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[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the legal and regulatory issues that arose during Ajit Pai’s tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The entire series of posts is available here.

Brent Skorup is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.]

Ajit Pai came into the Federal Communications Commission chairmanship with a single priority: to improve the coverage, cost, and competitiveness of U.S. broadband for the benefit of consumers. The 5G Fast Plan, the formation of the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, the large spectrum auctions, and other broadband infrastructure initiatives over the past four years have resulted in accelerated buildouts and higher-quality services. Millions more Americans have gotten connected because of agency action and industry investment.

That brings us to Chairman Pai’s most important action: restoring the deregulatory stance of the FCC toward broadband services and repealing the Title II “net neutrality” rules in 2018. Had he not done this, his and future FCCs would have been bogged down in inscrutable, never-ending net neutrality debates, reminiscent of the Fairness Doctrine disputes that consumed the agency 50 years ago. By doing that, he cleared the decks for the pro-deployment policies that followed and redirected the agency away from its roots in mass-media policy toward a future where the agency’s primary responsibilities are encouraging broadband deployment and adoption.

It took tremendous courage from Chairman Pai and Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr to vote to repeal the 2015 Title II regulations, though they probably weren’t prepared for the public reaction to a seemingly arcane dispute over regulatory classification. The hysteria ginned up by net-neutrality advocates, members of Congress, celebrities, and too-credulous journalists was unlike anything I’ve seen in political advocacy. Advocates, of course, don’t intend to provoke disturbed individuals but the irresponsible predictions of “the end of the internet as we know it” and widespread internet service provider (ISP) content blocking drove one man to call in a bomb threat to the FCC, clearing the building in a desperate attempt to delay or derail the FCC’s Title II repeal. At least two other men pleaded guilty to federal charges after issuing vicious death threats to Chairman Pai, a New York congressman, and their families in the run-up to the regulation’s repeal. No public official should have to face anything resembling that over a policy dispute.

For all the furor, net-neutrality advocates promised a neutral internet that never was and never will be. ”Happy little bunny rabbit dreams” is how David Clark of MIT, an early chief protocol architect of the internet, derided the idea of treating all online traffic the same. Relatedly, the no-blocking rule—the sine na qua of net neutrality—was always a legally dubious requirement. Legal scholars for years had called into doubt the constitutionality of imposing must-carry requirements on ISPs. Unsurprisingly, a federal appellate judge pressed this point in oral arguments defending the net neutrality rules in 2016. The Obama FCC attorney conceded without a fight; even after the net neutrality order, ISPs were “absolutely” free to curate the internet.

Chairman Pai recognized that the fight wasn’t about website blocking and it wasn’t, strictly speaking, about net neutrality. This was the latest front in the long battle over whether the FCC should strictly regulate mass-media distribution. There is a long tradition of progressive distrust of new (unregulated) media. The media access movement that pushed for broadcast TV and radio and cable regulations from the 1960s to 1980s never went away, but the terminology has changed: disinformation, net neutrality, hate speech, gatekeeper.

The decline in power of regulated media—broadcast radio and TV—and the rising power of unregulated internet-based media—social media, Netflix, and podcasts—meant that the FCC and Congress had few ways to shape American news and media consumption. In the words of Tim Wu, the law professor who coined the term “net neutrality,” the internet rules are about giving the agency the continuing ability to shape “media policy, social policy, oversight of the political process, [and] issues of free speech.”

Title II was the only tool available to bring this powerful new media—broadband access—under intense regulatory scrutiny by regulators and the political class. As net-neutrality advocate and Public Knowledge CEO Gene Kimmelman has said, the 2015 Order was about threatening the industry with vague but severe rules: “Legal risk and some ambiguity around what practices will be deemed ‘unreasonably discriminatory’ have been effective tools to instill fear for the last 20 years” for the telecom industry. Internet regulation advocates, he said at the time, “have to have fight after fight over every claim of discrimination, of new service or not.”

Chairman Pai and the Republican commissioners recognized the threat that Title II posed, not only to free speech, but to the FCC’s goals of expanding telecommunications services and competition. Net neutrality would draw the agency into contentious mass-media regulation once again, distracting it from universal service efforts, spectrum access and auctions, and cleaning up the regulatory detritus that had slowly accumulated since the passage of the agency’s guiding statutes: the 1934 Communications Act and the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

There are probably items that Chairman Pai wish he’d finished or had done slightly differently. He’s left a proud legacy, however, and his politically risky decision to repeal the Title II rules redirected agency energies away from no-win net-neutrality battles and toward broadband deployment and infrastructure. Great progress was made and one hopes the Biden FCC chairperson will continue that trajectory that Pai set.

Monday July 22, ICLE filed a regulatory comment arguing the leased access requirements enforced by the FCC are unconstitutional compelled speech that violate the First Amendment. 

