Archives For common carrier

Section 5(a)(2) of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act authorizes the FTC to “prevent persons, partnerships, or corporations, except . . . common carriers subject to the Acts to regulate commerce . . . from using unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.”  On August 29, in FTC v. AT&T, the Ninth Circuit issued a decision that exempts non-common carrier data services from U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) jurisdiction, merely because they are offered by a company that has common carrier status.  This case involved an FTC allegation that AT&T had “throttled” data (slowed down Internet service) for “unlimited mobile data” customers without adequate consent or disclosures, in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act.  The FTC had claimed that although AT&T mobile wireless voice services were a common carrier service, the company’s mobile wireless data services were not, and, thus, were subject to FTC oversight.  Reversing a federal district court’s refusal to grant AT&T’s motion to dismiss, the Ninth Circuit concluded that “when Congress used the term ‘common carrier’ in the FTC Act, [there is no indication] it could only have meant ‘common carrier to the extent engaged in common carrier activity.’”  The Ninth Circuit therefore determined that “a literal reading of the words Congress selected simply does comport with [the FTC’s] activity-based approach.”  The FTC’s pending case against AT&T in the Northern District of California (which is within the Ninth Circuit) regarding alleged unfair and deceptive advertising of satellite services by AT&T subsidiary DIRECTTV (see here) could be affected by this decision.

The Ninth Circuit’s AT&T holding threatens to further extend the FCC’s jurisdictional reach at the expense of the FTC.  It comes on the heels of the divided D.C. Circuit’s benighted and ill-reasoned decision (see here) upholding the FCC’s “Open Internet Order,” including its decision to reclassify Internet broadband service as a common carrier service.  That decision subjects broadband service to heavy-handed and costly FCC “consumer protection” regulation, including in the area of privacy.  The FCC’s overly intrusive approach stands in marked contrast to the economic efficiency considerations (albeit not always perfectly applied) that underlie FTC consumer protection mode of analysis.  As I explained in a May 2015 Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum,  the FTC’s highly structured, analytic, fact-based methodology, combined with its vast experience in privacy and data security investigations, make it a far better candidate than the FCC to address competition and consumer protection problems in the area of broadband.

I argued in this space in March 2016 that, should the D.C. Circuit uphold the FCC’s Open Internet Order, Congress should carefully consider whether to strip the FCC of regulatory authority in this area (including, of course, privacy practices) and reassign it to the FTC.  The D.C. Circuit’s decision upholding that Order, combined with the Ninth Circuit’s latest ruling, makes the case for potential action by the next Congress even more urgent.

While it is at it, the next Congress should also weigh whether to repeal the FTC’s common carrier exemption, as well as all special exemptions for specified categories of institutions, such as banks, savings and loans, and federal credit unions (see here).  In so doing, Congress might also do away with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an unaccountable bureaucracy whose consumer protection regulatory responsibilities should cease (see my February 2016 Heritage Legal Memorandum here).

Finally, as Heritage Foundation scholars have urged, Congress should look into enacting additional regulatory reform legislation, such as requiring congressional approval of new major regulations issued by agencies (including financial services regulators) and subjecting “independent” agencies (including the FCC) to executive branch regulatory review.

That’s enough for now.  Stay tuned.

In recent years much ink has been spilled on the problem of online privacy breaches, involving the unauthorized use of personal information transmitted over the Internet.  Internet privacy concerns are warranted.  According to a 2016 National Telecommunications and Information Administration survey of Internet-using households, 19 percent of such households (representing nearly 19 million households) reported that they had been affected by an online security breach, identity theft, or similar malicious activity during the 12 months prior to the July 2015 survey.  Security breaches appear to be more common among the most intensive Internet-using households – 31 percent of those using at least five different types of online devices suffered such breaches.  Security breach statistics, of course, do not directly measure the consumer welfare losses attributable to the unauthorized use of personal data that consumers supply to Internet service providers and to the websites which they visit.

What is the correct overall approach government should take in dealing with Internet privacy problems?  In addressing this question, it is important to focus substantial attention on the effects of online privacy regulation on economic welfare.  In particular, policies should aim at addressing Internet privacy problems in a manner that does not unduly harm the private sector or deny opportunities to consumers who are not being harmed.  The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the federal government’s primary consumer protection agency, has been the principal federal regulator of online privacy practices.  Very recently, however, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has asserted the authority to regulate the privacy practices of broadband Internet service providers, and is proposing an extremely burdensome approach to such regulation that would, if implemented, have harmful economic consequences.

In March 2016, FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen succinctly summarized the FTC’s general approach to online privacy-related enforcement under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which proscribes unfair or deceptive acts or practices:

[U]nfairness establishes a baseline prohibition on practices that the overwhelming majority of consumers would never knowingly approve. Above that baseline, consumers remain free to find providers that match their preferences, and our deception authority governs those arrangements. . . .  The FTC’s case-by-case enforcement of our unfairness authority shapes our baseline privacy practices.  Like the common law, this incremental approach has proven both relatively predictable and adaptable as new technologies and business models emerge.

In November 2015, Professor (and former FTC Commissioner) Joshua Wright argued the FTC’s approach is insufficiently attuned to economic analysis, in particular, the “tradeoffs between the value to consumers and society of the free flow and exchange of data and the creation of new products and services on the one hand, against the value lost by consumers from any associated reduction in privacy.”  Nevertheless, on balance, FTC enforcement in this area generally is restrained and somewhat attentive to cost-benefit considerations.  (This undoubtedly reflects the fact (see my Heritage Legal Memorandum, here) that the statutory definition of “unfairness” in Section 5(n) of the FTC Act embodies cost-benefit analysis, and that the FTC’s Policy Statement on Deception requires detriment to consumers acting reasonably in the circumstances.)  In other words, federal enforcement policy with respect to online privacy, although it could be improved, is in generally good shape.

Or it was in good shape.  Unfortunately, on April 1, 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to inject itself into “privacy space” by issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking entitled “Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services.”  This “Privacy NPRM” sets forth detailed rules that, if adopted, would impose onerous privacy obligations on “Broadband Internet Access Service” (BIAS) Providers, the firms that provide the cables, wires, and telecommunications equipment through which Internet traffic flows – primarily cable (Comcast, for example) and telephone (Verizon, for example) companies.   The Privacy NPRM reclassifies BIAS provision as a “common carrier” service, thereby totally precluding the FTC from regulating BIAS Providers’ privacy practices (since the FTC is barred by law from regulating common carriers, under 15 U.S. Code § 45(a)(2)).  Put simply, the NPRM required BIAS Providers “to obtain express consent in advance of practically every use of a customer[s] data”, without regard to the effects of such a requirement on economic welfare.  All other purveyors of Internet services, however – in particular, the large numbers of “edge providers” that generate Internet content and services (Google, Amazon, and Facebook, for example) – are exempt from the new FCC regulatory requirements.  In short, the Privacy NPRM establishes a two-tier privacy regulatory system, with BIAS Providers subject to tight FCC privacy rules, while all other Internet service firms are subject to more nuanced, case-by-case, effects-based evaluation of their privacy practices by the FTC.  This disparate regulatory approach is peculiar (if not wholly illogical), since edge providers in general have greater access than BIAS Providers to consumers’ non-public information, and thus may appear to pose a greater threat to consumers’ interest in privacy.

The FCC’s proposal to regulate BIAS Providers’ privacy practices represents bad law and horrible economic policy.  First, it undermines the rule of law by extending the FCC’s authority beyond its congressional mandate.  It does this by basing its regulation of a huge universe of information exchanges on Section 222 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a narrow provision aimed at a very limited type of customer-related data obtained in connection with old-style voice telephony transmissions.  This is egregious regulatory overreach.  Second, if implemented, it will harm consumers, producers, and the overall economic by imposing a set of sweeping opt-in consent requirements on BIAS Providers, without regard to private sector burdens or actual consumer welfare (see here); by reducing BIAS Provider revenues and thereby dampening investment that is vital to the continued growth of and innovation in Internet-related industries (see here); by reducing the ability of BIAS Providers to provide welfare-enhancing competitive pressure on providers on Internet edge providers (see here); and by raising consumer prices for Internet services and deny discount programs desired by consumers (see here).

What’s worse, the FCC’s proposed involvement in online privacy oversight comes at a time of increased Internet privacy regulation by foreign countries, much of it highly intrusive and lacking in economic sophistication.  A particularly noteworthy effort to clarify cross-national legal standards is the Privacy Shield, a 2016 United States – European Union agreement that establishes regulatory online privacy protection norms, backed by FTC enforcement, that U.S. companies transmitting data into Europe may choose to accept on a voluntary basis.  (If they do not accede to the Shield, they may be subject to uncertain and heavy-handed European sanctions.)  The Privacy NPRM, if implemented, will create an additional concern for BIAS Providers, since they will have to evaluate the implications of new FCC regulation (rather than simply rely on FTC oversight) in deciding whether to opt in to the Shield’s standards and obligations.

