market conditions.

/UPDATE

Moreover, the proposal asserts that the “market” for MVPD set-top boxes isn’t competitive because “consumers have few alternatives to leasing set-top boxes from their MVPDs, and the vast majority of MVPD subscribers lease boxes from their MVPD.”

But the MVPD set-top box market is an aftermarket—a secondary market; no one buys set-top boxes without first buying MVPD service—and always or almost always the two are purchased at the same time. As Ben Klein and many others have 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.

The competitiveness of the MVPD market in which the antecedent choice of provider is made incorporates consumers’ preferences regarding set-top boxes, and makes the secondary market competitive.

The proposal’s superficial and erroneous claim that the set-top box market isn’t competitive thus reflects bad economics, not competitive reality.

But it gets worse. The NPRM doesn’t actually deny the importance of OVDs and app-based competitors wholesale — it only does so when convenient. As we note in our Comments:

The irony is that the NPRM seeks to give a leg up to non-MVPD distribution services in order to promote competition with MVPDs, while simultaneously denying that such competition exists… In order to avoid triggering [Section 629’s sunset provision,] the Commission is forced to pretend that we still live in the world of Blockbuster rentals and analog cable. It must ignore the Netflix behind the curtain—ignore the utter wealth of video choices available to consumers—and focus on the fact that a consumer might have a remote for an Apple TV sitting next to her Xfinity remote.

“Yes, but you’re aware that there’s an invention called television, and on that invention they show shows?” — Jules Winnfield

The NPRM proposes to create a world in which all of the content that MVPDs license from programmers, and all of their own additional services, must be provided to third-party device manufacturers under a zero-rate compulsory license. Apart from the complete absence of statutory authority to mandate such a thing (or, I should say, apart from statutory language specifically prohibiting such a thing), the proposed rules run roughshod over the copyrights and negotiated contract rights of content providers:

The current rulemaking represents an overt assault on the web of contracts that makes content generation and distribution possible… The rules would create a new class of intermediaries lacking contractual privity with content providers (or MVPDs), and would therefore force MVPDs to bear the unpredictable consequences of providing licensed content to third-parties without actual contracts to govern those licenses…

Because such nullification of license terms interferes with content owners’ right “to do and to authorize” their distribution and performance rights, the rules may facially violate copyright law… [Moreover,] the web of contracts that support the creation and distribution of content are complicated, extensively negotiated, and subject to destabilization. Abrogating the parties’ use of the various control points that support the financing, creation, and distribution of content would very likely reduce the incentive to invest in new and better content, thereby rolling back the golden age of television that consumers currently enjoy.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find any serious acknowledgement in the NPRM that its rules could have any effect on content providers, apart from this gem:

We do not currently have evidence that regulations are needed to address concerns raised by MVPDs and content providers that competitive navigation solutions will disrupt elements of service presentation (such as agreed-upon channel lineups and neighborhoods), replace or alter advertising, or improperly manipulate content…. We also seek comment on the extent to which copyright law may protect against these concerns, and note that nothing in our proposal will change or affect content creators’ rights or remedies under copyright law.

The Commission can’t rely on copyright to protect against these concerns, at least not without admitting that the rules require MVPDs to violate copyright law and to breach their contracts. And in fact, although it doesn’t acknowledge it, the NPRM does require the abrogation of content owners’ rights embedded in licenses negotiated with MVPD distributors to the extent that they conflict with the terms of the rule (which many of them must).   

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” — Inigo Montoya

Finally, the NPRM derives its claimed authority for these rules from an interpretation of the relevant statute (Section 629 of the Communications Act) that is absurdly unreasonable. That provision requires the FCC to enact rules to assure the “commercial availability” of set-top boxes from MVPD-unaffiliated vendors. According to the NPRM,

we cannot assure a commercial market for devices… unless companies unaffiliated with an MVPD are able to offer innovative user interfaces and functionality to consumers wishing to access that multichannel video programming.

This baldly misconstrues a term plainly meant to refer to the manner in which consumers obtain their navigation devices, not how those devices should function. It also contradicts the Commission’s own, prior readings of the statute:

As structured, the rules will place a regulatory thumb on the scale in favor of third-parties and to the detriment of MVPDs and programmers…. [But] Congress explicitly rejected language that would have required unbundling of MVPDs’ content and services in order to promote other distribution services…. Where Congress rejected language that would have favored non-MVPD services, the Commission selectively interprets the language Congress did employ in order to accomplish exactly what Congress rejected.

