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

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

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

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

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

Plus ça change…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From ignoring copyright to obliterating copyright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.