In sum, the FCC’s Privacy NPRM would, if implemented, harm consumers and producers, slow innovation, and offend the rule of law.  This prompts four recommendations.

  • The FCC should withdraw the NPRM and leave it to the FTC to oversee all online privacy practices, under its Section 5 unfairness and deception authority. The adoption of the Privacy Shield, which designates the FTC as the responsible American privacy oversight agency, further strengthens the case against FCC regulation in this area. 
  • In overseeing online privacy practices, the FTC should employ a very light touch that stresses economic analysis and cost-benefit considerations. Moreover, it should avoid requiring that rigid privacy policy conditions be kept in place for long periods of time through consent decree conditions, in order to allow changing market conditions to shape and improve business privacy policies. 
  • Moreover, the FTC should borrow a page from former FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright by implementing an “economic approach” to privacy. Under such an approach:  

o             FTC economists would help make the Commission a privacy “thought leader” by developing a rigorous academic research agenda on the economics of privacy, featuring the economic evaluation of industry sectors and practices; 

o             the FTC would bear the burden of proof of showing that violations of a company’s privacy policy are material to consumer decision-making;

o             FTC economists would report independently to the FTC about proposed privacy-related enforcement initiatives; and

o             the FTC would publish the views of its Bureau of Economics in all privacy-related consent decrees that are placed on the public record.   

  • The FTC should encourage the European Commission and other foreign regulators to take into account the economics of privacy in developing their privacy regulatory policies. In so doing, it should emphasize that innovation is harmed, the beneficial development of the Internet is slowed, and consumer welfare and rights are undermined through highly prescriptive regulation in this area (well-intentioned though it may be).  Relatedly, the FTC and other U.S. Government negotiators should argue against adoption of a “one-size-fits-all” global privacy regulation framework.   Such a global framework could harmfully freeze into place over-regulatory policies and preclude beneficial experimentation in alternative forms of “lighter-touch” regulation and enforcement. 

While no panacea, these recommendations would help deter (or, at least, constrain) the economically harmful government micromanagement of businesses’ privacy practices, in the United States and abroad.

Earlier this month, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler released a “fact sheet” describing his proposal to have the FCC regulate the privacy policies of broadband Internet service providers (ISPs).  Chairman Wheeler’s detailed proposal will be embodied in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that the FCC may take up as early as March 31.  The FCC instead should shelve this problematic initiative and leave broadband privacy regulation (to the extent it is warranted) to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

In a March 23 speech before the Free State Foundation, FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen ably summarized the negative economic implications of the NPRM, contrasting the FCC’s proposal with the FTC’s approach to privacy-related enforcement (citations omitted):

The FCC’s proposal differs significantly from the choice architecture the FTC has established under its deception authority.  Our [FTC] deception authority enforces the promises companies make to consumers.  But companies are not required under our deception authority to make such privacy promises.  This is as it should be.  As I’ve already described, unfairness authority sets a baseline by prohibiting practices the vast majority of consumers would not embrace. Mandating practices above this baseline reduces consumer welfare because it denies some consumers options that best match their preferences.  Consumer demand and competitive forces spur companies to make privacy promises.  In fact, nearly all legitimate companies currently make detailed promises about their privacy practices.  This demonstrates a market demand for, and supply of, transparency about company uses of data.  Indeed, recent research . . . shows that broadband ISPs in particular already make strong privacy promises to consumers.

In contrast to the choice framework of the FTC, the FCC’s proposal, according to the recent [Wheeler] fact sheet, seeks to mandate that broadband ISPs adopt a specific opt in / opt-out regime.  The fact sheet repeatedly insists that this is about consumer choice. But, in fact, opt in mandates unavoidably reduce consumer choice. First, one subtle way in which a privacy baseline might be set too high is if the default opt in condition does not match the average consumer preference.  If the FCC mandates opt in for a specific data collection, but a majority of consumers already prefer to share that information, the mandate unnecessarily raises costs to companies and consumers.  Second, opt in mandates prevent unanticipated beneficial uses of data.  An effective and transparent opt-in regime requires that companies know at the time of collection how they will use the collected information. Yet data, including non-sensitive data, often yields significantconsumer benefits from uses that could not be known at the time of collection.  Ignoring this, the fact sheet proposes to ban all but a very few uses unless consumers opt in.  This proposed opt in regime would prohibit unforeseeable future uses of collected data, regardless of what consumers would prefer.  This approach is stricter and more limiting than the requirements that other internet companies face. Now, I agree such mandates may be appropriate for certain types of sensitive data such as credit card numbers or SSNs, but they likely will reduce consumer options if applied to non-sensitive data.

If the FCC wished to be consistent with the FTC’s approach of using prohibitions only for widely held consumer preferences, it would take a different approach and simply require opt in for specific, sensitive uses. . . . 

[Furthermore,] [h]ere, the FCC proposes, for the first time ever, to apply a statute created for telephone lines to broadband ISPs. That raises some significant statutory authority issues that the FCC may ultimately need to look to Congress to clarify. . . .

[In addition,] the current FCC proposal appears to reflect the preferences of privacy lobbyists who are frustrated with the lax privacy preferences of average American consumers.  Furthermore, the proposal doesn’t appear to have the support of the minority FCC Commissioners or Congress. 

[Also,] the FCC proposal applies to just one segment of the internet ecosystem broadband ISPs, even though there is good evidence that ISPs are not uniquely privy to your data. . . .

[In conclusion,] [a]t its core, protecting consumer privacy ought to be about effectuating consumers’ preferences.  If privacy rules impose the preferences of the few on the many, consumers will not be better off.  Therefore, prescriptive baseline privacy mandates like the FCC’s proposal should be reserved for practices that consumers overwhelmingly disfavor.  Otherwise, consumers should remain free to exercise their privacy preferences in the marketplace, and companies should be held to the promises they make.  This approach, which is a time-tested, emergent result of the FTC’s case-by-case application of its statutory authority, offers a good template for the FCC.

Commissioner Ohlhausen’s presentation comports with my May 2015 Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum, which explained that the FTC’s highly structured, analytic, fact-based approach, combined with its vast experience in privacy and data security investigations, make it a far better candidate than the FCC to address competition and consumer protection problems in the area of broadband.

Regrettably, there is little reason to believe that the FCC, acting on its own, will heed Commissioner Ohlhausen’s call to focus on consumer preferences in evaluating broadband ISP privacy practices.  What’s worse, the FTC’s ability to act at all in this area is in doubt.  The FCC’s current regulation requiring broadband ISP “net neutrality,” and its proposed regulation of ISP privacy practices, are premised on the dubious reclassification of broadband as a “common carrier” service – and the FTC has no authority over common carriers.  If the D.C. Circuit fails to overturn the FCC’s broadband rule, Congress should carefully consider whether to strip the FCC of regulatory authority in this area (including, of course, privacy practices) and reassign it to the FTC.

Much ink will be spilled at this site lauding Commissioner Joshua (Josh) Wright’s many contributions to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and justly so. I will focus narrowly on Josh Wright as a law and economics “provocateur,” who used his writings and speeches to “stir the pot” and subject the FTC’s actions to a law and economics spotlight. In particular, Josh highlighted the importance of decision theory, which teaches that bureaucratic agencies (such as the FTC) are inherently subject to error and high administrative costs, and should adopt procedures and rules of decision accordingly. Thus, to maximize welfare, an agency should adopt “optimal” rules, directed at minimizing the sum of false positives, false negatives, and administrative costs. In that regard, the FTC should pay particular attention to empirical evidence of actual harm, and not bring cases based on mere theoretical models of possible harm – models that are inherently likely to generate substantial false positives (predictions of consumer harm) and thereby run counter to a well-run decision-theoretical regime.

Josh became a Commissioner almost three years ago, so there are many of his writings to comment upon. Nevertheless, he is so prolific that a very good understanding of his law and economics approach may be gleaned merely by a perusal of his 2015 contributions. I will selectively focus upon a few representative examples of wisdom drawn from Josh Wright’s (hereinafter JW) 2015 writings, going in reverse chronological order. (A fuller and more detailed exposition of his approach over the years would warrant a long law review article.)