And despite the above noted problems (and more), the Commission has failed to do even a cursory economic evaluation of the relative costs of the NPRM, instead focusing narrowly on one single benefit it believes might occur (wider distribution of set-top boxes from third-parties) despite the consistent failure of similar FCC efforts in the past.

All of the foregoing leads to a final question: At what point do the costs of these rules finally outweigh the perceived benefits? On the one hand are legal questions of infringement, inducements to violate agreements, and disruptions of complex contractual ecosystems supporting content creation. On the other hand are the presence of more boxes and apps that allow users to choose who gets to draw the UI for their video content…. At some point the Commission needs to take seriously the costs of its actions, and determine whether the public interest is really served by the proposed rules.

Our full comments are available here.

Netflix’s latest net neutrality hypocrisy (yes, there have been others. See here and here, for example) involves its long-term, undisclosed throttling of its video traffic on AT&T’s and Verizon’s wireless networks, while it lobbied heavily for net neutrality rules from the FCC that would prevent just such throttling by ISPs.

It was Netflix that coined the term “strong net neutrality,” in an effort to import interconnection (the connections between ISPs and edge provider networks) into the net neutrality fold. That alone was a bastardization of what net neutrality purportedly stood for, as I previously noted:

There is a reason every iteration of the FCC’s net neutrality rules, including the latest, have explicitly not applied to backbone interconnection agreements: Interconnection over the backbone has always been open and competitive, and it simply doesn’t give rise to the kind of discrimination concerns net neutrality is meant to address.

That Netflix would prefer not to pay for delivery of its content isn’t surprising. But net neutrality regulations don’t — and shouldn’t — have anything to do with it.

But Netflix did something else with “strong net neutrality.” It tied it to consumer choice:

This weak net neutrality isn’t enough to protect an open, competitive Internet; a stronger form of net neutrality is required. Strong net neutrality additionally prevents ISPs from charging a toll for interconnection to services like Netflix, YouTube, or Skype, or intermediaries such as Cogent, Akamai or Level 3, to deliver the services and data requested by ISP residential subscribers. Instead, they must provide sufficient access to their network without charge. (Emphasis added).

A focus on consumers is laudable, of course, but when the focus is on consumers there’s no reason to differentiate between ISPs (to whom net neutrality rules apply) and content providers entering into contracts with ISPs to deliver their content (to whom net neutrality rules don’t apply).

And Netflix has just showed us exactly why that’s the case.

Netflix can and does engage in management of its streams in order (presumably) to optimize consumer experience as users move between networks, devices and viewers (e.g., native apps vs Internet browser windows) with very different characteristics and limitations. That’s all well and good. But as we noted in our Policy Comments in the FCC’s Open Internet Order proceeding,

In this circumstance, particularly when the content in question is Netflix, with 30% of network traffic, both the network’s and the content provider’s transmission decisions may be determinative of network quality, as may the users’ device and application choices.

As a 2011 paper by a group of network engineers studying the network characteristics of video streaming data from Netflix and YouTube noted:

This is a concern as it means that a sudden change of application or container in a large population might have a significant impact on the network traffic. Considering the very fast changes in trends this is a real possibility, the most likely being a change from Flash to HTML5 along with an increase in the use of mobile devices…. [S]treaming videos at high resolutions can result in smoother aggregate traffic while at the same time linearly increase the aggregate data rate due to video streaming.

Again, a concern with consumers is admirable, but Netflix isn’t concerned with consumers. It’s concerned at most with consumers of Netflix, while they are consuming Netflix. But the reality is that Netflix’s content management decisions can adversely affect consumers overall, including its own subscribers when they aren’t watching Netflix.

And here’s the huge irony. The FCC’s net neutrality rules are tailor-made to guarantee that Netflix will never have any incentive to take these externalities into account in its own decisions. What’s more, they ensure that ISPs are severely hamstrung in managing their networks for the benefit of all consumers, not least because their interconnection deals with large content providers like Netflix are now being closely scrutinized.

It’s great that Netflix thinks it should manage its video delivery to optimize viewing under different network conditions. But net neutrality rules ensure that Netflix bears no cost for overwhelming the network in the process. Essentially, short of building new capacity — at great expense to all ISP subscribers, of course — ISPs can’t do much about it, either, under the rules. And, of course, the rules also make it impossible for ISPs to negotiate for financial help from Netflix (or its heaviest users) in paying for those upgrades.

On top of this, net neutrality advocates have taken aim at usage-based billing and other pricing practices that would help with the problem by enabling ISPs to charge their heaviest users more in order to alleviate the inherent subsidy by normal users that flat-rate billing entails. (Netflix itself, as one of the articles linked above discusses at length, is hypocritically inconsistent on this score).

