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In recent years, a diverse cross-section of advocates and politicians have leveled criticisms at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and its grant of legal immunity to interactive computer services. Proposed legislative changes to the law have been put forward by both Republicans and Democrats.

It remains unclear whether Congress (or the courts) will amend Section 230, but any changes are bound to expand the scope, uncertainty, and expense of content risks. That’s why it’s important that such changes be developed and implemented in ways that minimize their potential to significantly disrupt and harm online activity. This piece focuses on those insurable content risks that most frequently result in litigation and considers the effect of the direct and indirect costs caused by frivolous suits and lawfare, not just the ultimate potential for a court to find liability. The experience of the 1980s asbestos-litigation crisis offers a warning of what could go wrong.

Enacted in 1996, Section 230 was intended to promote the Internet as a diverse medium for discourse, cultural development, and intellectual activity by shielding interactive computer services from legal liability when blocking or filtering access to obscene, harassing, or otherwise objectionable content. Absent such immunity, a platform hosting content produced by third parties could be held equally responsible as the creator for claims alleging defamation or invasion of privacy.

In the current legislative debates, Section 230’s critics on the left argue that the law does not go far enough to combat hate speech and misinformation. Critics on the right claim the law protects censorship of dissenting opinions. Legal challenges to the current wording of Section 230 arise primarily from what constitutes an “interactive computer service,” “good faith” restriction of content, and the grant of legal immunity, regardless of whether the restricted material is constitutionally protected. 

While Congress and various stakeholders debate various alternate statutory frameworks, several test cases simultaneously have been working their way through the judicial system and some states have either passed or are considering legislation to address complaints with Section 230. Some have suggested passing new federal legislation classifying online platforms as common carriers as an alternate approach that does not involve amending or repealing Section 230. Regardless of the form it may take, change to the status quo is likely to increase the risk of litigation and liability for those hosting or publishing third-party content.

The Nature of Content Risk

The class of individuals and organizations exposed to content risk has never been broader. Any information, content, or communication that is created, gathered, compiled, or amended can be considered “material” which, when disseminated to third parties, may be deemed “publishing.” Liability can arise from any step in that process. Those who republish material are generally held to the same standard of liability as if they were the original publisher. (See, e.g., Rest. (2d) of Torts § 578 with respect to defamation.)

Digitization has simultaneously reduced the cost and expertise required to publish material and increased the potential reach of that material. Where it was once limited to books, newspapers, and periodicals, “publishing” now encompasses such activities as creating and updating a website; creating a podcast or blog post; or even posting to social media. Much of this activity is performed by individuals and businesses who have only limited experience with the legal risks associated with publishing.

This is especially true regarding the use of third-party material, which is used extensively by both sophisticated and unsophisticated platforms. Platforms that host third-party-generated content—e.g., social media or websites with comment sections—have historically engaged in only limited vetting of that content, although this is changing. When combined with the potential to reach consumers far beyond the original platform and target audience—lasting digital traces that are difficult to identify and remove—and the need to comply with privacy and other statutory requirements, the potential for all manner of “publishers” to incur legal liability has never been higher.

Even sophisticated legacy publishers struggle with managing the litigation that arises from these risks. There are a limited number of specialist counsel, which results in higher hourly rates. Oversight of legal bills is not always effective, as internal counsel often have limited resources to manage their daily responsibilities and litigation. As a result, legal fees often make up as much as two-thirds of the average claims cost. Accordingly, defense spending and litigation management are indirect, but important, risks associated with content claims.

Effective risk management is any publisher’s first line of defense. The type and complexity of content risk management varies significantly by organization, based on its size, resources, activities, risk appetite, and sophistication. Traditional publishers typically have a formal set of editorial guidelines specifying policies governing the creation of content, pre-publication review, editorial-approval authority, and referral to internal and external legal counsel. They often maintain a library of standardized contracts; have a process to periodically review and update those wordings; and a process to verify the validity of a potential licensor’s rights. Most have formal controls to respond to complaints and to retraction/takedown requests.

Insuring Content Risks

Insurance is integral to most publishers’ risk-management plans. Content coverage is present, to some degree, in most general liability policies (i.e., for “advertising liability”). Specialized coverage—commonly referred to as “media” or “media E&O”—is available on a standalone basis or may be packaged with cyber-liability coverage. Terms of specialized coverage can vary significantly, but generally provides at least basic coverage for the three primary content risks of defamation, copyright infringement, and invasion of privacy.

Insureds typically retain the first dollar loss up to a specific dollar threshold. They may also retain a coinsurance percentage of every dollar thereafter in partnership with their insurer. For example, an insured may be responsible for the first $25,000 of loss, and for 10% of loss above that threshold. Such coinsurance structures often are used by insurers as a non-monetary tool to help control legal spending and to incentivize an organization to employ effective oversight of counsel’s billing practices.