Earlier this month, in commenting on the importance of granting FTC economists (housed in the FTC’s Bureau of Economics (BE)) a greater public role in the framing of FTC decisions, JW honed in on the misuse of consent decrees to impose constraints on private sector behavior without hard evidence of consumer harm:

One [unfortunate] phenomenon is the so‐called “compromise recommendation,” that is, a BE staff economist might recommend the FTC accept a consent decree rather than litigate or challenge a proposed merger when the underlying economic analysis reveals very little actual economic support for liability. In my experience, it is not uncommon for a BE staff analysis to convincingly demonstrate that competitive harm is possible but unlikely, but for BE staff to recommend against litigation on those grounds, but in favor of a consent order. The problem with this compromise approach is, of course, that a recommendation to enter into a consent order must also require economic evidence sufficient to give the Commission reason to believe that competitive harm is likely. . . . [What, then, is the solution?] Requiring BE to make public its economic rationale for supporting or rejecting a consent decree voted out by the Commission could offer a number of benefits at little cost. First, it offers BE a public avenue to communicate its findings to the public. Second, it reinforces the independent nature of the recommendation that BE offers. Third, it breaks the agency monopoly the FTC lawyers currently enjoy in terms of framing a particular matter to the public. The internal leverage BE gains by the ability to publish such a document may increase conflict between bureaus on the margin in close cases, but it will also provide BE a greater role in the consent process and a mechanism to discipline consents that are not supported by sound economics. I believe this would go a long ways towards minimizing the “compromise” recommendation that is most problematic in matters involving consent decrees.

In various writings, JW has cautioned that the FTC should apply an “evidence-based” approach to adjudication, and not lightly presume that particular conduct is anticompetitive – including in the area of patents. JW’s most recent pronouncement regarding an evidence-based approach is found in his July 2015 statement with fellow Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen filed with the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), recommending that the ITC apply an “evidence-based” approach in deciding (on public interest grounds) whether to exclude imports that infringe “standard essential patents” (SEPs):

There is no empirical evidence to support the theory that patent holdup is a common problem in real world markets. The theory that patent holdup is prevalent predicts that the threat of injunction leads to higher prices, reduced output, and lower rates of innovation. These are all testable implications. Contrary to these predictions, the empirical evidence is not consistent with the theory that patent holdup has resulted in a reduction of competition. . . .  An evidence-based approach to the public interest inquiry, i.e., one that requires proof that holdup actually occurred in a particular case, protects incentives to participate in standard setting by allowing SEP holders to seek and obtain exclusion orders when permitted by the SSO agreement at issue and in the absence of a showing of any improper use. In contrast, any proposal that would require the ITC to presume the existence of holdup and shift the burden of proof to SEP holders to show unwillingness threatens to deter participation in standard setting, particularly if an accused infringer can prove willingness simply by agreeing to be bound by terms determined by neutral adjudication.

In such matters as Cephalon (May 2015) and Cardinal Health (April 2015), JW teamed up with Commissioner Ohlhausen to caution that disgorgement of profits as an FTC remedy in competition cases should not be lightly pursued, and indeed should be subject to a policy statement that limits FTC discretion, in order to reduce costly business uncertainty and enforcement error.

JW also brought to bear decision-theoretic insights on consumer protection matters. For example, in his April 2015 dissent in Nomi Technologies, he castigated the FTC for entering into a consent decree when the evidence of consumer harm was exceedingly weak (suggesting a high probability of a false positive, in decision-theoretic terms):

The Commission’s decision to issue a complaint and accept a consent order for public comment in this matter is problematic for both legal and policy reasons. Section 5(b) of the FTC Act requires us, before issuing any complaint, to establish “reason to believe that [a violation has occurred]” and that an enforcement action would “be to the interest of the public.” While the Act does not set forth a separate standard for accepting a consent decree, I believe that threshold should be at least as high as for bringing the initial complaint. The Commission has not met the relatively low “reason to believe” bar because its complaint does not meet the basic requirements of the Commission’s 1983 Deception Policy Statement. Further, the complaint and proposed settlement risk significant harm to consumers by deterring industry participants from adopting business practices that benefit consumers.

Consistent with public choice insights, JW stated in an April 2015 speech that greater emphasis should be placed on public advocacy efforts aimed at opposing government-imposed restraints of trade, which have a greater potential for harm than purely private restraints. Thus, welfare would be enhanced by a reallocation of agency resources toward greater advocacy and less private enforcement:

[P]ublic restraints are especially pernicious for consumers and an especially worthy target for antitrust agencies. I am quite confident that a significant shift of agency resources away from enforcement efforts aimed at taming private restraints of trade and instead toward fighting public restraints would improve consumer welfare.

In March 2015 congressional testimony, JW explained his opposition to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) net neutrality regulation, honing in on the low likelihood of harm from private conduct (and thus implicitly the high risk of costly error and unwarranted regulatory costs) in this area:

Today I will discuss my belief that the FCC’s newest regulation does not make sense from an economic perspective. By this I mean that the FCC’s decision to regulate broadband providers as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 will make consumers of broadband internet service worse off, rather than better off. Central to my conclusion that the FCC’s attempts to regulate so-called “net neutrality” in the broadband industry will ultimately do more harm than good for consumers is that the FCC and commentators have failed to identify a problem worthy of regulation, much less cumbersome public-utility-style regulation under Title II.

At the same time, JW’s testimony also explained that in the face of hard evidence of actual consumer harm, the FTC could take – and indeed has taken on several instances – case-specific enforcement action.

Also in March 2015, in his dissent in Par Petroleum, JW further developed the theme that the FTC should not enter into a consent decree unless it has hard evidence of competitive harm – a mere theory does not suffice:

Prior to entering into a consent agreement with the merging parties, the Commission must first find reason to believe that a merger likely will substantially lessen competition under Section 7 of the Clayton Act. The fact that the Commission believes the proposed consent order is costless is not relevant to this determination. A plausible theory may be sufficient to establish the mere possibility of competitive harm, but that theory must be supported by record evidence to establish reason to believe its likelihood. Modern economic analysis supplies a variety of tools to assess rigorously the likelihood of competitive harm. These tools are particularly important where, as here, the conduct underlying the theory of harm – that is, vertical integration – is empirically established to be procompetitive more often than not. Here, to the extent those tools were used, they uncovered evidence that, consistent with the record as a whole, is insufficient to support a reason to believe the proposed transaction is likely to harm competition. Thus, I respectfully dissent and believe the Commission should close the investigation and allow the parties to complete the merger without imposing a remedy.

In a February 2015 speech on the need for greater clarity with respect to “unfair methods of competition” under Section 5 of the FTC Act, JW emphasized the problem of uncertainty generated by the FTC’s failure to adequately define unfair methods of competition:

The lack of institutional commitment to a stable definition of what constitutes an “unfair method of competition” leads to two sources of problematic variation in the agency’s interpretation of Section 5. One is that the agency’s interpretation of the statute in different cases need not be consistent even when the individual Commissioners remain constant. Another is that as the members of the Commission change over time, so does the agency’s Section 5 enforcement policy, leading to wide variations in how the Commission prosecutes “unfair methods of competition” over time. In short, the scope of the Commission’s Section 5 authority today is as broad or as narrow as a majority of commissioners believes it is.

Focusing on the empirical record, JW offered a sharp critique of FTC administrative adjudication (and the value of the FTC’s non-adjudicative research function) in another February 2015 speech:

The data show three things with significant implications for those  important questions. The first is that, despite modest but important achievements in administrative adjudication, it can offer in its defense only a mediocre substantive record and a dubious one when it comes to process. The second is that the FTC can and does influence antitrust law and competition policy through its unique research-and-reporting function. The third is, as measured by appeal and reversal rates, generalist courts get a fairly bad wrap relative to the performance of expert agencies like the FTC.

In the same speech, JW endorsed proposed congressional reforms to the FTC’s exercise of jurisdiction over mergers, embodied in the draft “Standard Merger and Acquisition Reviews Through Equal Rules (SMARTER) Act.” Those reforms include harmonizing the FTC and Justice Department’s preliminary injunction standards, and divesting the FTC of its authority to initiate and pursue administrative challenges to unconsummated mergers, thus requiring the agency to challenge those deals in federal court.

