Archives For telecommunications

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.

This week, the International Center for Law & Economics filed an ex parte notice in the FCC’s Restoring Internet Freedom docket. In it, we reviewed two of the major items that were contained in our formal comments. First, we noted that

the process by which [the Commission] enacted the 2015 [Open Internet Order]… demonstrated scant attention to empirical evidence, and even less attention to a large body of empirical and theoretical work by academics. The 2015 OIO, in short, was not supported by reasoned analysis.

Further, on the issue of preemption, we stressed that

[F]ollowing the adoption of an Order in this proceeding, a number of states may enact their own laws or regulations aimed at regulating broadband service… The resulting threat of a patchwork of conflicting state regulations, many of which would be unlikely to further the public interest, is a serious one…

[T]he Commission should explicitly state that… broadband services may not be subject to certain forms of state regulations, including conduct regulations that prescribe how ISPs can use their networks. This position would also be consistent with the FCC’s treatment of interstate information services in the past.

Our full ex parte comments can be viewed here.

Today the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) submitted an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to review the DC Circuit’s 2016 decision upholding the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order. The brief was authored by Geoffrey A. Manne, Executive Director of ICLE, and Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Nebraska College of Law and ICLE affiliate, with able assistance from Kristian Stout and Allen Gibby of ICLE. Jeffrey A. Mandell of the Wisconsin law firm of Stafford Rosenbaum collaborated in drafting the brief and provided invaluable pro bono legal assistance, for which we are enormously grateful. Laura Lamansky of Stafford Rosenbaum also assisted. 

The following post discussing the brief was written by Jeff Mandell (originally posted here).

Courts generally defer to agency expertise when reviewing administrative rules that regulate conduct in areas where Congress has delegated authority to specialized executive-branch actors. An entire body of law—administrative law—governs agency actions and judicial review of those actions. And at the federal level, courts grant agencies varying degrees of deference, depending on what kind of function the agency is performing, how much authority Congress delegated, and the process by which the agency adopts or enforces policies.

Should courts be more skeptical when an agency changes a policy position, especially if the agency is reversing prior policy without a corresponding change to the governing statute? Daniel Berninger v. Federal Communications Commission, No. 17-498 (U.S.), raises these questions. And this week Stafford Rosenbaum was honored to serve as counsel of record for the International Center for Law & Economics (“ICLE”) in filing an amicus curiae brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case and to answer these questions.

ICLE’s amicus brief highlights new academic research suggesting that systematic problems undermine judicial review of agency changes in policy. The brief also points out that judicial review is complicated by conflicting signals from the Supreme Court about the degree of deference that courts should accord agencies in reviewing reversals of prior policy. And the brief argues that the specific policy change at issue in this case lacks a sufficient basis but was affirmed by the court below as the result of a review that was, but should not have been, “particularly deferential.”

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) issued the Open Internet Order (“OIO”), which required Internet Service Providers to abide by a series of regulations popularly referred to as net neutrality. To support these regulations, the FCC interpreted the Communications Act of 1934 to grant it authority to heavily regulate broadband internet service. This interpretation reversed a long-standing agency understanding of the statute as permitting only limited regulation of broadband service.

The FCC ostensibly based the OIO on factual and legal analysis. However, ICLE argues, the OIO is actually based on questionable factual reinterpretations and misunderstanding of statutory interpretation adopted more in order to support radical changes in FCC policy than for their descriptive accuracy. When a variety of interested parties challenged the OIO, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed the regulations. In doing so, the court afforded substantial deference to the FCC—so much that the D.C. Circuit never addressed the reasonableness of the FCC’s decisionmaking process in reversing prior policy.

ICLE’s amicus brief argues that the D.C. Circuit’s decision “is both in tension with [the Supreme] Court’s precedents and, more, raises exceptionally important and previously unaddressed questions about th[e] Court’s precedents on judicial review of agency changes of policy.” Without further guidance from the Supreme Court, the brief argues, “there is every reason to believe” the FCC will again reverse its position on broadband regulation, such that “the process will become an endless feedback loop—in the case of this regulation and others—at great cost not only to regulated entities and their consumers, but also to the integrity of the regulatory process.”