The type and amount of loss retained will depend on the insured’s size, resources, risk profile, risk appetite, and insurance budget. Generally, but not always, increases in an insured’s retention or an insurer’s attachment (e.g., raising the threshold to $50,000, or raising the insured’s coinsurance to 15%) will result in lower premiums. Most insureds will seek the smallest retention feasible within their budget. 

Contract limits (the maximum coverage payout available) will vary based on the same factors. Larger policyholders often build a “tower” of insurance made up of multiple layers of the same or similar coverage issued by different insurers. Two or more insurers may partner on the same “quota share” layer and split any loss incurred within that layer on a pre-agreed proportional basis.  

Navigating the strategic choices involved in developing an insurance program can be complex, depending on an organization’s risks. Policyholders often use commercial brokers to aide them in developing an appropriate risk-management and insurance strategy that maximizes coverage within their budget and to assist with claims recoveries. This is particularly important for small and mid-sized insureds who may lack the sophistication or budget of larger organizations. Policyholders and brokers try to minimize the gaps in coverage between layers and among quota-share participants, but such gaps can occur, leaving a policyholder partially self-insured.

An organization’s options to insure its content risk may also be influenced by the dynamics of the overall insurance market or within specific content lines. Underwriters are not all created equal; it is a challenging responsibility requiring a level of prediction, and some underwriters may fail to adequately identify and account for certain risks. It can also be challenging to accurately measure risk aggregation and set appropriate reserves. An insurer’s appetite for certain lines and the availability of supporting reinsurance can fluctuate based on trends in the general capital markets. Specialty media/content coverage is a small niche within the global commercial insurance market, which makes insurers in this line more sensitive to these general trends.

Litigation Risks from Changes to Section 230

A full repeal or judicial invalidation of Section 230 generally would make every platform responsible for all the content they disseminate, regardless of who created the material requiring at least some additional editorial review. This would significantly disadvantage those platforms that host a significant volume of third-party content. Internet service providers, cable companies, social media, and product/service review companies would be put under tremendous strain, given the daily volume of content produced. To reduce the risk that they serve as a “deep pocket” target for plaintiffs, they would likely adopt more robust pre-publication screening of content and authorized third-parties; limit public interfaces; require registration before a user may publish content; employ more reactive complaint response/takedown policies; and ban problem users more frequently. Small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs), as well as those not focused primarily on the business of publishing, would likely avoid many interactive functions altogether. 

A full repeal would be, in many ways, a blunderbuss approach to dealing with criticisms of Section 230, and would cause as many or more problems as it solves. In the current polarized environment, it also appears unlikely that Congress will reach bipartisan agreement on amended language for Section 230, or to classify interactive computer services as common carriers, given that the changes desired by the political left and right are so divergent. What may be more likely is that courts encounter a test case that prompts them to clarify the application of the existing statutory language—i.e., whether an entity was acting as a neutral platform or a content creator, whether its conduct was in “good faith,” and whether the material is “objectionable” within the meaning of the statute.

A relatively greater frequency of litigation is almost inevitable in the wake of any changes to the status quo, whether made by Congress or the courts. Major litigation would likely focus on those social-media platforms at the center of the Section 230 controversy, such as Facebook and Twitter, given their active role in these issues, deep pockets and, potentially, various admissions against interest helpful to plaintiffs regarding their level of editorial judgment. SMEs could also be affected in the immediate wake of a change to the statute or its interpretation. While SMEs are likely to be implicated on a smaller scale, the impact of litigation could be even more damaging to their viability if they are not adequately insured.

Over time, the boundaries of an amended Section 230’s application and any consequential effects should become clearer as courts develop application criteria and precedent is established for different fact patterns. Exposed platforms will likely make changes to their activities and risk-management strategies consistent with such developments. Operationally, some interactive features—such as comment sections or product and service reviews—may become less common.

In the short and medium term, however, a period of increased and unforeseen litigation to resolve these issues is likely to prove expensive and damaging. Insurers of content risks are likely to bear the brunt of any changes to Section 230, because these risks and their financial costs would be new, uncertain, and not incorporated into historical pricing of content risk. 

Remembering the Asbestos Crisis

The introduction of a new exposure or legal risk can have significant financial effects on commercial insurance carriers. New and revised risks must be accounted for in the assumptions, probabilities, and load factors used in insurance pricing and reserving models. Even small changes in those values can have large aggregate effects, which may undermine confidence in those models, complicate obtaining reinsurance, or harm an insurer’s overall financial health.

For example, in the 1980s, certain courts adopted the triple-trigger and continuous trigger methods[1] of determining when a policyholder could access coverage under an “occurrence” policy for asbestos claims. As a result, insurers paid claims under policies dating back to the early 1900s and, in some cases, under all policies from that date until the date of the claim. Such policies were written when mesothelioma related to asbestos was unknown and not incorporated into the policy pricing.