Finally, JW dissented from the FTC’s publication of an FTC staff report (based on an FTC workshop) on the “Internet of Things,” in light of the report’s failure to impose a cost-benefit framework on the recommendations it set forth:

[T]he Commission and our staff must actually engage in a rigorous cost-benefit analysis prior to disseminating best practices or legislative recommendations, given the real world consequences for the consumers we are obligated to protect. Acknowledging in passing, as the Workshop Report does, that various courses of actions related to the Internet of Things may well have some potential costs and benefits does not come close to passing muster as cost-benefit analysis. The Workshop Report does not perform any actual analysis whatsoever to ensure that, or even to give a rough sense of the likelihood that the benefits of the staff’s various proposals exceed their attendant costs.  Instead, the Workshop Report merely relies upon its own assertions and various surveys that are not necessarily representative and, in any event, do not shed much light on actual consumer preferences as revealed by conduct in the marketplace. This is simply not good enough; there is too much at stake for consumers as the Digital Revolution begins to transform their homes, vehicles, and other aspects of daily life. Paying lip service to the obvious fact that the various best practices and proposals discussed in the Workshop Report might have both costs and benefits, without in fact performing such an analysis, does nothing to inform the recommendations made in the Workshop Report.

To conclude, FTC Commissioner Josh Wright went beyond merely emphasizing the application of economic theory to individual FTC cases, by explaining the need to focus economic thinking on FTC policy formulation – in other words, viewing FTC administrative processes and decision-making from an economics-based, decision-theoretical perspective, with hard facts (not mere theory) a key consideration. If the FTC is to be true to its goal of advancing consumer welfare, it should fully adopt such a perspective on a going-forward basis. One may only hope that current and future FTC Commissioners will heed this teaching.

The FCC’s proposed “Open Internet Order,” which would impose heavy-handed “common carrier” regulation of Internet service providers (the Order is being appealed in federal court and there are good arguments for striking it down) in order to promote “net neutrality,” is fundamentally misconceived.  If upheld, it will slow innovation, impose substantial costs, and harm consumers (see Heritage Foundation commentaries on FCC Internet regulation here, here, here, and here).  What’s more, it is not needed to protect consumers and competition from potential future abuse by Internet firms.  As I explain in a Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum published yesterday, should the Open Internet Order be struck down, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has ample authority under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act) to challenge any harmful conduct by entities involved in Internet broadband services markets when such conduct undermines competition or harms consumers.

Section 5 of the FTC Act authorizes the FTC to prevent persons, partnerships, or corporations from engaging in “unfair methods of competition” or “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” in or affecting commerce.  This gives it ample authority to challenge Internet abuses raising antitrust (unfair methods) and consumer protection (unfair acts or practices) issues.

On the antitrust side, in evaluating individual business restraints under a “rule of reason,” the FTC relies on objective fact-specific analyses of the actual economic and consumer protection implications of a particular restraint.  Thus, FTC evaluations of broadband industry restrictions are likely to be more objective and predictable than highly subjective “public interest” assessments by the FCC, leading to reduced error and lower planning costs for purveyors of broadband and related services.  Appropriate antitrust evaluation should accord broad leeway to most broadband contracts.  As FTC Commissioner Josh Wright put it in testifying before Congress, “fundamental observation and market experience [demonstrate] that the business practices at the heart of the net neutrality debate are generally procompetitive.”  This suggests application of a rule of reason that will fully weigh efficiencies but not shy away from challenging broadband-related contractual arrangements that undermine the competitive process.

On the consumer protection side, the FTC can attack statements made by businesses that mislead and thereby impose harm on consumers (including business purchasers) who are acting reasonably.  It can also challenge practices that, though not literally false or deceptive, impose substantial harm on consumers (including business purchasers) that they cannot reasonably avoid, assuming the harm is greater than any countervailing benefits.  These are carefully designed and cabined sources of authority that require the FTC to determine the presence of actual consumer harm before acting.  Application of the FTC’s unfairness and deception powers therefore lacks the uncertainty associated with the FCC’s uncabined and vague “public interest” standard of evaluation.  As in the case of antitrust, the existence of greater clarity and a well-defined analytic methodology suggests that reliance on FTC rather than FCC enforcement in this area is preferable from a policy standpoint.

Finally, arguments for relying on FTC Internet policing are based on experience as well – the FTC is no Internet policy novice.  It closely monitors Internet activity and, over the years, it has developed substantial expertise in Internet topics through research, hearings, and enforcement actions.

Most recently, for example, the FTC sued AT&T in federal court for allegedly slowing wireless customers’ Internet speeds, although the customers had subscribed to “unlimited” data usage plans.  The FTC asserted that in offering renewals to unlimited-plan customers, AT&T did not adequately inform them of a new policy to “throttle” (drastically reduce the speed of) customer data service once a certain monthly data usage cap was met. The direct harm of throttling was in addition to the high early termination fees that dissatisfied customers would face for early termination of their services.  The FTC characterized this behavior as both “unfair” and “deceptive.”  Moreover, the commission claimed that throttling-related speed reductions and data restrictions were not determined by real-time network congestion and thus did not even qualify as reasonable network management activity.  This case illustrates that the FTC is perfectly capable of challenging potential “network neutrality” violations that harm consumer welfare (since “throttled” customers are provided service that is inferior to the service afforded customers on “tiered” service plans) and thus FCC involvement is unwarranted.

In sum, if a court strikes down the latest FCC effort to regulate the Internet, the FTC has ample authority to address competition and consumer protection problems in the area of broadband, including questions related to net neutrality.  The FTC’s highly structured, analytic, fact-based approach to these issues is superior to FCC net neutrality regulation based on vague and unfocused notions of the public interest.  If a court does not act, Congress might wish to consider legislation to prohibit FCC Internet regulation and leave oversight of potential competitive and consumer abuses to the FTC.

In March 2014, the U.S. Government’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA, the Executive Branch’s telecommunications policy agency) abruptly announced that it did not plan to renew its contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to maintain core functions of the Internet. ICANN oversees the Internet domain name system through its subordinate agency, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). In its March statement, NTIA proposed that ICANN consult with “global stakeholders” to agree on an alternative to the “current role played by NTIA in the coordination of the Internet’s [domain name system].”

In recent months Heritage Foundation scholars have discussed concerns stemming from this vaguely-defined NTIA initiative (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, and here). These concerns include fears that eliminating the U.S. Government’s role in Internet governance could embolden other nations and international organizations (especially the International Telecommunications Union, an arm of the United Nations) to seek to regulate the Internet and limit speech, and create leeway for ICANN to expand beyond its core activities and trench upon Internet freedoms.

Although NTIA has testified that its transition plan would preclude such undesirable outcomes, the reaction to these assurances should be “trust but verify” (especially given the recent Administration endorsement of burdensome Internet common carrier regulation, which appears to be at odds with the spirit if not the letter of NTIA’s assurances).

Reflecting the “trust but verify” spirit, the just-introduced “Defending Internet Freedom Act of 2014” requires that NTIA maintain its existing Internet oversight functions, unless the NTIA Administrator certifies in writing that certain specified assurances have been met regarding Internet governance. Those assurances include findings that the management of the Internet domain name system will not be exercised by foreign governmental or intergovernmental bodies; that ICANN’s bylaws will be amended to uphold First Amendment-type freedoms of speech, assembly, and association; that a four-fifths supermajority will be required for changes in ICANN’s bylaws or fees for services; that an independent process for resolving disputes between ICANN and third parties be established; and that a host of other requirements aimed at protecting Internet freedoms and ensuring ICANN and IANA accountability be instituted.

Legislative initiatives of this sort, while no panacea, play a valuable role in signaling Congress’s intent to hold the Administration accountable for seeing to it that key Internet freedoms (including the avoidance of onerous regulation and deleterious restrictions on speech and content) are maintained. They merit thoughtful consideration.

The International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) and TechFreedom filed two joint comments with the FCC today, explaining why the FCC has no sound legal basis for micromanaging the Internet and why “net neutrality” regulation would actually prove counter-productive for consumers.

The Policy Comments are available here, and the Legal Comments are here. See our previous post, Net Neutrality Regulation Is Bad for Consumers and Probably Illegal, for a distillation of many of the key points made in the comments.

New regulation is unnecessary. “An open Internet and the idea that companies can make special deals for faster access are not mutually exclusive,” said Geoffrey Manne, Executive Director of ICLE. “If the Internet really is ‘open,’ shouldn’t all companies be free to experiment with new technologies, business models and partnerships?”

“The media frenzy around this issue assumes that no one, apart from broadband companies, could possibly question the need for more regulation,” said Berin Szoka, President of TechFreedom. “In fact, increased regulation of the Internet will incite endless litigation, which will slow both investment and innovation, thus harming consumers and edge providers.”

Title II would be a disaster. The FCC has proposed re-interpreting the Communications Act to classify broadband ISPs under Title II as common carriers. But reinterpretation might unintentionally ensnare edge providers, weighing them down with onerous regulations. “So-called reclassification risks catching other Internet services in the crossfire,” explained Szoka. “The FCC can’t easily forbear from Title II’s most onerous rules because the agency has set a high bar for justifying forbearance. Rationalizing a changed approach would be legally and politically difficult. The FCC would have to simultaneously find the broadband market competitive enough to forbear, yet fragile enough to require net neutrality rules. It would take years to sort out this mess — essentially hitting the pause button on better broadband.”