As we also noted in our OIO Policy Comments:

The idea that consumers and competition generally are better off when content providers face no incentive to take account of congestion externalities in their pricing (or when users have no incentive to take account of their own usage) runs counter to basic economic logic and is unsupported by the evidence. In fact, contrary to such claims, usage-based pricing, congestion pricing and sponsored content, among other nonlinear pricing models, would, in many circumstances, further incentivize networks to expand capacity (not create artificial scarcity).

Some concern for consumers. Under Netflix’s approach consumers get it coming and going: Either their non-Netflix traffic is compromised for the sake of Netflix’s traffic, or they have to pay higher subscription fees to ISPs for the privilege of accommodating Netflix’s ever-expanding traffic loads (4K videos, anyone?) — whether they ever use Netflix or not.

Sometimes, apparently, Netflix throttles its own traffic in order to “help” a few consumers. (That it does so without disclosing the practice is pretty galling, especially given the enhanced transparency rules in the Open Internet Order — something Netflix also advocated for, and which also apply only to ISPs and not to content providers). But its self-aggrandizing advocacy for the FCC’s latest net neutrality rules reveals that its first priority is to screw over consumers, so long as it can shift the blame and the cost to others.

The FCC doesn’t have authority over the edge and doesn’t want authority over the edge. Well, that is until it finds itself with no choice but to regulate the edge as a result of its own policies. As the FCC begins to explore its new authority to regulate privacy under the Open Internet Order (“OIO”), for instance, it will run up against policy conflicts and inconsistencies that will make it increasingly hard to justify forbearance from regulating edge providers.

Take for example the recently announced NPRM titled “Expanding Consumers’ Video Navigation Choices” — a proposal that seeks to force cable companies to provide video programming to third party set-top box manufacturers. Under the proposed rules, MVPD distributors would be required to expose three data streams to competitors: (1) listing information about what is available to particular customers; (2) the rights associated with accessing such content; and (3) the actual video content. As Geoff Manne has aptly noted, this seems to be much more of an effort to eliminate the “nightmare” of “too many remote controls” than it is to actually expand consumer choice in a market that is essentially drowning in consumer choice. But of course even so innocuous a goal—which is probably more about picking on cable companies because… “eww cable companies”—suggests some very important questions.

First, the market for video on cable systems is governed by a highly interdependent web of contracts that assures to a wide variety of parties that their bargained-for rights are respected. Among other things, channels negotiate for particular placements and channel numbers in a cable system’s lineup, IP rights holders bargain for content to be made available only at certain times and at certain locations, and advertisers pay for their ads to be inserted into channel streams and broadcasts.

Moreover, to a large extent, the content industry develops its content based on a stable regime of bargained-for contractual terms with cable distribution networks (among others). Disrupting the ability of cable companies to control access to their video streams will undoubtedly alter the underlying assumptions upon which IP companies rely when planning and investing in content development. And, of course, the physical networks and their related equipment have been engineered around the current cable-access regimes. Some non-trivial amount of re-engineering will have to take place to make the cable-networks compatible with a more “open” set-top box market.

The FCC nods to these concerns in its NPRM, when it notes that its “goal is to preserve the contractual arrangements between programmers and MVPDs, while creating additional opportunities for programmers[.]” But this aspiration is not clearly given effect in the NPRM, and, as noted, some contractual arrangements are simply inconsistent with the NPRM’s approach.

Second, the FCC proposes to bind third-party manufacturers to the public interest privacy commitments in §§ 629, 551 and 338(i) of the Communications Act (“Act”) through a self-certification process. MVPDs would be required to pass the three data streams to third-party providers only once such a certification is received. To the extent that these sections, enforced via self-certification, do not sufficiently curtail third-parties’ undesirable behavior, the FCC appears to believe that “the strictest state regulatory regime[s]” and the “European Union privacy regulations” will serve as the necessary regulatory gap fillers.

This seems hard to believe, however, particularly given the recently announced privacy and cybersecurity NPRM, through which the FCC will adopt rules detailing the agency’s new authority (under the OIO) to regulate privacy at the ISP level. Largely, these rules will grow out of §§ 222 and 201 of the Act, which the FCC in Terracom interpreted together to be a general grant of privacy and cybersecurity authority.

I’m apprehensive of the asserted scope of the FCC’s power over privacy — let alone cybersecurity — under §§ 222 and 201. In truth, the FCC makes an admirable showing in Terracom of demonstrating its reasoning; it does a far better job than the FTC in similar enforcement actions. But there remains a problem. The FTC’s authority is fundamentally cabined by the limitations contained within the FTC Act (even if it frequently chooses to ignore them, they are there and are theoretically a protection against overreach).