Insurers had long-since released reserves from the decades-old policy years, so those resources were not available to pay claims. Nor could underwriters retroactively increase premiums for the intervening years and smooth out the cost of these claims. This created extreme financial stress for impacted insurers and reinsurers, with some ultimately rendered insolvent. Surviving carriers responded by drastically reducing coverage and increasing prices, which resulted in a major capacity shortage that resolved only after the creation of the Bermuda insurance and reinsurance market. 

The asbestos-related liability crisis represented a perfect storm that is unlikely to be replicated. Given the ubiquitous nature of digital content, however, any drastic or misconceived changes to Section 230 protections could still cause significant disruption to the commercial insurance market. 

Content risk is covered, at least in part, by general liability and many cyber policies, but it is not currently a primary focus for underwriters. Specialty media underwriters are more likely to be monitoring Section 230 risk, but the highly competitive market will make it difficult for them to respond to any changes with significant price increases. In addition, the current market environment for U.S. property and casualty insurance generally is in the midst of correcting for years of inadequate pricing, expanding coverage, developing exposures, and claims inflation. It would be extremely difficult to charge an adequate premium increase if the potential severity of content risk were to increase suddenly.

In the face of such risk uncertainty and challenges to adequately increasing premiums, underwriters would likely seek to reduce their exposure to online content risks, i.e., by reducing the scope of coverage, reducing limits, and increasing retentions. How these changes would manifest, and the pain for all involved, would likely depend on how quickly such changes in policyholders’ risk profiles manifest. 

Small or specialty carriers caught unprepared could be forced to exit the market if they experienced a sharp spike in claims or unexpected increase in needed reserves. Larger, multiline carriers may respond by voluntarily reducing or withdrawing their participation in this space. Insurers exposed to ancillary content risk may simply exclude it from cover if adequate price increases are impractical. Such reactions could result in content coverage becoming harder to obtain or unavailable altogether. This, in turn, would incentivize organizations to limit or avoid certain digital activities.

Finding a More Thoughtful Approach

The tension between calls for reform of Section 230 and the potential for disrupting online activity does not mean that political leaders and courts should ignore these issues. Rather, it means that what’s required is a thoughtful, clear, and predictable approach to any changes, with the goal of maximizing the clarity of the changes and their application and minimizing any resulting litigation. Regardless of whether accomplished through legislation or the judicial process, addressing the following issues could minimize the duration and severity of any period of harmful disruption regarding content-risk:

  1. Presumptive immunity – Including an express statement in the definition of “interactive computer service,” or inferring one judicially, to clarify that platforms hosting third-party content enjoy a rebuttable presumption that statutory immunity applies would discourage frivolous litigation as courts establish precedent defining the applicability of any other revisions. 
  1. Specify the grounds for losing immunity – Clarify, at a minimum, what constitutes “good faith” with respect to content restrictions and further clarify what material is or is not “objectionable,” as it relates to newsworthy content or actions that trigger loss of immunity.
  1. Specify the scope and duration of any loss of immunity – Clarify whether the loss of immunity is total, categorical, or specific to the situation under review and the duration of that loss of immunity, if applicable.
  1. Reinstatement of immunity, subject to burden-shifting – Clarify what a platform must do to reinstate statutory immunity on a go-forward basis and clarify that it bears the burden of proving its go-forward conduct entitled it to statutory protection.
  1. Address associated issues – Any clarification or interpretation should address other issues likely to arise, such as the effect and weight to be given to a platform’s application of its community standards, adherence to neutral takedown/complain procedures, etc. Care should be taken to avoid overcorrecting and creating a “heckler’s veto.” 
  1. Deferred effect – If change is made legislatively, the effective date should be deferred for a reasonable time to allow platforms sufficient opportunity to adjust their current risk-management policies, contractual arrangements, content publishing and storage practices, and insurance arrangements in a thoughtful, orderly fashion that accounts for the new rules.

Ultimately, legislative and judicial stakeholders will chart their own course to address the widespread dissatisfaction with Section 230. More important than any of these specific policy suggestions is the principle underpins them: that any changes incorporate due consideration for the potential direct and downstream harm that can be caused if policy is not clear, comprehensive, and designed to minimize unnecessary litigation. 

It is no surprise that, in the years since Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was passed, the environment and risks associated with digital platforms have evolved or that those changes have created a certain amount of friction in the law’s application. Policymakers should employ a holistic approach when evaluating their legislative and judicial options to revise or clarify the application of Section 230. Doing so in a targeted, predictable fashion should help to mitigate or avoid the risk of increased litigation and other unintended consequences that might otherwise prove harmful to online platforms in the commercial insurance market.

Aaron Tilley is a senior insurance executive with more than 16 years of commercial insurance experience in executive management, underwriting, legal, and claims working in or with the U.S., Bermuda, and London markets. He has served as chief underwriting officer of a specialty media E&O and cyber-liability insurer and as coverage counsel representing international insurers with respect to a variety of E&O and advertising liability claims


[1] The triple-trigger method allowed a policy to be accessed based on the date of the injury-in-fact, manifestation of injury, or exposure to substances known to cause injury. The continuous trigger allowed all policies issued by an insurer, not just one, to be accessed if a triggering event could be established during the policy period.