Section 706 is not a viable option. In 2010, the FCC claimed Section 706 as an independent grant of authority to regulate any form of “communications” not directly barred by the Act, provided only that the Commission assert that regulation would somehow promote broadband. “This is an absurd interpretation,” said Szoka. “This could allow the FCC to essentially invent a new Communications Act as it goes, regulating not just broadband, but edge companies like Google and Facebook, too, and not just neutrality but copyright, cybersecurity and more. The courts will eventually strike down this theory.”

A better approach. “The best policy would be to maintain the ‘Hands off the Net’ approach that has otherwise prevailed for 20 years,” said Manne. “That means a general presumption that innovative business models and other forms of ‘prioritization’ are legal. Innovation could thrive, and regulators could still keep a watchful eye, intervening only where there is clear evidence of actual harm, not just abstract fears.” “If the FCC thinks it can justify regulating the Internet, it should ask Congress to grant such authority through legislation,” added Szoka. “A new communications act is long overdue anyway. The FCC could also convene a multistakeholder process to produce a code enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission,” he continued, noting that the White House has endorsed such processes for setting Internet policy in general.

Manne concluded: “The FCC should focus on doing what Section 706 actually commands: clearing barriers to broadband deployment. Unleashing more investment and competition, not writing more regulation, is the best way to keep the Internet open, innovative and free.”

For some of our other work on net neutrality, see:

“Understanding Net(flix) Neutrality,” an op-ed by Geoffrey Manne in the Detroit News on Netflix’s strategy to confuse interconnection costs with neutrality issues.

“The Feds Lost on Net Neutrality, But Won Control of the Internet,” an op-ed by Berin Szoka and Geoffrey Manne in Wired.com.

“That startup investors’ letter on net neutrality is a revealing look at what the debate is really about,” a post by Geoffrey Manne in Truth on the Market.

Bipartisan Consensus: Rewrite of ‘96 Telecom Act is Long Overdue,” a post on TF’s blog highlighting the key points from TechFreedom and ICLE’s joint comments on updating the Communications Act.

The Net Neutrality Comments are available here:

ICLE/TF Net Neutrality Policy Comments

TF/ICLE Net Neutrality Legal Comments

With Berin Szoka.

TechFreedom and the International Center for Law & Economics will shortly file two joint comments with the FCC, explaining why the FCC has no sound legal basis for micromanaging the Internet—now called “net neutrality regulation”—and why such regulation would be counter-productive as a policy matter. The following summarizes some of the key points from both sets of comments.

No one’s against an open Internet. The notion that anyone can put up a virtual shingle—and that the good ideas will rise to the top—is a bedrock principle with broad support; it has made the Internet essential to modern life. Key to Internet openness is the freedom to innovate. An open Internet and the idea that companies can make special deals for faster access are not mutually exclusive. If the Internet really is “open,” shouldn’t all companies be free to experiment with new technologies, business models and partnerships? Shouldn’t the FCC allow companies to experiment in building the unknown—and unknowable—Internet of the future?

The best approach would be to maintain the “Hands off the Net” approach that has otherwise prevailed for 20 years. That means a general presumption that innovative business models and other forms of “prioritization” are legal. Innovation could thrive, and regulators could still keep a watchful eye, intervening only where there is clear evidence of actual harm, not just abstract fears. And they should start with existing legal tools—like antitrust and consumer protection laws—before imposing prior restraints on innovation.

But net neutrality regulation hurts more than it helps. Counterintuitively, a blanket rule that ISPs treat data equally could actually harm consumers. Consider the innovative business models ISPs are introducing. T-Mobile’s unRadio lets users listen to all the on-demand music and radio they want without taking a hit against their monthly data plan. Yet so-called consumer advocates insist that’s a bad thing because it favors some content providers over others. In fact, “prioritizing” one service when there is congestion frees up data for subscribers to consume even more content—from whatever source. You know regulation may be out of control when a company is demonized for offering its users a freebie.

Treating each bit of data neutrally ignores the reality of how the Internet is designed, and how consumers use it.  Net neutrality proponents insist that all Internet content must be available to consumers neutrally, whether those consumers (or content providers) want it or not. They also argue against usage-based pricing. Together, these restrictions force all users to bear the costs of access for other users’ requests, regardless of who actually consumes the content, as the FCC itself has recognized:

[P]rohibiting tiered or usage-based pricing and requiring all subscribers to pay the same amount for broadband service, regardless of the performance or usage of the service, would force lighter end users of the network to subsidize heavier end users. It would also foreclose practices that may appropriately align incentives to encourage efficient use of networks.

The rules that net neutrality advocates want would hurt startups as well as consumers. Imagine a new entrant, clamoring for market share. Without the budget for a major advertising blitz, the archetypical “next Netflix” might never get the exposure it needs to thrive. But for a relatively small fee, the startup could sign up to participate in a sponsored data program, with its content featured and its customers’ data usage exempted from their data plans. This common business strategy could mean the difference between success and failure for a startup. Yet it would be prohibited by net neutrality rules banning paid prioritization.

The FCC lacks sound legal authority. The FCC is essentially proposing to do what can only properly be done by Congress: invent a new legal regime for broadband. Each of the options the FCC proposes to justify this—Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act and common carrier classification—is deeply problematic.

First, Section 706 isn’t sustainable. Until 2010, the FCC understood Section 706 as a directive to use its other grants of authority to promote broadband deployment. But in its zeal to regulate net neutrality, the FCC reversed itself in 2010, claiming Section 706 as an independent grant of authority. This would allow the FCC to regulate any form of “communications” in any way not directly barred by the Act — not just broadband but “edge” companies like Google and Facebook. This might mean going beyond neutrality to regulate copyright, cybersecurity and more. The FCC need only assert that regulation would somehow promote broadband.

If Section 706 is a grant of authority, it’s almost certainly a power to deregulate. But even if its power is as broad as the FCC claims, the FCC still hasn’t made the case that, on balance, its proposed regulations would actually do what it asserts: promote broadband. The FCC has stubbornly refused to conduct serious economic analysis on the net effects of its neutrality rules.

And Title II would be a disaster. The FCC has asked whether Title II of the Act, which governs “common carriers” like the old monopoly telephone system, is a workable option. It isn’t.

In the first place, regulations that impose design limitations meant for single-function networks simply aren’t appropriate for the constantly evolving Internet. Moreover, if the FCC re-interprets the Communications Act to classify broadband ISPs as common carriers, it risks catching other Internet services in the cross-fire, inadvertently making them common carriers, too. Surely net neutrality proponents can appreciate the harmful effects of treating Skype as a common carrier.

Forbearance can’t clean up the Title II mess. In theory the FCC could “forbear” from Title II’s most onerous rules, promising not to apply them when it determines there’s enough competition in a market to make the rules unnecessary. But the agency has set a high bar for justifying forbearance.

Most recently, in 2012, the Commission refused to grant Qwest forbearance even in the highly competitive telephony market, disregarding competition from wireless providers, and concluding that a cable-telco “duopoly” is inadequate to protect consumers. It’s unclear how the FCC could justify reaching the opposite conclusion about the broadband market—simultaneously finding it competitive enough to forbear, yet fragile enough to require net neutrality rules. Such contradictions would be difficult to explain, even if the FCC generally gets discretion on changing its approach.

But there is another path forward. If the FCC can really make the case for regulation, it should go to Congress, armed with the kind of independent economic and technical expert studies Commissioner Pai has urged, and ask for new authority. A new Communications Act is long overdue anyway. In the meantime, the FCC could convene the kind of multistakeholder process generally endorsed by the White House to produce a code enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission. A consensus is possible — just not inside the FCC, where the policy questions can’t be separated from the intractable legal questions.

Meanwhile, the FCC should focus on doing what Section 706 actually demands: clearing barriers to broadband deployment and competition. The 2010 National Broadband Plan laid out an ambitious pro-deployment agenda. It’s just too bad the FCC was so obsessed with net neutrality that it didn’t focus on the plan. Unleashing more investment and competition, not writing more regulation, is the best way to keep the Internet open, innovative and free.

[Cross-posted at TechFreedom.]

UPDATE: I’ve been reliably informed that Vint Cerf coined the term “permissionless innovation,” and, thus, that he did so with the sorts of private impediments discussed below in mind rather than government regulation. So consider the title of this post changed to “Permissionless innovation SHOULD not mean ‘no contracts required,'” and I’ll happily accept that my version is the “bastardized” version of the term. Which just means that the original conception was wrong and thank god for disruptive innovation in policy memes!