But the FCC’s enforcement decisions are restrained (if at all) by a vague “public interest” mandate, and a claim that it will enforce these privacy principles on a case-by-case basis. Thus, the FCC’s proposed regime is inherently one based on vast agency discretion. As in many other contexts, enforcers with wide discretion and a tremendous power to penalize exert a chilling effect on innovation and openness, as well as a frightening power over a tremendous swath of the economy. For the FCC to claim anything like an unbounded UDAP authority for itself has got to be outside of the archaic grant of authority from § 201, and is certainly a long stretch for the language of § 706 (a provision of the Act which it used as one of the fundamental justifications for the OIO)— leading very possibly to a bout of Chevron problems under precedent such as King v. Burwell and UARG v. EPA.

And there is a real risk here of, if not hypocrisy, then… deep conflict in the way the FCC will strike out on the set-top box and privacy NPRMs. The Commission has already noted in its NPRM that it will not be able to bind third-party providers of set-top boxes under the same privacy requirements that apply to current MVPD providers. Self-certification will go a certain length, but even there agitation from privacy absolutists will possibly sway the FCC to consider more stringent requirements. For instance, §§ 551 and 338 of the Act — which the FCC focuses on in the set-top box NPRM — are really only about disclosing intended uses of consumer data. And disclosures can come in many forms, including burying them in long terms of service that customers frequently do not read. Such “weak” guarantees of consumer privacy will likely become a frequent source of complaint (and FCC filings) for privacy absolutists.  

Further, many of the new set-top box entrants are going to be current providers of OTT video or devices that redistribute OTT video. And many of these providers make a huge share of their revenue from data mining and selling access to customer data. Which means one of two things: Either the FCC is going to just allow us to live in a world of double standards where these self-certifying entities are permitted significantly more leeway in their uses of consumer data than MVPD providers or, alternatively, the FCC is going to discover that it does in fact need to “do something.” If only there were a creative way to extend the new privacy authority under Title II to these providers of set-top boxes… . Oh! there is: bring edge providers into the regulation fold under the OIO.

It’s interesting that Wheeler’s announcement of the FCC’s privacy NPRM explicitly noted that the rules would not be extended to edge providers. That Wheeler felt the need to be explicit in this suggests that he believes that the FCC has the authority to extend the privacy regulations to edge providers, but that it will merely forbear (for now) from doing so.

If edge providers are swept into the scope of Title II they would be subject to the brand new privacy rules the FCC is proposing. Thus, despite itself (or perhaps not), the FCC may find itself in possession of a much larger authority over some edge providers than any of the pro-Title II folks would have dared admit was possible. And the hook (this time) could be the privacy concerns embedded in the FCC’s ill-advised attempt to “open” the set-top box market.

This is a complicated set of issues, and it’s contingent on a number of moving parts. This week, Chairman Wheeler will be facing an appropriations hearing where I hope he will be asked to unpack his thinking regarding the true extent to which the OIO may in fact be extended to the edge.

On February 18, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted three-to-two in favor of a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) fancifully entitled “Expanding Consumers’ Video Navigation Choices, MB Docket No. 16-42; Commercial Availability of Navigation Devices, CS Docket No. 97-80”.  The NPRM, in the words of the FCC’s press release, will “create a framework for providing innovators, device manufacturers, and app developers the information they need to develop new technologies, reflecting the many ways consumers access their subscription video programming today.”  In reality, far from “creating a framework” to spawn new technologies, this NPRM promotes uncalled-for regulatory intrusion into an increasingly dynamic and efficient market, and (as Free State Foundation President Randy May aptly put it) represents FCC “regulatory policy run amok.”  (A November 2015 article by Heritage Foundation scholar James Gattuso provides a broader and more detailed critical assessment of FCC regulation of the video programming market.)

In particular, as one legal analyst summarizes, the NPRM would require “multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) providers to make ‘three core information streams’ available to companies developing devices or applications that might compete with MVPDs’ set-top boxes.”  (MVPDs are providers of pay television services, such as cable television, direct broadcast satellite, fiberoptic cable (e.g., Verizon FIOS), and competitive local exchange companies.)  Specifically:

The NPRM would require the MVPDs to supply the following to potential competitors: 1) information about what programming is available to the consumer, such as the channel listing and video-on-demand lineup; 2) information about what a device is allowed to do with content, such as recording; and 3) the content itself.