There is little doubt that Federal Trade Commission (FTC) unfair methods of competition rulemaking proceedings are in the offing. Newly named FTC Chair Lina Khan and Commissioner Rohit Chopra both have extolled the benefits of competition rulemaking in a major law review article. What’s more, in May, Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter (during her stint as acting chair) established a rulemaking unit in the commission’s Office of General Counsel empowered to “explore new rulemakings to prohibit unfair or deceptive practices and unfair methods of competition” (emphasis added).

In short, a majority of sitting FTC commissioners apparently endorse competition rulemaking proceedings. As such, it is timely to ask whether FTC competition rules would promote consumer welfare, the paramount goal of competition policy.

In a recently published Mercatus Center research paper, I assess the case for competition rulemaking from a competition perspective and find it wanting. I conclude that, before proceeding, the FTC should carefully consider whether such rulemakings would be cost-beneficial. I explain that any cost-benefit appraisal should weigh both the legal risks and the potential economic policy concerns (error costs and “rule of law” harms). Based on these considerations, competition rulemaking is inappropriate. The FTC should stick with antitrust enforcement as its primary tool for strengthening the competitive process and thereby promoting consumer welfare.

A summary of my paper follows.

Section 6(g) of the original Federal Trade Commission Act authorizes the FTC “to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter.” Section 6(g) rules are enacted pursuant to the “informal rulemaking” requirements of Section 553 of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), which apply to the vast majority of federal agency rulemaking proceedings.

Before launching Section 6(g) competition rulemakings, however, the FTC would be well-advised first to weigh the legal risks and policy concerns associated with such an endeavor. Rulemakings are resource-intensive proceedings and should not lightly be undertaken without an eye to their feasibility and implications for FTC enforcement policy.

Only one appeals court decision addresses the scope of Section 6(g) rulemaking. In 1971, the FTC enacted a Section 6(g) rule stating that it was both an “unfair method of competition” and an “unfair act or practice” for refiners or others who sell to gasoline retailers “to fail to disclose clearly and conspicuously in a permanent manner on the pumps the minimum octane number or numbers of the motor gasoline being dispensed.” In 1973, in the National Petroleum Refiners case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the FTC’s authority to promulgate this and other binding substantive rules. The court rejected the argument that Section 6(g) authorized only non-substantive regulations concerning regarding the FTC’s non-adjudicatory, investigative, and informative functions, spelled out elsewhere in Section 6.

In 1975, two years after National Petroleum Refiners was decided, Congress granted the FTC specific consumer-protection rulemaking authority (authorizing enactment of trade regulation rules dealing with unfair or deceptive acts or practices) through Section 202 of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which added Section 18 to the FTC Act. Magnuson-Moss rulemakings impose adjudicatory-type hearings and other specific requirements on the FTC, unlike more flexible section 6(g) APA informal rulemakings. However, the FTC can obtain civil penalties for violation of Magnuson-Moss rules, something it cannot do if 6(g) rules are violated.

In a recent set of public comments filed with the FTC, the Antitrust Section of the American Bar Association stated:

[T]he Commission’s [6(g)] rulemaking authority is buried in within an enumerated list of investigative powers, such as the power to require reports from corporations and partnerships, for example. Furthermore, the [FTC] Act fails to provide any sanctions for violating any rule adopted pursuant to Section 6(g). These two features strongly suggest that Congress did not intend to give the agency substantive rulemaking powers when it passed the Federal Trade Commission Act.

Rephrased, this argument suggests that the structure of the FTC Act indicates that the rulemaking referenced in Section 6(g) is best understood as an aid to FTC processes and investigations, not a source of substantive policymaking. Although the National Petroleum Refiners decision rejected such a reading, that ruling came at a time of significant judicial deference to federal agency activism, and may be dated.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s April 2021 decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC further bolsters the “statutory structure” argument that Section 6(g) does not authorize substantive rulemaking. In AMG, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, which empowers the FTC to seek a “permanent injunction” to restrain an FTC Act violation, does not authorize the FTC to seek monetary relief from wrongdoers. The court’s opinion rejected the FTC’s argument that the term “permanent injunction” had historically been understood to include monetary relief. The court explained that the injunctive language was “buried” in a lengthy provision that focuses on injunctive, not monetary relief (note that the term “rules” is similarly “buried” within 6(g) language dealing with unrelated issues). The court also pointed to the structure of the FTC Act, with detailed and specific monetary-relief provisions found in Sections 5(l) and 19, as “confirm[ing] the conclusion” that Section 13(b) does not grant monetary relief.