Can we dispense with the bastardization of the “permissionless innovation” concept (best developed by Adam Thierer) to mean “no contracts required”? I’ve been seeing this more and more, but it’s been around for a while. Some examples from among the innumerable ones out there:

Vint Cerf on net neutrality in 2009:

We believe that the vast numbers of innovative Internet applications over the last decade are a direct consequence of an open and freely accessible Internet. Many now-successful companies have deployed their services on the Internet without the need to negotiate special arrangements with Internet Service Providers, and it’s crucial that future innovators have the same opportunity. We are advocates for “permissionless innovation” that does not impede entrepreneurial enterprise.

Net neutrality is replete with this sort of idea — that any impediment to edge providers (not networks, of course) doing whatever they want to do at a zero price is a threat to innovation.

Chet Kanojia (Aereo CEO) following the Aereo decision:

It is troubling that the Court states in its decision that, ‘to the extent commercial actors or other interested entities may be concerned with the relationship between the development and use of such technologies and the Copyright Act, they are of course free to seek action from Congress.’ (Majority, page 17)That begs the question: Are we moving towards a permission-based system for technology innovation?

At least he puts it in the context of the Court’s suggestion that Congress pass a law, but what he really wants is to not have to ask “permission” of content providers to use their content.

Mike Masnick on copyright in 2010:

But, of course, the problem with all of this is that it goes back to creating permission culture, rather than a culture where people freely create. You won’t be able to use these popular or useful tools to build on the works of others — which, contrary to the claims of today’s copyright defenders, is a key component in almost all creativity you see out there — without first getting permission.

Fair use is, by definition, supposed to be “permissionless.” But the concept is hardly limited to fair use, is used to justify unlimited expansion of fair use, and is extended by advocates to nearly all of copyright (see, e.g., Mike Masnick again), which otherwise requires those pernicious licenses (i.e., permission) from others.

The point is, when we talk about permissionless innovation for Tesla, Uber, Airbnb, commercial drones, online data and the like, we’re talking (or should be) about ex ante government restrictions on these things — the “permission” at issue is permission from the government, it’s the “permission” required to get around regulatory roadblocks imposed via rent-seeking and baseless paternalism. As Gordon Crovitz writes, quoting Thierer:

“The central fault line in technology policy debates today can be thought of as ‘the permission question,'” Mr. Thierer writes. “Must the creators of new technologies seek the blessing of public officials before they develop and deploy their innovations?”

But it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about private contracts.

Just about all human (commercial) activity requires interaction with others, and that means contracts and licenses. You don’t see anyone complaining about the “permission” required to rent space from a landlord. But that some form of “permission” may be required to use someone else’s creative works or other property (including broadband networks) is no different. And, in fact, it is these sorts of contracts (and, yes, the revenue that may come with them) that facilitates people engaging with other commercial actors to produce things of value in the first place. The same can’t be said of government permission.

Don’t get me wrong – there may be some net welfare-enhancing regulatory limits that might require forms of government permission. But the real concern is the pervasive abuse of these limits, imposed without anything approaching a rigorous welfare determination. There might even be instances where private permission, imposed, say, by a true monopolist, might be problematic.

But this idea that any contractual obligation amounts to a problematic impediment to innovation is absurd, and, in fact, precisely backward. Which is why net neutrality is so misguided. Instead of identifying actual, problematic impediments to innovation, it simply assumes that networks threaten edge innovation, without any corresponding benefit and with such certainty (although no actual evidence) that ex ante common carrier regulations are required.

“Permissionless innovation” is a great phrase and, well developed (as Adam Thierer has done), a useful concept. But its bastardization to justify interference with private contracts is unsupported and pernicious.

Today the D.C. Circuit struck down most of the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order, rejecting rules that required broadband providers to carry all traffic for edge providers (“anti-blocking”) and prevented providers from negotiating deals for prioritized carriage. However, the appeals court did conclude that the FCC has statutory authority to issue “Net Neutrality” rules under Section 706(a) and let stand the FCC’s requirement that broadband providers clearly disclose their network management practices.

The following statement may be attributed to Geoffrey Manne and Berin Szoka:

The FCC may have lost today’s battle, but it just won the war over regulating the Internet. By recognizing Section 706 as an independent grant of statutory authority, the court has given the FCC near limitless power to regulate not just broadband, but the Internet itself, as Judge Silberman recognized in his dissent.

The court left the door open for the FCC to write new Net Neutrality rules, provided the Commission doesn’t treat broadband providers as common carriers. This means that, even without reclassifying broadband as a Title II service, the FCC could require that any deals between broadband and content providers be reasonable and non-discriminatory, just as it has required wireless carriers to provide data roaming services to their competitors’ customers on that basis. In principle, this might be a sound approach, if the rule resembles antitrust standards. But even that limitation could easily be evaded if the FCC regulates through case-by-case enforcement actions, as it tried to do before issuing the Open Internet Order. Either way, the FCC need only make a colorable argument under Section 706 that its actions are designed to “encourage the deployment… of advanced telecommunications services.” If the FCC’s tenuous “triple cushion shot” argument could satisfy that test, there is little limit to the deference the FCC will receive.

But that’s just for Net Neutrality. Section 706 covers “advanced telecommunications,” which seems to include any information service, from broadband to the interconnectivity of smart appliances like washing machines and home thermostats. If the court’s ruling on Section 706 is really as broad as it sounds, and as the dissent fears, the FCC just acquired wide authority over these, as well — in short, the entire Internet, including the “Internet of Things.” While the court’s “no common carrier rules” limitation is a real one, the FCC clearly just gained enormous power that it didn’t have before today’s ruling.

Today’s decision essentially rewrites the Communications Act in a way that will, ironically, do the opposite of what the FCC claims: hurt, not help, deployment of new Internet services. Whatever the FCC’s role ought to be, such decisions should be up to our elected representatives, not three unelected FCC Commissioners. So if there’s a silver lining in any of this, it may be that the true implications of today’s decision are so radical that Congress finally writes a new Communications Act — a long-overdue process Congressmen Fred Upton and Greg Walden have recently begun.

Szoka and Manne are available for comment at media@techfreedom.org. Find/share this release on Facebook or Twitter.

With Matt Starr, Berin Szoka and Geoffrey Manne

Today’s oral argument in the D.C Circuit over the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules suggests that the case — Verizon v. FCC — is likely to turn on whether the Order impermissibly imposes common carrier regulation on broadband ISPs. If so, the FCC will lose, no matter what the court thinks of the Commission’s sharply contested claims of authority under the Telecommunications Act.

The FCC won last year before the same court when Verizon challenged its order mandating that carriers provide data roaming services to their competitors’ customers. But Judge Tatel, who wrote the Cellco decision is likely to write the court’s opinion overturning the Net neutrality rules — just as he wrote the court’s 2010 Comcast v. FCC opinion, thwarting the FCC’s first attempt at informal net neutrality regulation.

Over an extraordinary two-hour session, Judges Tatel and Silberman asked a barrage of questions that suggest they’ll apply the same test used to uphold the data roaming rule to strike down at least the non-discrimination rule at the heart of the Open Internet Order — and probably, the entire Order.

Common Carrier Analysis

The Communications Act explicitly prohibits treating services that are not regulated under Title II as common carriers. Title II regulates “telecommunications services,” such as landline telephone service, but broadband is an “information service” regulated under Title I of the Act, while wireless is regulated under Title III of the Act (as a “radio transmission”).

In Cellco, the court ruled that the FCC’s data roaming rule did not impermissibly classify mobile providers as common carriers even though it compelled wireless carriers to let other companies’ subscribers roam on their networks. Here, the Open Internet Order effectively forces ISPs to carry traffic of all “edge” providers in an equal, non-discriminatory manner. While these might seem similar, the two mandates differ significantly, and Tatel’s analysis in the data roaming case may lead to precisely the opposite result here.

Tatel’s data roaming opinion rested on a test, derived from decades of case law, for determining what level of regulation constitutes an impermissible imposition of common carrier status:

  1. “If a carrier is forced to offer service indiscriminately and on general terms, then that carrier is being relegated to common carrier status”;

  2. “[T]he Commission has significant latitude to determine the bounds of common carriage in particular cases”;

  3. “[C]ommon carriage is not all or nothing—there is a gray area [between common carrier status and private carrier status] in which although a given regulation might be applied to common carriers, the obligations imposed are not common carriage per se” because they permit carriers to retain sufficient decisionmaking authority over their networks (by retaining programming control and/or the authority to negotiate terms, for example); and

  4. In this gray area, “[the FCC’s] determination that a regulation does or does not confer common carrier status warrants deference” under the Supreme Court’s Chevron decision.