The ramifications of the Supreme Court accepting this case would be twofold. First, administrative agencies would gain guidance for their decisionmaking processes in considering changes to existing policies. Second, lower courts would gain clarity on agency deference issues, making judicial review more uniform and appropriate where agencies reverse prior policy positions.

Read the full brief here.

On July 24, as part of their newly-announced “Better Deal” campaign, congressional Democrats released an antitrust proposal (“Better Deal Antitrust Proposal” or BDAP) entitled “Cracking Down on Corporate Monopolies and the Abuse of Economic and Political Power.”  Unfortunately, this antitrust tract is really an “Old Deal” screed that rehashes long-discredited ideas about “bigness is badness” and “corporate abuses,” untethered from serious economic analysis.  (In spirit it echoes the proposal for a renewed emphasis on “fairness” in antitrust made by then Acting Assistant Attorney General Renata Hesse in 2016 – a recommendation that ran counter to sound economics, as I explained in a September 2016 Truth on the Market commentary.)  Implementation of the BDAP’s recommendations would be a “worse deal” for American consumers and for American economic vitality and growth.

The BDAP’s Portrayal of the State of Antitrust Enforcement is Factually Inaccurate, and it Ignores the Real Problems of Crony Capitalism and Regulatory Overreach

The Better Deal Antitrust Proposal begins with the assertion that antitrust has failed in recent decades:

Over the past thirty years, growing corporate influence and consolidation has led to reductions in competition, choice for consumers, and bargaining power for workers.  The extensive concentration of power in the hands of a few corporations hurts wages, undermines job growth, and threatens to squeeze out small businesses, suppliers, and new, innovative competitors.  It means higher prices and less choice for the things the American people buy every day. . .  [This is because] [o]ver the last thirty years, courts and permissive regulators have allowed large companies to get larger, resulting in higher prices and limited consumer choice in daily expenses such as travel, cable, and food and beverages.  And because concentrated market power leads to concentrated political power, these companies deploy armies of lobbyists to increase their stranglehold on Washington.  A Better Deal on competition means that we will revisit our antitrust laws to ensure that the economic freedom of all Americans—consumers, workers, and small businesses—come before big corporations that are getting even bigger.

This statement’s assertions are curious (not to mention problematic) in multiple respects.

First, since Democratic administrations have held the White House for sixteen of the past thirty years, the BDAP appears to acknowledge that Democratic presidents have overseen a failed antitrust policy.

Second, the broad claim that consumers have faced higher prices and limited consumer choice with regard to their daily expenses is baseless.  Indeed, internet commerce and new business models have sharply reduced travel and entertainment costs for the bulk of American consumers, and new “high technology” products such as smartphones and electronic games have been characterized by dramatic improvements in innovation, enhanced variety, and relatively lower costs.  Cable suppliers face vibrant competition from competitive satellite providers, fiberoptic cable suppliers (the major telcos such as Verizon), and new online methods for distributing content.  Consumer price inflation has been extremely low in recent decades, compared to the high inflationary, less innovative environment of the 1960s and 1970s – decades when federal antitrust law was applied much more vigorously.  Thus, the claim that weaker antitrust has denied consumers “economic freedom” is at war with the truth.

Third, the claim that recent decades have seen the creation of “concentrated market power,” safe from antitrust challenge, ignores the fact that, over the last three decades, apolitical government antitrust officials under both Democratic and Republican administrations have applied well-accepted economic tools (wielded by the scores of Ph.D. economists in the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission) in enforcing the antitrust laws.  Antitrust analysis has used economics to focus on inefficient business conduct that would maintain or increase market power, and large numbers of cartels have been prosecuted and questionable mergers (including a variety of major health care and communications industry mergers) have been successfully challenged.  The alleged growth of “concentrated market power,” untouched by incompetent antitrust enforcers, is a myth.  Furthermore, claims that mere corporate size and “aggregate concentration” are grounds for antitrust concern (“big is bad”) were decisively rejected by empirical economic research published in the 1970s, and are no more convincing today.  (As I pointed out in a January 2017 blog posting at this site, recent research by highly respected economists debunks a few claims that federal antitrust enforcers have been “excessively tolerant” of late in analyzing proposed mergers.)