This new regulatory requirement makes no sense and threatens to undermine competition and innovation.  As telecommunications scholar Randy May recently emphasized, the FCC itself adopted a rule in June 2015 establishing a presumption that local video markets, on a nationwide basis, are subject to “effective competition.”  Indeed, May noted that the FCC conceded in a February 2 appellate brief that there has been a “transformation” of the multichannel video marketplace, that “consumers have alternatives to cable,” and that “cable’s market share has sharply declined.”  (May embellished the point in stating that today “consumers  may choose among a multitude of services and devices, such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast, Apple TV, and Roku.  And they are doing so in exponentially increasing numbers.”)  This means that regulation in this area is inappropriate, since it is well accepted that economic regulation of competitive markets is unjustifiable.  (Indeed, even imperfectly competitive markets and monopolies should not be regulated unless regulation is likely to yield welfare outcomes that are superior to reliance on market forces, a test that is not easily met – a point made by such renowned economists as James Buchanan and A.E. Kahn.)  What’s more, FCC regulation, which tends to slow innovation, is likely to prove especially harmful in the MVPD sector, given that market’s record of rapid and continuous welfare-enhancing introduction of new and improved services.

The February 18 dissenting statements by Commissioner Ajit Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly further explored the NPRM’s serious deficiencies.

After summarizing the harm caused by prior FCC regulation of video set-top boxes, Commissioner Pai stated:

[W]e are en route to eliminating the need for a set-top box. An app can turn your iPad or Android phone into a navigation device. MVPDs have deployed these apps and are in the process of developing more advanced ones.  The Commission should be encouraging these efforts.  

But this proposal would do precisely the opposite.  It would divert the industry’s energies away from app development and toward the long-term slog of complying with the Commission’s new regulatory scheme for unwanted hardware.  And the Notice goes further; it actually proposes imposing a number of regulations that would discourage the development and deployment of MVPD apps.  That’s not what the American people want. I’m confident that most consumers would rather eliminate the set-top box altogether than embrace a complex regulatory scheme that will require them to have another box in their home and won’t take effect for at least three years.

Commissioner O’Rielly focused on the economic and technical harm imposed by the NPRM, as well as its legal deficiencies:

[The proposal] could open multichannel video programming distributor (“MVPD”) networks to serious security vulnerabilities, exposing them to potential network damage and content theft.  It could strip content producers of their rights to control the distribution and presentation of their content.  It could ultimately subject over-the-top (“OTT”) providers to the same regime. . . .  Worst of all, it would certainly devalue the content produced by programmers large and small, by enabling anyone capable of writing a compliant app to turn on a free stream of video content painstakingly cobbled together by an MVPD at great expense – the ultimate free-rider problem.  MVPDs, broadcasters, and independent programmers alike would all lose some incentives to keep doing what they do, and some would opt for the sidelines, leaving consumers with fewer video options. . . .

The statutory authority on which this fantasy rests is equally as far-fetched. The section that discusses authority will long live as a testament to the level of absurdity that can be achieved in four short paragraphs when two defenseless statutes fall down a rabbit hole into a land where words have no meaning.  While billed as an attempt to enhance competition in the set top box market, the item shoots miles beyond that narrow frame on the very first page, redefining statutory terms plainly referring to hardware, such as “navigation device,” “interactive communications equipment,” and “other equipment” to mean either hardware or software (including apps). I don’t know how much clearer the terms “device” or “equipment” could be in their intent to reference tangible, physical hardware. If those words don’t work to restrict the Commission, are there any that ever could? And I don’t think that anyone here believes for a second that [the statutory language discussed] could ever have made it out of a single Congressional committee in 2014 if the members had known it would be interpreted to allow the FCC to force MVPDs to stream all of their content for free to any app developer willing to jump through a few hoops.

In sum, the FCC’s February 18 NPRM flies in the face of sound economics, video programming distribution history, and reasonable statutory construction.  If finalized, it will further reduce innovation, economic efficiency, and consumer welfare.  The three commissioners who voted for this misbegotten proposal should rethink their position and act to end this unwarranted proposed regulatory intrusion into a competitive and innovative marketplace.

Last week, FCC General Counsel Jonathan Sallet pulled back the curtain on the FCC staff’s analysis behind its decision to block Comcast’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable. As the FCC staff sets out on its reported Rainbow Tour to reassure regulated companies that it’s not “hostile to the industries it regulates,” Sallet’s remarks suggest it will have an uphill climb. Unfortunately, the staff’s analysis appears to have been unduly speculative, disconnected from critical market realities, and decidedly biased — not characteristics in a regulator that tend to offer much reassurance.