In Cellco, the court determined that the data roaming rule fell into the gray area, and thus deferred to the FCC’s determination that the regulation did not impose common carrier status. The essential distinction, according to the court, was that carriers remained free to “negotiate the terms of their roaming arrangements on an individualized basis,” provided their terms were “commercially reasonable.” Rather than impose a “presumption of reasonableness,” the Commission offered “considerable flexibility for providers to respond to the competitive forces at play in the mobile-data market.” Thus, the court held, the data roaming rule “leaves substantial room for individualized bargaining and discrimination in terms,” and thus “does not amount to a duty to hold out facilities indifferently for public use.”

The Open Internet rules, by contrast, impose a much harsher restriction on what ISPs may do with their broadband networks, barring them from blocking any legal content and prohibiting “unreasonable” discrimination. Judges Tatel and Silberman repeatedly asked questions that suggested that the Order’s reasonable discrimination rule removed the kind of “flexibility” that justified upholding the data roaming rule. By requiring carriers to “offer service indiscriminately and on general terms” and to “hold out facilities indifferently for public use” (to quote the D.C. Circuit’s test), the rule would go beyond the “gray area” in which the FCC gets deference, and fall into the D.C. Circuit’s definition of common carriage. If that’s indeed ultimately where the two judges wind up, it’s game over for the FCC.

The Open Internet Order requires broadband ISPs to make their networks available, and to do so on equal terms that remove pricing flexibility, to any edge provider that wishes to have its content available on an ISP’s network. This seems to be Judge Tatel’s interpretation of ¶ 76 of the Order, which goes on at length about the reasons why “pay for priority” arrangements would “raise significant cause for concern” and then concludes: “In light of each of these concerns, as a general matter, it’s unlikely that pay for priority would satisfy the ‘no unreasonable discrimination’ standard.” So… legal in principle, but effectively banned in practice — a per se rule dressed up as a rule of reason.

If that isn’t, in effect, a requirement that ISPs hold out their networks “indifferently for public use,” it’s hard to imagine what is — as Tatel certainly seemed to think today. Tatel’s use of the term “indiscriminately” in Cellco almost hints that the test was written with the FCC’s “no discrimination” rule in mind.

The FCC tried, but failed, to address such concerns in the Open Internet Order, by arguing that broadband providers remained free to “make individualized decisions” with the only customers that matter: their subscribers. Today, the agency again insisted that restricting, however heavily, a broadband provider’s ability to negotiate with an edge provider (or the backbone providers in between) is irrelevant to the analysis of whether the FCC has illegally imposed common carriage. But if that argument worked, the D.C. Circuit would not have had to analyze whether the data roaming rule afforded sufficient flexibility to carriers in contracting with other carriers to provide data roaming services to their customers.

Similarly, the FCC failed today, and in its briefs, to effectively distinguish this case from Midwest Video II, which was critical to the Cellco decision. here, the Supreme Court court struck down public-access rules imposed on cable companies as impermissible common carrier regulation because they “prohibited [cable operators] from determining or influencing the content of access programming,” and “delimit[ed] what [they could] charge for access and use of equipment.” In other words, the FCC’s rule left no flexibility for negotiations between companies — the same problem as in the Open Internet Order. The FCC attempted to distinguish the two cases by arguing that the FCC was restricting an existing wholesale market for channel carriage, while no such market exists today for prioritized Internet services. But this misses the key point made, emphatically, by Judge Silberman: it is the FCC’s relentless attempt to regulate Net Neutrality that has prevented the development of this market. Nothing better reveals the stasis mentality behind the FCC’s Order

Perhaps the most damning moment of today’s arguments occurred when Verizon’s lawyer responded to questions about what room for negotiation was left under the unreasonable discrimination rule — by pointing to what the FCC itself said in Footnote 240 of the Order. There the FCC quotes, approvingly, comments filed by Sprint: “The unreasonable discrimination standard contained in Section 202(a) of the Act contains the very flexibility the Commission needs to distinguish desirable from improper discrimination.” In other words, the only room for “commercially reasonable negotiation” recognized by the FCC under the nondiscrimination rule is found in the limited discretion traditionally available to common carriers under Section 202(a). Oops. This #LawyerFail will doubtless feature prominently in the court’s discussion of this issue, as the FCC’s perhaps accidental concession that, whatever the agency claims, it’s really imposing common carrier status — analogous to Title II, no less!

Judges Tatel and Silberman seemed to disagree only as to whether the no-blocking rule would also fail under Cellco’s reasoning. Tatel suggested that if the non-discrimination rule didn’t exist, the blocking rule, standing alone, would “leave substantial room for individualized bargaining and discrimination in terms” just as the data roaming rule did. Tatel spent perhaps fifteen minutes trying to draw clear answers from all counsel on this point, but seemed convinced that, at most, the no-blocking rule simply imposed a duty on the broadband provider to allow an edge provider to reach its customers, while still allowing the broadband provider to negotiate for faster carriage on “commercially reasonable terms.” Silberman disagreed, insisting that the blocking rule still imposed a common carrier duty to carry traffic at a zero price.

Severability

Ultimately the distinction between these two rules under Cellco’s common carriage test may not matter. If the court decides that the order is not severable, striking down the nondiscrimination rule as common carriage would cause the entire Order to fall.

The judges got into an interesting, though relatively short, discussion of this point. Verizon’s counsel repeatedly noted that the FCC had never stated any intention that the order should be read as severable either in the Order, in its briefs or even at oral argument. Unlike in MD/DC/DE Broadaster’s Assoc. v. FCC, the Commission did not state in the adopting regulation that it intended to treat the regulation as severable. And, as the DC Circuit has stated, “[s]everance and affirmance of a portion of an administrative regulation is improper if there is ‘substantial doubt’ that the agency would have adopted the severed portion on its own.”

The question, as the Supreme Court held in K Mart Corp. v. Cartier, Inc., is whether the remainder of the regulation could function sensibly without the stricken provision. This isn’t clear. While Judge Tatel seems to suggest that the rule against blocking could function without the nondiscrimination rule, Judge Silberman seems convinced that the two were intended as necessary complements by the FCC. The determination of the no-blocking rule’s severability may come down to Judge Rogers, who didn’t telegraph her view.

So what’s next?

The prediction made by Fred Campbell shortly after the Cellco decision seems like the most likely outcome: Tatel, joined by at least Silberman, could strike down the entire Order as imposing common carriage — while offering the FCC a roadmap to try its hand at Net Neutrality yet again by rewriting the discrimination rule to allow for prioritized or accelerated carriage on commercially reasonable terms.

Or, if the the court decides the order is severable, it could strike down just the nondiscrimination rule — assuming the court could find either direct or ancillary jurisdiction for both the transparency rule and the non-discrimination rule.

Either way, an FCC loss will mean that negotiated arrangements for priority carriage will be governed under something more like a rule of reason. The FCC could try to create its own rule.  Or the matter could simply be left to the antitrust and consumer protection laws enforced by the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, the states and private plaintiffs. We think the latter’s definitely the best approach. But whether it is or not, it will be the controlling legal authority on the ground the day the FCC loses — unless and until the FCC issues revised rules (or Congress passes a law) that can survive judicial review.

Ultimately, we suspect the FCC will have a hard time letting go. After 79 years, it’s clearly in denial about its growing obsolescence.

With Berin Szoka

We’ll be delving into today’s oral arguments at our live-streamed TechFreedom/ICLE event at 12:30 EDT — and tweeting on the #NetNeutrality hashtag.

But here are a few thoughts to help guide the frantic tea-leaf reading everyone will doubtless be engaged in after (and probably even during) the arguments:

While most commentators have focused on ancillary jurisdiction questions, the FCC first and foremost asserts that Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act gives it direct authority to regulate the Internet.

  • The FCC purports to find this authority primarily in the language of the Section 706, which directs the Commission to “encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans… by utilizing… measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.”

  • The DC Circuit in Comcast suggested that this language might constitute a direct grant of authority, but in that case it’s clear the court was talking about a grant of authority sufficient to constitute the basis for ancillary jurisdiction. Here, the FCC explicitly claims that the language confers direct authority (although the Commission still claims other sections as the basis for ancillary authority).

  • In any case, the court in Comcast didn’t address the substance of the Commission’s claim, and despite some commentators’ claims to the contrary, nothing in the court’s analysis of Section 706 in Comcast directly forecloses the arguments the FCC makes in this case (although some of its language suggests the court may be uncomfortable with the FCC’s claim of authority).