More interesting is the BDAP’s claim that “armies of [corporate] lobbyists” manage to “increase their stranglehold on Washington.”  This is not an antitrust concern, however, but, rather, a complaint against crony capitalism and overregulation, which became an ever more serious problem under the Obama Administration.  As I explained in my October 2016 critique of the American Antitrust Institute’s September 2008 National Competition Policy Report (a Report which is very similar in tone to the BDAP), the rapid growth of excessive regulation during the Obama years has diminished competition by creating new regulatory schemes that benefit entrenched and powerful firms (such as Dodd-Frank Act banking rules that impose excessive burdens on smaller banks).  My critique emphasized that, “as Dodd-Frank and other regulatory programs illustrate, large government rulemaking schemes often are designed to favor large and wealthy well-connected rent-seekers at the expense of smaller and more dynamic competitors.”  And, more generally, excessive regulatory burdens undermine the competitive process, by distorting business decisions in a manner that detracts from competition on the merits.

It follows that, if the BDAP really wanted to challenge “unfair” corporate advantages, it would seek to roll back excessive regulation (see my November 2012 article on Trump Administration competition policy).  Indeed, the Trump Administration’s regulatory reform program (which features agency-specific regulatory reform task forces) seeks to do just that.  Perhaps then the BDAP could be rewritten to focus on endorsing President Trump’s regulatory reform initiative, rather than emphasizing a meritless “big is bad” populist antitrust policy that was consigned to the enforcement dustbin decades ago.

The BDAP’s Specific Proposals Would Harm the Economy and Reduce Consumer Welfare

Unfortunately, the BDAP does more than wax nostalgic about old-time “big is bad” antitrust policy.  It affirmatively recommends policy changes that would harm the economy.

First, the BDAP would require “a broader, longer-term view and strong presumptions that market concentration can result in anticompetitive conduct.”  Specifically, it would create “new standards to limit large mergers that unfairly consolidate corporate power,” including “mergers [that] reduce wages, cut jobs, lower product quality, limit access to services, stifle innovation, or hinder the ability of small businesses and entrepreneurs to compete.”  New standards would also “explicitly consider the ways in which control of consumer data can be used to stifle competition or jeopardize consumer privacy.”

Unlike current merger policy, which evaluates likely competitive effects, centered on price and quality, estimated in economically relevant markets, these new standards are open-ended.  They could justify challenges based on such a wide variety of factors that they would incentivize direct competitors not to merge, even in cases where the proposed merged entity would prove more efficient and able to enhance quality or innovation.  Certain less efficient competitors – say small businesses – could argue that they would be driven out of business, or that some jobs in the industry would disappear, in order to prompt government challenges.  But such challenges would tend to undermine innovation and business improvements, and the inevitable redistribution of assets to higher-valued uses that is a key benefit of corporate reorganizations and acquisitions.  (Mergers might focus instead, for example, on inefficient conglomerate acquisitions among companies in unrelated industries, which were incentivized by the overly strict 1960s rules that prohibited mergers among direct competitors.)  Such a change would represent a retreat from economic common sense, and be at odds with consensus economically-sound merger enforcement guidance that U.S. enforcers have long recommended other countries adopt.  Furthermore, questions of consumer data and privacy are more appropriately dealt with as consumer protection questions, which the Federal Trade Commission has handled successfully for years.

Second, the BDAP would require “frequent, independent [after-the-fact] reviews of mergers” and require regulators “to take corrective measures if they find abusive monopolistic conditions where previously approved [consent decree] measures fail to make good on their intended outcomes.”

While high profile mergers subject to significant divestiture or other remedial requirements have in appropriate circumstances included monitoring requirements, the tone of this recommendation is to require that far more mergers be subjected to detailed and ongoing post-acquisition reviews.  The cost of such monitoring is substantial, however, and routine reliance on it (backed by the threat of additional enforcement actions based merely on changing economic conditions) could create excessive caution in the post-merger management of newly-consolidated enterprises.  Indeed, potential merged parties might decide in close cases that this sort of oversight is not worth accepting, and therefore call off potentially efficient transactions that would have enhanced economic welfare.  (The reality of enforcement error cost, and the possibility of misdiagnosis of post-merger competitive conditions, is not acknowledged by the BDAP.)