By analogy, a court could point to Congress’ detailed enumeration of substantive rulemaking provisions in Section 18 (a mere two years after National Petroleum Refiners) as cutting against the claim that Section 6(g) can also be invoked to support substantive rulemaking. Finally, the Supreme Court in AMG flatly rejected several relatively recent appeals court decisions that upheld Section 13(b) monetary-relief authority. It follows that the FTC cannot confidently rely on judicial precedent (stemming from one arguably dated court decision, National Petroleum Refiners) to uphold its competition rulemaking authority.

In sum, the FTC will have to overcome serious fundamental legal challenges to its section 6(g) competition rulemaking authority if it seeks to promulgate competition rules.

Even if the FTC’s 6(g) authority is upheld, it faces three other types of litigation-related risks.

First, applying the nondelegation doctrine, courts might hold that the broad term “unfair methods of competition” does not provide the FTC “an intelligible principle” to guide the FTC’s exercise of discretion in rulemaking. Such a judicial holding would mean the FTC could not issue competition rules.

Second, a reviewing court might strike down individual proposed rules as “arbitrary and capricious” if, say, the court found that the FTC rulemaking record did not sufficiently take into account potentially procompetitive manifestations of a condemned practice.

Third, even if a final competition rule passes initial legal muster, applying its terms to individual businesses charged with rule violations may prove difficult. Individual businesses may seek to structure their conduct to evade the particular strictures of a rule, and changes in commercial practices may render less common the specific acts targeted by a rule’s language.

Economic Policy Concerns Raised by Competition Rulemaking

In addition to legal risks, any cost-benefit appraisal of FTC competition rulemaking should consider the economic policy concerns raised by competition rulemaking. These fall into two broad categories.

First, competition rules would generate higher error costs than adjudications. Adjudications cabin error costs by allowing for case-specific analysis of likely competitive harms and procompetitive benefits. In contrast, competition rules inherently would be overbroad and would suffer from a very high rate of false positives. By characterizing certain practices as inherently anticompetitive without allowing for consideration of case-specific facts bearing on actual competitive effects, findings of rule violations inevitably would condemn some (perhaps many) efficient arrangements.

Second, competition rules would undermine the rule of law and thereby reduce economic welfare. FTC-only competition rules could lead to disparate legal treatment of a firm’s business practices, depending upon whether the FTC or the U.S. Justice Department was the investigating agency. Also, economic efficiency gains could be lost due to the chilling of aggressive efficiency-seeking business arrangements in those sectors subject to rules.

Conclusion

A combination of legal risks and economic policy harms strongly counsels against the FTC’s promulgation of substantive competition rules.

First, litigation issues would consume FTC resources and add to the costly delays inherent in developing competition rules in the first place. The compounding of separate serious litigation risks suggests a significant probability that costs would be incurred in support of rules that ultimately would fail to be applied.

Second, even assuming competition rules were to be upheld, their application would raise serious economic policy questions. The inherent inflexibility of rule-based norms is ill-suited to deal with dynamic evolving market conditions, compared with matter-specific antitrust litigation that flexibly applies the latest economic thinking to particular circumstances. New competition rules would also exacerbate costly policy inconsistencies stemming from the existence of dual federal antitrust enforcement agencies, the FTC and the Justice Department.

In conclusion, an evaluation of rule-related legal risks and economic policy concerns demonstrates that a reallocation of some FTC enforcement resources to the development of competition rules would not be cost-effective. Continued sole reliance on case-by-case antitrust litigation would generate greater economic welfare than a mixture of litigation and competition rules.

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

FCC regulations can’t override congressional policy favoring arbitration

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

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

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

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

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

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

The evidence suggests that arbitration is pro-consumer

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Empowering the 21st century [trial attorney]”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earlier this month, Representatives Peter DeFazio and Jason Chaffetz picked up the gauntlet from President Obama’s comments on February 14 at a Google-sponsored Internet Q&A on Google+ that “our efforts at patent reform only went about halfway to where we need to go” and that he would like “to see if we can build some additional consensus on smarter patent laws.” So, Reps. DeFazio and Chaffetz introduced on March 1 the Saving High-tech Innovators from Egregious Legal Disputes (SHIELD) Act, which creates a “losing plaintiff patent-owner pays” litigation system for a single type of patent owner—patent licensing companies that purchase and license patents in the marketplace (and who sue infringers when infringers refuse their requests to license). To Google, to Representative DeFazio, and to others, these patent licensing companies are “patent trolls” who are destroyers of all things good—and the SHIELD Act will save us all from these dastardly “trolls” (is a troll anything but dastardly?).

As I and other scholars have pointed out, the “patent troll” moniker is really just a rhetorical epithet that lacks even an agreed-upon definition.  The term is used loosely enough that it sometimes covers and sometimes excludes universities, Thomas Edison, Elias Howe (the inventor of the lockstitch in 1843), Charles Goodyear (the inventor of vulcanized rubber in 1839), and even companies like IBM.  How can we be expected to have a reasonable discussion about patent policy when our basic terms of public discourse shift in meaning from blog to blog, article to article, speaker to speaker?  The same is true of the new term, “Patent Assertion Entities,” which sounds more neutral, but has the same problem in that it also lacks any objective definition or usage.