When the DC Circuit Court of Appeals last reviewed the constitutionality of leased access rules in Time Warner v. FCC, cable had so-called “bottleneck power” over the marketplace for video programming and, just a few years prior, the Supreme Court had subjected other programming regulations to intermediate scrutiny in Turner v. FCC

Intermediate scrutiny is a lower standard than the strict scrutiny usually required for First Amendment claims. Strict scrutiny requires a regulation of speech to be narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest. Intermediate scrutiny only requires a regulation to further an important or substantial governmental interest unrelated to the suppression of free expression, and the incidental restriction speech must be no greater than is essential to the furtherance of that interest.

But, since the decisions in Time Warner and Turner, there have been dramatic changes in the video marketplace (including the rise of the Internet!) and cable no longer has anything like “bottleneck power.” Independent programmers have many distribution options to get content to consumers. Since the justification for intermediate scrutiny is no longer an accurate depiction of the competitive marketplace, the leased rules should be subject to strict scrutiny.

And, if subject to strict scrutiny, the leased access rules would not survive judicial review. Even accepting that there is a compelling governmental interest, the rules are not narrowly tailored to that end. Not only are they essentially obsolete in the highly competitive video distribution marketplace, but antitrust law would be better suited to handle any anticompetitive abuses of market power by cable operators. There is no basis for compelling the cable operators to lease some of their channels to unaffiliated programmers.

Our full comments are here

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.]

Commentators who see Trinko as an impediment to the claim that antitrust law can take care of harmful platform access problems (and thus that prospective rate regulation (i.e., net neutrality) is not necessary), commit an important error in making their claim–and it is a similar error committed by those who advocate for search neutrality regulation, as well.  In both cases, proponents are advocating for a particular remedy to an undemonstrated problem, rather than attempting to assess whether there is really a problem in the first place.  In the net neutrality context, it may be true that Trinko would prevent the application of antitrust laws to mandate neutral access as envisioned by Free Press, et al.  But that is not the same as saying Trinko precludes the application of antitrust laws.  In fact, there is nothing in Trinko that would prevent regulators and courts from assessing the anticompetitive consequences of particular network management decisions undertaken by a dominant network provider.  This is where the concerns do and should lie–not with an aesthetic preference for a particular form of regulation putatively justified as a response to this concern.  Indeed, “net neutrality” as an antitrust remedy, to the extent that it emanates from essential facilities arguments, is and should be precluded by Trinko.

But the Court seems to me to be pretty clear in Trinko that an antitrust case can be made, even against a firm regulated under the Telecommunications Act:

Section 601(b)(1) of the 1996 Act is an antitrust-specific saving clause providing that “nothing in this Act or the amendments made by this Act shall be construed to modify, impair, or supersede the applicability of any of the antitrust laws.”  This bars a finding of implied immunity. As the FCC has put the point, the saving clause preserves those “claims that satisfy established antitrust standards.”

But just as the 1996 Act preserves claims that satisfy existing antitrust standards, it does not create new claims that go beyond existing antitrust standards; that would be equally inconsistent with the saving clause’s mandate that nothing in the Act “modify, impair, or supersede the applicability” of the antitrust laws.

There is no problem assessing run of the mill anticompetitive conduct using “established antitrust standards.”  But that doesn’t mean that a net neutrality remedy can be constructed from such a case, nor does it mean that precisely the same issues that proponents of net neutrality seek to resolve with net neutrality are necessarily cognizable anticompetitive concerns.

For example, as Josh noted the other day, quoting Tom Hazlett, proponents of net neutrality seem to think that it should apply indiscriminately against even firms with no monopoly power (and thus no ability to inflict consumer harm in the traditional antitrust sense).  Trinko (along with a vast quantity of other antitrust precedent) would prevent the application of antitrust laws to reach this conduct–and thus, indeed, antitrust and net neutrality as imagined by its proponents are not coextensive.  I think this is very much to the good.  But, again, nothing in Trinko or elsewhere in the antitrust laws would prohibit an antitrust case against a dominant firm engaged in anticompetitive conduct just because it was also regulated by the FCC.

Critics point to language like this in Trinko to support their contrary claim:

One factor of particular importance is the existence of a regulatory structure designed to deter and remedy anticompetitive harm. Where such a structure exists, the additional benefit to competition provided by antitrust enforcement will tend to be small, and it will be less plausible that the antitrust laws contemplate such additional scrutiny.

But I don’t think that helps them at all.  What the Court is saying is not that one regulatory scheme precludes the other, but rather that if a regulatory scheme mandates conduct that makes the actuality of anticompetitive harm less likely, then the application of necessarily-imperfect antitrust law is likely to do more harm than good.  Thus the Court notes that

The regulatory framework that exists in this case demonstrates how, in certain circumstances, “regulation significantly diminishes the likelihood of major antitrust harm.”

But this does not say that regulation precludes the application of antitrust law.  Nor does it preclude the possibility that antitrust harm can still exist; nor does it suggest that any given regulatory regime reduces the likelihood of any given anticompetitive harm–and if net neutrality proponents could show that the regulatory regime did not in fact diminish the likelihood of antitrust harm, nothing in Trinko would suggest that antitrust should not apply.

So let’s get out there and repeal that FCC net neutrality order and let antitrust deal with any problems that might arise.