Third, a newly created “competition advocate” independent of the existing federal antitrust enforcers would be empowered to publicly recommend investigations, with the enforcers required to justify publicly why they chose not to pursue a particular recommended investigation.  The advocate would ensure that antitrust enforcers are held “accountable,” assure that complaints about “market exploitation and anticompetitive conduct” are heard, and publish data on “concentration and abuses of economic power” with demographic breakdowns.

This third proposal is particularly egregious.  It is at odds with the long tradition of prosecutorial discretion that has been enjoyed by the federal antitrust enforcers (and law enforcers in general).  It would also empower a special interest intervenor to promote the complaints of interest groups that object to efficiency-seeking business conduct, thereby undermining the careful economic and legal analysis that is consistently employed by the expert antitrust agencies.  The references to “concentration” and “economic power” clarify that the “advocate” would have an untrammeled ability to highlight non-economic objections to transactions raised by inefficient competitors, jealous rivals, or self-styled populists who object to excessive “bigness.”  This would strike at the heart of our competitive process, which presumes that private parties will be allowed to fulfill their own goals, free from government micromanagement, absent indications of a clear and well-defined violation of law.  In sum, the “competition advocate” is better viewed as a “special interest” advocate empowered to ignore normal legal constraints and unjustifiably interfere in business transactions.  If empowered to operate freely, such an advocate (better viewed as an albatross) would undoubtedly chill a wide variety of business arrangements, to the detriment of consumers and economic innovation.

Finally, the BDAP refers to a variety of ills that are said to affect specific named industries, in particular airlines, cable/telecom, beer, food prices, and eyeglasses.  Airlines are subject to a variety of capacity limitations (limitations on landing slots and the size/number of airports) and regulatory constraints (prohibitions on foreign entry or investment) that may affect competitive conditions, but airlines mergers are closely reviewed by the Justice Department.  Cable and telecom companies face a variety of federal, state, and local regulations, and their mergers also are closely scrutinized.  The BDAP’s reference to the proposed AT&T/Time Warner merger ignores the potential efficiencies of this “vertical” arrangement involving complementary assets (see my coauthored commentary here), and resorts to unsupported claims about wrongful “discrimination” by “behemoths” – issues that in any event are examined in antitrust merger reviews.  Unsupported references to harm to competition and consumer choice are thrown out in the references to beer and agrochemical mergers, which also receive close economically-focused merger scrutiny under existing law.  Concerns raised about the price of eyeglasses ignore the role of potentially anticompetitive regulation – that is, bad government – in harming consumer welfare in this sector.  In short, the alleged competitive “problems” the BDAP raises with respect to particular industries are no more compelling than the rest of its analysis.  The Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission are hard at work applying sound economics to these sectors.  They should be left to do their jobs, and the BDAP’s industry-specific commentary (sadly, like the rest of its commentary) should be accorded no weight.

Conclusion

Congressional Democrats would be well-advised to ditch their efforts to resurrect the counterproductive antitrust policy from days of yore, and instead focus on real economic problems, such as excessive and inappropriate government regulation, as well as weak protection for U.S. intellectual property rights, here and abroad (see here, for example).  Such a change in emphasis would redound to the benefit of American consumers and producers.

 

 

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.

Over the weekend, Senator Al Franken and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn issued an impassioned statement calling for the FCC to thwart the use of mandatory arbitration clauses in ISPs’ consumer service agreements — starting with a ban on mandatory arbitration of privacy claims in the Chairman’s proposed privacy rules. Unfortunately, their call to arms rests upon a number of inaccurate or weak claims. Before the Commissioners vote on the proposed privacy rules later this week, they should carefully consider whether consumers would actually be served by such a ban.

FCC regulations can’t override congressional policy favoring arbitration

To begin with, it is firmly cemented in Supreme Court precedent that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) “establishes ‘a liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements.’” As the Court recently held:

[The FAA] reflects the overarching principle that arbitration is a matter of contract…. [C]ourts must “rigorously enforce” arbitration agreements according to their terms…. That holds true for claims that allege a violation of a federal statute, unless the FAA’s mandate has been “overridden by a contrary congressional command.”