Setting aside this basic problem of terminology for the moment, the SHIELD Act is anything but a “smarter patent law” (to quote President Obama). Some patent scholars, like Michael Risch, have begun to point out some of the serious problems with the SHIELD Act, such as its selectively discriminatory treatment of certain types of patent-owners.  Moreover, as Professor Risch ably identifies, this legislation was so cleverly drafted to cover only a limited set of a specific type of patent-owner that it ended up being too clever. Unlike the previous version introduced last year, the 2013 SHIELD Act does not even apply to the flavor-of-the-day outrage over patent licensing companies—the owner of the podcast patent. (Although you wouldn’t know this if you read the supporters of the SHIELD Act like the EFF who falsely claim that this law will stop patent-owners like the podcast patent-owning company.)

There are many things wrong with the SHIELD Act, but one thing that I want to highlight here is that it based on a falsehood: the oft-repeated claim that two Boston University researchers have proven in a study that “patent troll suits cost American technology companies over $29 billion in 2011 alone.”  This is what Rep. DeFazio said when he introduced the SHIELD Act on March 1. This claim was repeated yesterday by House Members during a hearing on “Abusive Patent Litigation.” The claim that patent licensing companies cost American tech companies $29 billion in a single year (2011) has become gospel since this study, The Direct Costs from NPE Disputes, was released last summer on the Internet. (Another name of patent licensing companies is “Non Practicing Entity” or “NPE.”)  A Google search of “patent troll 29 billion” produces 191,000 hits. A Google search of “NPE 29 billion” produces 605,000 hits. Such is the making of conventional wisdom.

The problem with conventional wisdom is that it is usually incorrect, and the study that produced the claim of “$29 billion imposed by patent trolls” is no different. The $29 billion cost study is deeply and fundamentally flawed, as explained by two noted professors, David Schwartz and Jay Kesan, who are also highly regarded for their empirical and economic work in patent law.  In their essay, Analyzing the Role of Non-Practicing Entities in the Patent System, also released late last summer, they detailed at great length serious methodological and substantive flaws in The Direct Costs from NPE Disputes. Unfortunately, the Schwartz and Kesan essay has gone virtually unnoticed in the patent policy debates, while the $29 billion cost claim has through repetition become truth.

In the hope that at least a few more people might discover the Schwartz and Kesan essay, I will briefly summarize some of their concerns about the study that produced the $29 billion cost figure.  This is not merely an academic exercise.  Since Rep. DeFazio explicitly relied on the $29 billion cost claim to justify the SHIELD Act, and he and others keep repeating it, it’s important to know if it is true, because it’s being used to drive proposed legislation in the real world.  If patent legislation is supposed to secure innovation, then it behooves us to know if this legislation is based on actual facts. Yet, as Schwartz and Kesan explain in their essay, the $29 billion cost claim is based on a study that is fundamentally flawed in both substance and methodology.

In terms of its methodological flaws, the study supporting the $29 billion cost claim employs an incredibly broad definition of “patent troll” that covers almost every person, corporation or university that sues someone for infringing a patent that it is not currently being used to manufacture a product at that moment.  While the meaning of the “patent troll” epithet shifts depending on the commentator, reporter, blogger, or scholar who is using it, one would be extremely hard pressed to find anyone embracing this expansive usage in patent scholarship or similar commentary today.

There are several reasons why the extremely broad definition of “NPE” or “patent troll” in the study is unusual even compared to uses of this term in other commentary or studies. First, and most absurdly, this definition, by necessity, includes every university in the world that sues someone for infringing one of its patents, as universities don’t manufacture goods.  Second, it includes every individual and start-up company who plans to manufacture a patented invention, but is forced to sue an infringer-competitor who thwarted these business plans by its infringing sales in the marketplace.  Third, it includes commercial firms throughout the wide-ranging innovation industries—from high tech to biotech to traditional manufacturing—that have at least one patent among a portfolio of thousands that is not being used at the moment to manufacture a product because it may be “well outside the area in which they make products” and yet they sue infringers of this patent (the quoted language is from the study). So, according to this study, every manufacturer becomes an “NPE” or “patent troll” if it strays too far from what somebody subjectively defines as its rightful “area” of manufacturing. What company is not branded an “NPE” or “patent troll” under this definition, or will necessarily become one in the future given inevitable changes in one’s business plans or commercial activities? This is particularly true for every person or company whose only current opportunity to reap the benefit of their patented invention is to license the technology or to litigate against the infringers who refuse license offers.

So, when almost every possible patent-owning person, university, or corporation is defined as a “NPE” or “patent troll,” why are we surprised that a study that employs this virtually boundless definition concludes that they create $29 billion in litigation costs per year?  The only thing surprising is that the number isn’t even higher!