  • Rather, because the FCC had not yet offered the revised interpretation of Section 706 contained within the Open Internet Order, the court in Comcast simply accepted the FCC’s then-current interpretation that Section 706 conferred no direct authority on the Commission to regulate broadband information services.

  • Since then, however, the FCC has changed course, and it now asserts such authority in the OIO. It is worth noting, as Commissioner McDowell discussed in his dissent from the OIO, that the process by which the FCC majority repudiated its previous interpretation and set up the basis for its authority under Section 706 was remarkably disingenuous and underhanded. The court may or may not take notice of this, but it should serve as a caution.

Thus the case is likely to hinge primarily on whether the court accepts the FCC’s claim that Section 706 grants direct authority, and, if so, whether the Open Internet Order adduces sufficient evidence to justify the FCC’s claim that Section 706 constitutes a valid basis for the specific regulations encompassed in the OIO.

  • The FCC’s arguments that it has ancillary jurisdiction under other provisions of the Telecommunications Act aren’t likely to get any more traction than last time.

  • The analysis of Section 706 as a basis for direct or ancillary jurisdiction is similar — and the court may well agree with Verizon that the FCC is really still claiming ancillary jurisdiction with a different label. So why does the distinction matter?

In order to establish Section 706 as the jurisdictional basis for the OIO under ancillary jurisdiction, the FCC would have to demonstrate that the OIO is necessary to implementation of Section 706’s (Section 4(i) of the Act says the FCC “may perform any and all acts, make such rules and regulations, and issue such orders … as may be necessary in the execution of its functions”). But if Section 706 confers authority for the OIO directly, the FCC need only show that its interpretation of the provision authorizing the Order is reasonable and not arbitrary and capricious. In other words, the FCC is trying to significantly lower its factual burden for using Section 706 (even as it claims that section confers authority narrower in scope than would ancillary authority). If the court accepts this argument, it could accept the FCC’s argument (however poorly supported and contrary to Congress’s clear intent) that the regulation of ISPs in order to encourage broadband deployment is a legitimate action under Section 706.

But the analysis doesn’t end there. Authority may exist in the abstract, but that doesn’t mean that this particular implementation of Section 706 is appropriate (or consistent with the Communications Act or the Constitution).

  • Rather, the plain language of Section 706 demands regulation that encourages deployment by means of removing barriers to infrastructure deployment. It is thus a sort of effects-based standard, and the FCC’s implementation of it is permitted only to the extent that its regulation actually has the effect of encouraging deployment.

  • This means that the FCC must adduce evidence sufficient to support the claim that, on net, its regulation will encourage deployment. To us, the FCC hasn’t met its burden.

  • The problem for the FCC is that, while the OIO contains a raft of assertions that prohibiting discrimination against, and forbidding the blocking of, edge content will encourage demand for, and thus deployment of, broadband infrastructure, the Order gives short shrift to the obvious reality that, at the same time, constraining broadband providers will reduce their incentive to invest in infrastructure.

  • It is an empirical question which effect is stronger, and, in theory, the Commission may be correct that the OIO meets the obligations imposed on it by Section 706.

  • But it is not enough simply to argue, as the FCC has done, that the OIO will encourage deployment along one dimension, while dismissing the other.

  • Unfortunately for the FCC, the OIO does just that (and badly, it must be added. Not only does the record clearly demonstrate only the most minimal instances of non-neutrality, but most of these were resolved without FCC intervention. Moreover, despite its bold claims, the economic evidence connecting neutrality and infrastructure deployment is vanishingly thin, to say the least).

It seems clear that the FCC is reading Section 706 with the wrong emphasis. The provision is not meant to be a broad grant of power (and to its credit the FCC asserts that it understands there are some limits to the provision and whatever powers it might confer). But in contorting the provision to find a basis for the OIO, the FCC doesn’t go far enough in accepting the limits of Section 706.

  • Properly understood, Section 706 is meant rather to be a broad limitation on the FCC’s power, requiring it to act, but only insofar as doing so encourages, on net, deployment, increases competition and removes barriers. This obligation is the most likely reason why the FCC had previously minimized the importance of Section 706.

  • The NTIA, for example, seems to understand this. As it wrote in a letter to the FCC in 1998, “the legislative history of section 706 suggests that it would operate only in the event that competition failed to produce reasonable and timely broadband deployment.” In asserting this the NTIA cites to, among other things, a statement from then Sen. Burns that “If competition is stalled, the [bill] gives the FCC authority to quicken the pace of competition and deregulation to accelerate the deployment of advanced telecommunications infrastructure.”

  • Quite clearly, the provision is not meant to authorize regulation except where regulating will improve the status quo — will “quicken the pace of competition.”

The evidence required to defend a regulation promulgated under this provision thus must include evidence not only that the regulation is intended to increase competition relative to the status quo, but that it actually does so. The OIO contains no such evidence. Instead, the FCC

  • identifies vanishingly few instances of discrimination by ISPs and fails to note that most of these wouldn’t be affected by the OIO or were resolved without the FCC’s intervention;

  • asserts that ISPs have an ill-defined “incentive” to foreclose content providers and offers no baseline from which to assess whether foreclosure, if it exists, would actually cause consumer harm;

  • merely asserts that the benefits of the OIO outweigh its costs;

  • draws only a tenuous connection between neutrality and broadband deployment;

  • does not address how excluding vertically integrated broadband providers from profiting from the “virtuous circle of innovation” will affect net outcomes;

  • neglects to establish the requisite baseline showing that that competition and deployment have stalled in the status quo and that they will improve under its rules.

  • fails to confront the possibility that its expansive reading of its authority will further deter investment and innovation; and

  • fails to analyze the rules within the well-established framework of consumer welfare economics.

The Commission may be correct that “[e]ach round of innovation increases the value of the Internet for broadband providers, edge providers, online businesses, and consumers.” But the OIO explicitly forbids broadband providers from capturing these rents in any but the most blunt fashion, ensuring that whatever positive effects edge content innovation will confer, they will not substantially be enjoyed by the companies actually making infrastructure investment decisions.

  • Moreover, directly flouting Section 706’s mandate, the Order contains a number of explicit exceptions (for, e.g., CDNs, VPNs, peering arrangements, game consoles and app stores) that collectively have the effect of enshrining the competitive conditions of the status quo rather than encouraging innovation. These exceptions are well-taken and clearly benefit consumers. But by acknowledging that many aspects of today’s Internet are appropriately non-neutral and by establishing exceptions for these existing technologies, but not for the non-neutral technologies of tomorrow that will also benefit competition and consumers, the OIO impedes rather than quickens the pace of competition.

Even if the FCC gets this far, it still has to establish that it hasn’t violated the Communications Act by imposing common carrier status on broadband providers, which the FCC has classified as a Title I non-common-carrier service. To win here, the court would have to find that the Net Neutrality rules leave room for “commercially reasonable negotiation” — as it did in upholding the FCC’s mandate that wireless carriers offer data roaming to the subscribers of other carriers. The Order insists that the FCC hasn’t regulated negotiations with consumers, which the agency claims is all that matters. But that’s clearly inconsistent with Judge Tatel’s analysis in the data roaming order, which focused on whether the data roaming rule left room for such negotiations on the other side of the market— between carriers. So look for Judge Tatel to ask tough questions about this point today.

FInally, Verizon’s Constitutional arguments remain, and while they present an uphill battle, the court may press the FCC on whether its regulations are consistent with the the First and Fifth Amendments — the core of TechFreedom’s amicus brief.

There will be much more to say following the oral argument, but we wanted to offer these preliminary thoughts to guide court watchers. In sum, as a technical legal matter, we believe that the court will not focus on the ancillary jurisdiction question and will likely defer substantially to the FCC’s interpretation of its direct jurisdiction to regulate broadband information providers under the Telecommunications Act. But the real action will be in the court’s evaluation of the FCC’s claimed support for its specific implementation of its authority. And if the Court seems open to the FCC’s arguments, it will have to delve into the common carriage and constitutional questions.

We add one note in conclusion: The type of analysis and resulting regulation called for under even the FCC’s interpretation of Section 706 should look an awful lot like a rule of reason foreclosure analysis under antitrust law. The rule is effects-based and calls for a case by case evidentiary determination that complained of conduct results in anticompetitive foreclosure relative to the but-for world without the conduct. We can certainly imagine Judge Tatel striking down the rule, upholding the assertion of jurisdiction, and offering guidance to the FCC that it might cure its error by implementing a rule that effectively embodies the well-established law and economics of an antitrust rule of reason analysis. Or perhaps we could cut out the middleman and just let the FTC apply antitrust laws directly.