For better or for worse, that’s where the law stands, and it is the exclusive province of Congress — not the FCC — to change it. Yet nothing in the Communications Act (to say nothing of the privacy provisions in Section 222 of the Act) constitutes a “contrary congressional command.”

And perhaps that’s for good reason. In enacting the statute, Congress didn’t demonstrate the same pervasive hostility toward companies and their relationships with consumers that has characterized the way this FCC has chosen to enforce the Act. As Commissioner O’Rielly noted in dissenting from the privacy NPRM:

I was also alarmed to see the Commission acting on issues that should be completely outside the scope of this proceeding and its jurisdiction. For example, the Commission seeks comment on prohibiting carriers from including mandatory arbitration clauses in contracts with their customers. Here again, the Commission assumes that consumers don’t understand the choices they are making and is willing to impose needless costs on companies by mandating how they do business.

If the FCC were to adopt a provision prohibiting arbitration clauses in its privacy rules, it would conflict with the FAA — and the FAA would win. Along the way, however, it would create a thorny uncertainty for both companies and consumers seeking to enforce their contracts.  

The evidence suggests that arbitration is pro-consumer

But the lack of legal authority isn’t the only problem with the effort to shoehorn an anti-arbitration bias into the Commission’s privacy rules: It’s also bad policy.

In its initial broadband privacy NPRM, the Commission said this about mandatory arbitration:

In the 2015 Open Internet Order, we agreed with the observation that “mandatory arbitration, in particular, may more frequently benefit the party with more resources and more understanding of the dispute procedure, and therefore should not be adopted.” We further discussed how arbitration can create an asymmetrical relationship between large corporations that are repeat players in the arbitration system and individual customers who have fewer resources and less experience. Just as customers should not be forced to agree to binding arbitration and surrender their right to their day in court in order to obtain broadband Internet access service, they should not have to do so in order to protect their private information conveyed through that service.

The Commission may have “agreed with the cited observations about arbitration, but that doesn’t make those views accurate. As one legal scholar has noted, summarizing the empirical data on the effects of arbitration:

[M]ost of the methodologically sound empirical research does not validate the criticisms of arbitration. To give just one example, [employment] arbitration generally produces higher win rates and higher awards for employees than litigation.

* * *

In sum, by most measures — raw win rates, comparative win rates, some comparative recoveries and some comparative recoveries relative to amounts claimed — arbitration generally produces better results for claimants [than does litigation].

A comprehensive, empirical study by Northwestern Law’s Searle Center on AAA (American Arbitration Association) cases found much the same thing, noting in particular that

  • Consumer claimants in arbitration incur average arbitration fees of only about $100 to arbitrate small (under $10,000) claims, and $200 for larger claims (up to $75,000).
  • Consumer claimants also win attorneys’ fees in over 60% of the cases in which they seek them.
  • On average, consumer arbitrations are resolved in under 7 months.
  • Consumers win some relief in more than 50% of cases they arbitrate…
  • And they do almost exactly as well in cases brought against “repeat-player” business.

In short, it’s extremely difficult to sustain arguments suggesting that arbitration is tilted against consumers relative to litigation.

(Upper) class actions: Benefitting attorneys — and very few others

But it isn’t just any litigation that Clyburn and Franken seek to preserve; rather, they are focused on class actions:

If you believe that you’ve been wronged, you could take your service provider to court. But you’d have to find a lawyer willing to take on a multi-national telecom provider over a few hundred bucks. And even if you won the case, you’d likely pay more in legal fees than you’d recover in the verdict.

The only feasible way for you as a customer to hold that corporation accountable would be to band together with other customers who had been similarly wronged, building a case substantial enough to be worth the cost—and to dissuade that big corporation from continuing to rip its customers off.

While — of course — litigation plays an important role in redressing consumer wrongs, class actions frequently don’t confer upon class members anything close to the imagined benefits that plaintiffs’ lawyers and their congressional enablers claim. According to a 2013 report on recent class actions by the law firm, Mayer Brown LLP, for example:

  • “In [the] entire data set, not one of the class actions ended in a final judgment on the merits for the plaintiffs. And none of the class actions went to trial, either before a judge or a jury.” (Emphasis in original).
  • “The vast majority of cases produced no benefits to most members of the putative class.”
  • “For those cases that do settle, there is often little or no benefit for class members. What is more, few class members ever even see those paltry benefits — particularly in consumer class actions.”
  • “The bottom line: The hard evidence shows that class actions do not provide class members with anything close to the benefits claimed by their proponents, although they can (and do) enrich attorneys.”