There are many other methodological flaws in the $29 billion cost study, such as its explicit assumption that patent litigation costs are “too high” without providing any comparative baseline for this conclusion.  What are the costs in other areas of litigation, such as standard commercial litigation, tort claims, or disputes over complex regulations?  We are not told.  What are the historical costs of patent litigation?  We are not told.  On what basis then can we conclude that $29 billion is “too high” or even “too low”?  We’re supposed to be impressed by a number that exists in a vacuum and that lacks any empirical context by which to evaluate it.

The $29 billion cost study also assumes that all litigation transaction costs are deadweight losses, which would mean that the entire U.S. court system is a deadweight loss according to the terms of this study.  Every lawsuit, whether a contract, tort, property, regulatory or constitutional dispute is, according to the assumption of the $29 billion cost study, a deadweight loss.  The entire U.S. court system is an inefficient cost imposed on everyone who uses it.  Really?  That’s an assumption that reduces itself to absurdity—it’s a self-imposed reductio ad absurdum!

In addition to the methodological problems, there are also serious concerns about the trustworthiness and quality of the actual data used to reach the $29 billion claim in the study.  All studies rely on data, and in this case, the $29 billion study used data from a secret survey done by RPX of its customers.  For those who don’t know, RPX’s business model is to defend companies against these so-called “patent trolls.”  So, a company whose business model is predicated on hyping the threat of “patent trolls” does a secret survey of its paying customers, and it is now known that RPX informed its customers in the survey that their answers would be used to lobby for changes in the patent laws.

As every reputable economist or statistician will tell you, such conditions encourage exaggeration and bias in a data sample by motivating participation among those who support changes to the patent law.  Such a problem even has a formal name in economic studies: self-selection bias.  But one doesn’t need to be an economist or statistician to be able to see the problems in relying on the RPX data to conclude that NPEs cost $29 billion per year. As the classic adage goes, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Even worse, as I noted above, the RPX survey was confidential.  RPX has continued to invoke “client confidences” in refusing to disclose its actual customer survey or the resulting data, which means that the data underlying the $29 billion claim is completely unknown and unverifiable for anyone who reads the study.  Don’t worry, the researchers have told us in a footnote in the study, they looked at the data and confirmed it is good.  Again, it doesn’t take economic or statistical training to know that something is not right here. Another classic cliché comes to mind at this point: “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.”

In fact, keeping data secret in a published study violates well-established and longstanding norms in all scientific research that data should always be made available for testing and verification by third parties.  No peer-reviewed medical or scientific journal would publish a study based on a secret data set in which the researchers have told us that we should simply trust them that the data is accurate.  Its use of secret data probably explains why the $29 billion study has not yet appeared in a peer-reviewed journal, and, if economics has any claim to being an actual science, this study never will.  If a study does not meet basic scientific standards for verifying data, then why are Reps. DeFazio and Chaffetz relying on it to propose national legislation that directly impacts the patent system and future innovation?  If heads-in-the-clouds academics would know to reject such a study as based on unverifiable, likely biased claptrap, then why are our elected officials embracing it to create real-world legal rules?

And, to continue our running theme of classic clichés, there’s the rub. The more one looks at the actual legal requirements of the SHIELD Act, the more, in the words of Professor Risch, one is left “scratching one’s head” in bewilderment.  The more one looks at the supporting studies and arguments in favor of the SHIELD Act, the more one is left, in the words of Professor Risch, “scratching one’s head.”  The more and more one thinks about the SHIELD Act, the more one realizes what it is—legislation that has been crafted at the behest of the politically powerful (such as an Internet company who can get the President to do a special appearance on its own social media website) to have the government eliminate a smaller, publicly reviled, and less politically-connected group.

In short, people may have legitimate complaints about the ways in which the court system in the U.S. generally has problems.  Commentators and Congresspersons could even consider revising the general legal rules governing patent ligtiation for all plaintiffs and defendants to make the ligitation system work better or more efficiently (by some established metric).   Professor Risch has done exactly this in a recent Wired op-ed.  But it’s time to call a spade a spade: the SHIELD Act is a classic example of rent-seeking, discriminatory legislation.

The day before yesterday I posted on the fascinating and important TiVo v. EchoStar case.  Today I wanted to follow up with some, let’s say, color commentary on EchoStar’s litigation tactics.  This isn’t dispositive, of course, but it does seem to add some insight into the notion that EchoStar is taking advantage of questionable litigation tactics rather than respecting property rights in its dealings with TiVo.

You’ll recall that, in the case, EchoStar lost at trial, ignored the judge’s order to stop infringing, was held in contempt, and continues infringing today.  This has resulted in numerous legal proceedings, all managing to keep TiVo bogged down in litigation as EchoStar continues to misappropriate TiVo’s intellectual property.  Although EchoStar has accrued substantial legal expenses—and damage awards from both a jury and the judge—they are dwarfed by its DVR revenues.