Merger analysis is inherently speculative, but, as courts have repeatedly had occasion to find, the FCC has a penchant for stretching speculation beyond the breaking point, adopting theories of harm that are vaguely possible, even if unlikely and inconsistent with past practice, and poorly supported by empirical evidence. The FCC’s approach here seems to fit this description.

The FCC’s fundamental theory of anticompetitive harm

To begin with, as he must, Sallet acknowledged that there was no direct competitive overlap in the areas served by Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and no consumer would have seen the number of providers available to her changed by the deal.

But the FCC staff viewed this critical fact as “not outcome determinative.” Instead, Sallet explained that the staff’s opposition was based primarily on a concern that the deal might enable Comcast to harm “nascent” OVD competitors in order to protect its video (MVPD) business:

Simply put, the core concern came down to whether the merged firm would have an increased incentive and ability to safeguard its integrated Pay TV business model and video revenues by limiting the ability of OVDs to compete effectively, especially through the use of new business models.

The justification for the concern boiled down to an assumption that the addition of TWC’s subscriber base would be sufficient to render an otherwise too-costly anticompetitive campaign against OVDs worthwhile:

Without the merger, a company taking action against OVDs for the benefit of the Pay TV system as a whole would incur costs but gain additional sales – or protect existing sales — only within its footprint. But the combined entity, having a larger footprint, would internalize more of the external “benefits” provided to other industry members.

The FCC theorized that, by acquiring a larger footprint, Comcast would gain enough bargaining power and leverage, as well as the means to profit from an exclusionary strategy, leading it to employ a range of harmful tactics — such as impairing the quality/speed of OVD streams, imposing data caps, limiting OVD access to TV-connected devices, imposing higher interconnection fees, and saddling OVDs with higher programming costs. It’s difficult to see how such conduct would be permitted under the FCC’s Open Internet Order/Title II regime, but, nevertheless, the staff apparently believed that Comcast would possess a powerful “toolkit” with which to harm OVDs post-transaction.

Comcast’s share of the MVPD market wouldn’t have changed enough to justify the FCC’s purported fears

First, the analysis turned on what Comcast could and would do if it were larger. But Comcast was already the largest ISP and MVPD (now second largest MVPD, post AT&T/DIRECTV) in the nation, and presumably it has approximately the same incentives and ability to disadvantage OVDs today.

In fact, there’s no reason to believe that the growth of Comcast’s MVPD business would cause any material change in its incentives with respect to OVDs. Whatever nefarious incentives the merger allegedly would have created by increasing Comcast’s share of the MVPD market (which is where the purported benefits in the FCC staff’s anticompetitive story would be realized), those incentives would be proportional to the size of increase in Comcast’s national MVPD market share — which, here, would be about eight percentage points: from 22% to under 30% of the national market.

It’s difficult to believe that Comcast would gain the wherewithal to engage in this costly strategy by adding such a relatively small fraction of the MVPD market (which would still leave other MVPDs serving fully 70% of the market to reap the purported benefits instead of Comcast), but wouldn’t have it at its current size – and there’s no evidence that it has ever employed such strategies with its current market share.

It bears highlighting that the D.C. Circuit has already twice rejected FCC efforts to impose a 30% market cap on MVPDs, based on the Commission’s inability to demonstrate that a greater-than-30% share would create competitive problems, especially given the highly dynamic nature of the MVPD market. In vacating the FCC’s most recent effort to do so in 2009, the D.C. Circuit was resolute in its condemnation of the agency, noting:

In sum, the Commission has failed to demonstrate that allowing a cable operator to serve more than 30% of all [MVPD] subscribers would threaten to reduce either competition or diversity in programming.

The extent of competition and the amount of available programming (including original programming distributed by OVDs themselves) has increased substantially since 2009; this makes the FCC’s competitive claims even less sustainable today.

It’s damning enough to the FCC’s case that there is no marketplace evidence of such conduct or its anticompetitive effects in today’s market. But it’s truly impossible to square the FCC’s assertions about Comcast’s anticompetitive incentives with the fact that, over the past decade, Comcast has made massive investments in broadband, steadily increased broadband speeds, and freely licensed its programming, among other things that have served to enhance OVDs’ long-term viability and growth. Chalk it up to the threat of regulatory intervention or corporate incompetence if you can’t believe that competition alone could be responsible for this largesse, but, whatever the reason, the FCC staff’s fears appear completely unfounded in a marketplace not significantly different than the landscape that would have existed post-merger.