Similarly, a CFPB study of consumer finance arbitration and litigation between 2008 and 2012 seems to indicate that the class action settlements and judgments it studied resulted in anemic relief to class members, at best. The CFPB tries to disguise the results with large, aggregated and heavily caveated numbers (never once actually indicating what the average payouts per person were) that seem impressive. But in the only hard numbers it provides (concerning four classes that ended up settling in 2013), promised relief amounted to under $23 each (comprising both cash and in-kind payment) if every class member claimed against the award. Back-of-the-envelope calculations based on the rest of the data in the report suggest that result was typical.

Furthermore, the average time to settlement of the cases the CFPB looked at was almost 2 years. And somewhere between 24% and 37% involved a non-class settlement — meaning class members received absolutely nothing at all because the named plaintiff personally took a settlement.

By contrast, according to the Searle Center study, the average award in the consumer-initiated arbitrations it studied (admittedly, involving cases with a broader range of claims) was almost $20,000, and the average time to resolution was less than 7 months.

To be sure, class action litigation has been an important part of our system of justice. But, as Arthur Miller — a legal pioneer who helped author the rules that make class actions viable — himself acknowledged, they are hardly a panacea:

I believe that in the 50 years we have had this rule, that there are certain class actions that never should have been brought, admitted; that we have burdened our judiciary, yes. But we’ve had a lot of good stuff done. We really have.

The good that has been done, according to Professor Miller, relates in large part to the civil rights violations of the 50’s and 60’s, which the class action rules were designed to mitigate:

Dozens and dozens and dozens of communities were desegregated because of the class action. You even see desegregation decisions in my old town of Boston where they desegregated the school system. That was because of a class action.

It’s hard to see how Franken and Clyburn’s concern for redress of “a mysterious 99-cent fee… appearing on your broadband bill” really comes anywhere close to the civil rights violations that spawned the class action rules. Particularly given the increasingly pervasive role of the FCC, FTC, and other consumer protection agencies in addressing and deterring consumer harms (to say nothing of arbitration itself), it is manifestly unclear why costly, protracted litigation that infrequently benefits anyone other than trial attorneys should be deemed so essential.

“Empowering the 21st century [trial attorney]”

Nevertheless, Commissioner Clyburn and Senator Franken echo the privacy NPRM’s faulty concerns about arbitration clauses that restrict consumers’ ability to litigate in court:

If you’re prohibited from using our legal system to get justice when you’re wronged, what’s to protect you from being wronged in the first place?

Well, what do they think the FCC is — chopped liver?

Hardly. In fact, it’s a little surprising to see Commissioner Clyburn (who sits on a Commission that proudly proclaims that “[p]rotecting consumers is part of [its] DNA”) and Senator Franken (among Congress’ most vocal proponents of the FCC’s claimed consumer protection mission) asserting that the only protection for consumers from ISPs’ supposed depredations is the cumbersome litigation process.

In fact, of course, the FCC has claimed for itself the mantle of consumer protector, aimed at “Empowering the 21st Century Consumer.” But nowhere does the agency identify “promoting and preserving the rights of consumers to litigate” among its tools of consumer empowerment (nor should it). There is more than a bit of irony in a federal regulator — a commissioner of an agency charged with making sure, among other things, that corporations comply with the law — claiming that, without class actions, consumers are powerless in the face of bad corporate conduct.

Moreover, even if it were true (it’s not) that arbitration clauses tend to restrict redress of consumer complaints, effective consumer protection would still not necessarily be furthered by banning such clauses in the Commission’s new privacy rules.