It turns out that courtroom shenanigans are no stranger to EchoStar.

Just last week, a state trial judge in Manhattan found that EchoStar exhibited grossly negligent behavior in a case involving Cablevision’s VOOM subsidiary.  The language in VOOM v. EchoStar characterized EchoStar’s misconduct  (allowing critical e-mail evidence to be destroyed) in an exceedingly harsh manner, holding that EchoStar “systematically destroyed evidence in direct violation of the law and in the face of a ruling by a federal court that criticized EchoStar for the same bad-faith conduct . . . .” The judge went on to characterize EchoStar as engaging in “procedural gamesmanship” and noted “EchoStar’s pattern of questionable — and, at times, blatantly improper — litigation tactics.”

The court further described EchoStar’s conduct as “precisely the type of offensive conduct that cannot be tolerated by the courts.” It rebuked “EchoStar’s last-minute finagling with expert reports, believing that it can play fast and loose with the rules of procedure in order to enhance its litigation posture . . . throughout this litigation, EchoStar has been hoist by its own petard.”

Arguably EchoStar has made this type of legal strategy part of its business model.

In the TiVo case, like many others, EchoStar’s gamesmanship and its propensity to abuse the law has become a central issue. In an amicus brief submitted by agricultural organizations in the TiVo case, the groups argue: “EchoStar’s conduct in this case . . . and in other cases, displays a propensity to flout court orders,” and goes on to cite several examples of this behavior, including:

  • breaking promises to the court (CBS Broad. Inc. v. EchoStarCommc’ns Corp., 276 F. Supp. 2d 1237, 1246 (S.D. Fl. 2003));
  • patently unmeritorious claims of error (CBS Broadcasting Inc. v. EchoStar Commc’ns Corp., 450 F.3d 505, 523, 526 (11th Cir. 2006));
  • misleading and coercive communication (Air Commun. & Satellite Inc. v. Echostar Satellite Corp., 38 P.3d 1246, 1254 (Colo. 2002));
  • and even frivolous actions (Dominion Video Satellite, Inc. v. EchoStar Satellite L.L.C., 430 F.3d 1269, 1278 (10th Cir. 2005)).
  • Further, in a 2004 case, one federal judge claimed that “EchoStar’s action rises to the level of conscious wrongdoing” (EchoStar Satellite Corp. v. Brockbank Ins. Servs., No. 00-MK-1513, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31130 (D. Colo. Feb. 4, 2004)),
  • another chided EchoStar for failing “in its duty of candor . . . .We admonish EchoStar for this abuse of process” (EchoStar Satellite Corp. v. Young Broad. Inc., 16 F.C.C.R. 15070, 15076 (Aug. 2, 2001)).

Of course any good lawyer advocating for his client may push the envelope, and some of these procedural matters are governed by standards that are less than clear.  But this is a worrisome list of excesses, and should certainly raise eyebrows in the TiVo case.

Of a piece with this, in addition to the problem of EchoStar’s overall strategy of delay, avoidance and misappropriation in the TiVo case, is also EchoStar’s fantastic claim that upholding the lower court’s contempt proceeding would inflict serious hardship on the firm, causing it to lose a substantial fraction of its present and future customer base (to the tune of $90 million per month).  Unfortunately, this customer base was built, indisputably (that is, undisputed even by EchoStar which does not challenge the underlying infringement finding), on the back of TiVo’s misappropriated technology.  It is like the child who murders her parents and then throws herself on the mercy of the court as an orphan. It seems absurd to listen to EchoStar claim hardship from the prospect of losing business it never earned in the first place.

As Richard Epstein noted in his amicus brief in the case:

In effect EchoStar’s argument is that once it has built up a large business on the back of someone else’s patents, it should be allowed to reap those profits for the indefinite future.  The size of its own illicit gains becomes the tool it deftly uses to extend its illicit activity indefinitely.  This approach creates the perverse outcome that the longer the defendant is able to wiggle away from legal sanctions, the stronger is its case to continue on its unlawful path.  EchoStar’s claims of large future losses prove only one thing: that its large monthly losses make the damages awarded for TiVo in 2006 look puny relative to the continuing harm from EchoStar’s misbehavior.

The VOOM holding is just the latest in a serial pattern of courtroom distractions and legal delays. It seems EchoStar has made a practice out of disobeying court orders and pushing the legal system to the limits. Like the TiVo case, VOOM and others demonstrate that a determined party can drag out the legal process and prevent the other side from obtaining a remedy for harm it has suffered. As I noted the other day, this is particularly true for software devices and other complex products, where trivial changes can be exaggerated in an effort to run out the clock on a patent.

In the TiVo case the stakes are enormous. EchoStar is working to undermine the role of the courts in enforcing the intellectual property rights that facilitate innovation.  And more, a victory for EchoStar would send a message to large and small companies, innovators and capitalists that abusing the court’s rules of procedure is not only fair game, but also a legitimate business tactic.