OVDs aren’t vulnerable, and don’t need the FCC’s “help”

After describing the “new entrants” in the market — such unfamiliar and powerless players as Dish, Sony, HBO, and CBS — Sallet claimed that the staff was principally animated by the understanding that

Entrants are particularly vulnerable when competition is nascent. Thus, staff was particularly concerned that this transaction could damage competition in the video distribution industry.

Sallet’s description of OVDs makes them sound like struggling entrepreneurs working in garages. But, in fact, OVDs have radically reshaped the media business and wield enormous clout in the marketplace.

Netflix, for example, describes itself as “the world’s leading Internet television network with over 65 million members in over 50 countries.” New services like Sony Vue and Sling TV are affiliated with giant, well-established media conglomerates. And whatever new offerings emerge from the FCC-approved AT&T/DIRECTV merger will be as well-positioned as any in the market.

In fact, we already know that the concerns of the FCC are off-base because they are of a piece with the misguided assumptions that underlie the Chairman’s recent NPRM to rewrite the MVPD rules to “protect” just these sorts of companies. But the OVDs themselves — the ones with real money and their competitive futures on the line — don’t see the world the way the FCC does, and they’ve resolutely rejected the Chairman’s proposal. Notably, the proposed rules would “protect” these services from exactly the sort of conduct that Sallet claims would have been a consequence of the Comcast-TWC merger.

If they don’t want or need broad protection from such “harms” in the form of revised industry-wide rules, there is surely no justification for the FCC to throttle a merger based on speculation that the same conduct could conceivably arise in the future.

The realities of the broadband market post-merger wouldn’t have supported the FCC’s argument, either

While a larger Comcast might be in a position to realize more of the benefits from the exclusionary strategy Sallet described, it would also incur more of the costs — likely in direct proportion to the increased size of its subscriber base.

Think of it this way: To the extent that an MVPD can possibly constrain an OVD’s scope of distribution for programming, doing so also necessarily makes the MVPD’s own broadband offering less attractive, forcing it to incur a cost that would increase in proportion to the size of the distributor’s broadband market. In this case, as noted, Comcast would have gained MVPD subscribers — but it would have also gained broadband subscribers. In a world where cable is consistently losing video subscribers (as Sallet acknowledged), and where broadband offers higher margins and faster growth, it makes no economic sense that Comcast would have valued the trade-off the way the FCC claims it would have.

Moreover, in light of the existing conditions imposed on Comcast under the Comcast/NBCU merger order from 2011 (which last for a few more years) and the restrictions adopted in the Open Internet Order, Comcast’s ability to engage in the sort of exclusionary conduct described by Sallet would be severely limited, if not non-existent. Nor, of course, is there any guarantee that former or would-be OVD subscribers would choose to subscribe to, or pay more for, any MVPD in lieu of OVDs. Meanwhile, many of the relevant substitutes in the MVPD market (like AT&T and Verizon FiOS) also offer broadband services – thereby increasing the costs that would be incurred in the broadband market even more, as many subscribers would shift not only their MVPD, but also their broadband service, in response to Comcast degrading OVDs.

And speaking of the Open Internet Order — wasn’t that supposed to prevent ISPs like Comcast from acting on their alleged incentives to impede the quality of, or access to, edge providers like OVDs? Why is merger enforcement necessary to accomplish the same thing once Title II and the rest of the Open Internet Order are in place? And if the argument is that the Open Internet Order might be defeated, aside from the completely speculative nature of such a claim, why wouldn’t a merger condition that imposed the same constraints on Comcast – as was done in the Comcast/NBCU merger order by imposing the former net neutrality rules on Comcast – be perfectly sufficient?

While the FCC staff analysis accepted as true (again, contrary to current marketplace evidence) that a bigger Comcast would have more incentive to harm OVDs post-merger, it rejected arguments that there could be countervailing benefits to OVDs and others from this same increase in scale. Thus, things like incremental broadband investments and speed increases, a larger Wi-Fi network, and greater business services market competition – things that Comcast is already doing and would have done on a greater and more-accelerated scale in the acquired territories post-transaction – were deemed insufficient to outweigh the expected costs of the staff’s entirely speculative anticompetitive theory.

In reality, however, not only OVDs, but consumers – and especially TWC subscribers – would have benefitted from the merger by access to Comcast’s faster broadband speeds, its new investments, and its superior video offerings on the X1 platform, among other things. Many low-income families would have benefitted from expansion of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, and many businesses would have benefited from the addition of a more effective competitor to the incumbent providers that currently dominate the business services market. Yet these and other verifiable benefits were given short shrift in the agency’s analysis because they “were viewed by staff as incapable of outweighing the potential harms.”