The FCC’s contemplated privacy regulations are poised to introduce a wholly new and untested regulatory regime with (at best) uncertain consequences for consumers. Given the risk of consumer harm resulting from the imposition of this new regime, as well as the corollary risk of its excessive enforcement by complainants seeking to test or push the boundaries of new rules, an agency truly concerned with consumer protection would tread carefully. Perhaps, if the rules were enacted without an arbitration ban, it would turn out that companies would mandate arbitration (though this result is by no means certain, of course). And perhaps arbitration and agency enforcement alone would turn out to be insufficient to effectively enforce the rules. But given the very real costs to consumers of excessive, frivolous or potentially abusive litigation, cabining the litigation risk somewhat — even if at first it meant the regime were tilted slightly too much against enforcement — would be the sensible, cautious and pro-consumer place to start.

____

Whether rooted in a desire to “protect” consumers or not, the FCC’s adoption of a rule prohibiting mandatory arbitration clauses to address privacy complaints in ISP consumer service agreements would impermissibly contravene the FAA. As the Court has made clear, such a provision would “‘stand[] as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress’ embodied in the Federal Arbitration Act.” And not only would such a rule tend to clog the courts in contravention of the FAA’s objectives, it would do so without apparent benefit to consumers. Even if such a rule wouldn’t effectively be invalidated by the FAA, the Commission should firmly reject it anyway: A rule that operates primarily to enrich class action attorneys at the expense of their clients has no place in an agency charged with protecting the public interest.

Next week the FCC is slated to vote on the second iteration of Chairman Wheeler’s proposed broadband privacy rules. Of course, as has become all too common, none of us outside the Commission has actually seen the proposal. But earlier this month Chairman Wheeler released a Fact Sheet that suggests some of the ways it would update the rules he initially proposed.

According to the Fact Sheet, the new proposed rules are

designed to evolve with changing technologies and encourage innovation, and are in harmony with other key privacy frameworks and principles — including those outlined by the Federal Trade Commission and the Administration’s Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

Unfortunately, the Chairman’s proposal appears to fall short of the mark on both counts.

As I discuss in detail in a letter filed with the Commission yesterday, despite the Chairman’s rhetoric, the rules described in the Fact Sheet fail to align with the FTC’s approach to privacy regulation embodied in its 2012 Privacy Report in at least two key ways:

  • First, the Fact Sheet significantly expands the scope of information that would be considered “sensitive” beyond that contemplated by the FTC. That, in turn, would impose onerous and unnecessary consumer consent obligations on commonplace uses of data, undermining consumer welfare, depriving consumers of information and access to new products and services, and restricting competition.
  • Second, unlike the FTC’s framework, the proposal described by the Fact Sheet ignores the crucial role of “context” in determining the appropriate level of consumer choice before affected companies may use consumer data. Instead, the Fact Sheet takes a rigid, acontextual approach that would stifle innovation and harm consumers.

The Chairman’s proposal moves far beyond the FTC’s definition of “sensitive” information requiring “opt-in” consent

The FTC’s privacy guidance is, in its design at least, appropriately flexible, aimed at balancing the immense benefits of information flows with sensible consumer protections. Thus it eschews an “inflexible list of specific practices” that would automatically trigger onerous consent obligations and “risk[] undermining companies’ incentives to innovate and develop new products and services….”

Under the FTC’s regime, depending on the context in which it is used (on which see the next section, below), the sensitivity of data delineates the difference between data uses that require “express affirmative” (opt-in) consent and those that do not (requiring only “other protections” short of opt-in consent — e.g., opt-out).

Because the distinction is so important — because opt-in consent is much more likely to staunch data flows — the FTC endeavors to provide guidance as to what data should be considered sensitive, and to cabin the scope of activities requiring opt-in consent. Thus, the FTC explains that “information about children, financial and health information, Social Security numbers, and precise geolocation data [should be treated as] sensitive.” But beyond those instances, the FTC doesn’t consider any other type of data as inherently sensitive.

By contrast, and without explanation, Chairman Wheeler’s Fact Sheet significantly expands what constitutes “sensitive” information requiring “opt-in” consent by adding “web browsing history,” “app usage history,” and “the content of communications” to the list of categories of data deemed sensitive in all cases.

By treating some of the most common and important categories of data as always “sensitive,” and by making the sensitivity of data the sole determinant for opt-in consent, the Chairman’s proposal would make it almost impossible for ISPs to make routine (to say nothing of innovative), appropriate, and productive uses of data comparable to those undertaken by virtually every major Internet company.  This goes well beyond anything contemplated by the FTC — with no evidence of any corresponding benefit to consumers and with obvious harm to competition, innovation, and the overall economy online.

And because the Chairman’s proposal would impose these inappropriate and costly restrictions only on ISPs, it would create a barrier to competition by ISPs in other platform markets, without offering a defensible consumer protection rationale to justify either the disparate treatment or the restriction on competition.

As Fred Cate and Michael Staten have explained,

“Opt-in” offers no greater privacy protection than allowing consumers to “opt-out”…, yet it imposes significantly higher costs on consumers, businesses, and the economy.

Not surprisingly, these costs fall disproportionately on the relatively poor and the less technology-literate. In the former case, opt-in requirements may deter companies from offering services at all, even to people who would make a very different trade-off between privacy and monetary price. In the latter case, because an initial decision to opt-in must be taken in relative ignorance, users without much experience to guide their decisions will face effectively higher decision-making costs than more knowledgeable users.

The Chairman’s proposal ignores the central role of context in the FTC’s privacy framework

In part for these reasons, central to the FTC’s more flexible framework is the establishment of a sort of “safe harbor” for data uses where the benefits clearly exceed the costs and consumer consent may be inferred:

Companies do not need to provide choice before collecting and using consumer data for practices that are consistent with the context of the transaction or the company’s relationship with the consumer….

Thus for many straightforward uses of data, the “context of the transaction,” not the asserted “sensitivity” of the underlying data, is the threshold question in evaluating the need for consumer choice in the FTC’s framework.

Chairman Wheeler’s Fact Sheet, by contrast, ignores this central role of context in its analysis. Instead, it focuses solely on data sensitivity, claiming that doing so is “in line with customer expectations.”

But this is inconsistent with the FTC’s approach.

In fact, the FTC’s framework explicitly rejects a pure “consumer expectations” standard:

Rather than relying solely upon the inherently subjective test of consumer expectations, the… standard focuses on more objective factors related to the consumer’s relationship with a business.

And while everyone agrees that sensitivity is a key part of pegging privacy regulation to actual consumer and corporate relationships, the FTC also recognizes that the importance of the sensitivity of the underlying data varies with the context in which it is used. Or, in the words of the White House’s 2012 Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World Report (introducing its Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights), “[c]ontext should shape the balance and relative emphasis of particular principles” guiding the regulation of privacy.

By contrast, Chairman Wheeler’s “sensitivity-determines-consumer-expectations” framing is a transparent attempt to claim fealty to the FTC’s (and the Administration’s) privacy standards while actually implementing a privacy regime that is flatly inconsistent with them.

The FTC’s approach isn’t perfect, but that’s no excuse to double down on its failings

The FTC’s privacy guidance, and even more so its privacy enforcement practices under Section 5, are far from perfect. The FTC should be commended for its acknowledgement that consumers’ privacy preferences and companies’ uses of data will change over time, and that there are trade-offs inherent in imposing any constraints on the flow of information. But even the FTC fails to actually assess the magnitude of the costs and benefits of, and the deep complexities involved in, the trade-off, and puts an unjustified thumb on the scale in favor of limiting data use.  

But that’s no excuse for Chairman Wheeler to ignore what the FTC gets right, and to double down on its failings. Based on the Fact Sheet (and the initial NPRM), it’s a virtual certainty that the Chairman’s proposal doesn’t heed the FTC’s refreshing call for humility and flexibility regarding the application of privacy rules to ISPs (and other Internet platforms):

These are complex and rapidly evolving areas, and more work should be done to learn about the practices of all large platform providers, their technical capabilities with respect to consumer data, and their current and expected uses of such data.

The rhetoric of the Chairman’s Fact Sheet is correct: the FCC should in fact conform its approach to privacy to the framework established by the FTC. Unfortunately, the reality of the Fact Sheet simply doesn’t comport with its rhetoric.

As the FCC’s vote on the Chairman’s proposal rapidly nears, and in light of its significant defects, we can only hope that the rest of the Commission refrains from reflexively adopting the proposed regime, and works to ensure that these problematic deviations from the FTC’s framework are addressed before moving forward.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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