The assumptions underlying the FCC staff’s analysis of the broadband market are arbitrary and unsupportable

Sallet’s claim that the combined firm would have 60% of all high-speed broadband subscribers in the U.S. necessarily assumes a national broadband market measured at 25 Mbps or higher, which is a red herring.

The FCC has not explained why 25 Mbps is a meaningful benchmark for antitrust analysis. The FCC itself endorsed a 10 Mbps baseline for its Connect America fund last December, noting that over 70% of current broadband users subscribe to speeds less than 25 Mbps, even in areas where faster speeds are available. And streaming online video, the most oft-cited reason for needing high bandwidth, doesn’t require 25 Mbps: Netflix says that 5 Mbps is the most that’s required for an HD stream, and the same goes for Amazon (3.5 Mbps) and Hulu (1.5 Mbps).

What’s more, by choosing an arbitrary, faster speed to define the scope of the broadband market (in an effort to assert the non-competitiveness of the market, and thereby justify its broadband regulations), the agency has – without proper analysis or grounding, in my view – unjustifiably shrunk the size of the relevant market. But, as it happens, doing so also shrinks the size of the increase in “national market share” that the merger would have brought about.

Recall that the staff’s theory was premised on the idea that the merger would give Comcast control over enough of the broadband market that it could unilaterally impose costs on OVDs sufficient to impair their ability to reach or sustain minimum viable scale. But Comcast would have added only one percent of this invented “market” as a result of the merger. It strains credulity to assert that there could be any transaction-specific harm from an increase in market share equivalent to a rounding error.

In any case, basing its rejection of the merger on a manufactured 25 Mbps relevant market creates perverse incentives and will likely do far more to harm OVDs than realization of even the staff’s worst fears about the merger ever could have.

The FCC says it wants higher speeds, and it wants firms to invest in faster broadband. But here Comcast did just that, and then was punished for it. Rather than acknowledging Comcast’s ongoing broadband investments as strong indication that the FCC staff’s analysis might be on the wrong track, the FCC leadership simply sidestepped that inconvenient truth by redefining the market.

The lesson is that if you make your product too good, you’ll end up with an impermissibly high share of the market you create and be punished for it. This can’t possibly promote the public interest.

Furthermore, the staff’s analysis of competitive effects even in this ersatz market aren’t likely supportable. As noted, most subscribers access OVDs on connections that deliver content at speeds well below the invented 25 Mbps benchmark, and they pay the same prices for OVD subscriptions as subscribers who receive their content at 25 Mbps. Confronted with the choice to consume content at 25 Mbps or 10 Mbps (or less), the majority of consumers voluntarily opt for slower speeds — and they purchase service from Netflix and other OVDs in droves, nonetheless.

The upshot? Contrary to the implications on which the staff’s analysis rests, if Comcast were to somehow “degrade” OVD content on the 25 Mbps networks so that it was delivered with characteristics of video content delivered over a 10-Mbps network, real-world, observed consumer preferences suggest it wouldn’t harm OVDs’ access to consumers at all. This is especially true given that OVDs often have a global focus and reach (again, Netflix has 65 million subscribers in over 50 countries), making any claims that Comcast could successfully foreclose them from the relevant market even more suspect.

At the same time, while the staff apparently viewed the broadband alternatives as “limited,” the reality is that Comcast, as well as other broadband providers, are surrounded by capable competitors, including, among others, AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Google Fiber, many advanced VDSL and fiber-based Internet service providers, and high-speed mobile wireless providers. The FCC understated the complex impact of this robust, dynamic, and ever-increasing competition, and its analysis entirely ignored rapidly growing mobile wireless broadband competition.

Finally, as noted, Sallet claimed that the staff determined that merger conditions would be insufficient to remedy its concerns, without any further explanation. Yet the Commission identified similar concerns about OVDs in both the Comcast/NBCUniversal and AT&T/DIRECTV transactions, and adopted remedies to address those concerns. We know the agency is capable of drafting behavioral conditions, and we know they have teeth, as demonstrated by prior FCC enforcement actions. It’s hard to understand why similar, adequate conditions could not have been fashioned for this transaction.

In the end, while I appreciate Sallet’s attempt to explain the FCC’s decision to reject the Comcast/TWC merger, based on the foregoing I’m not sure that Comcast could have made any argument or showing that would have dissuaded the FCC from challenging the merger. Comcast presented a strong economic analysis answering the staff’s concerns discussed above, all to no avail. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that this was a politically-driven result, and not one rigorously based on the facts or marketplace reality.