The Washington Post carried an article earlier this week by Cecilia Kang that noted the Federal Trade Commission could gain enforcement power over online businesses as a result of the financial services legislation under discussion in Congress. Ms. Kang contrasted the possibility of an empowered FTC issuing fast-track regulations against the recent experience of the Federal Communications Commission, which has become bogged down in its search for legal authority to issue net neutrality regulations.
The comparison is insightful, but not for the reasons you might expect. Part of the debate over the FTC revolves around language in the House financial services bill that would repeal the “Magnuson-Moss” provisions that govern FTC promulgation of consumer protection regulations. (The name comes from the fact that these restrictions on FTC rulemaking were included in the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which got the FTC into the business of regulating car warranties.)
If the FTC wants to regulate some type of general business practice under the FTC Act, it has to establish a factual record substantiating that there is actually a systemic problem that regulation can solve, hold a public hearing, allow cross-examination on factual matters, and conduct an economic analysis of the regulation’s effects. In short, the commission has to do the homework necessary to demonstrate that its proposed regulation will actually solve a widespread problem that actually exists.
When Tim Muris directed the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection in the early 1980s, he authored an article in Regulation magazine pointing out that when the FTC does careful analysis before issuing a rule, the rule is more likely to benefit consumers, more likely to be upheld in court, and more likely to be issued expeditiously. He contrasted the evidence-based eyeglass rule, which took three years to issue, with the anecdote-based funeral rule, which took ten. Muris noted wryly, “Some critics of my position charge that it is revolutionary to ask a body of lawyers and economists not to impose its own view of proper regulation on the world without first systematically evaluating the problem.” Muris went on to serve as chairman of the FTC between 2001-04, and last month he defended the Magnuson-Moss restrictions in testimony before Congress.
What does this have to do with the FCC? The FCC lost its case against Comcast on appeal, precisely because the FCC tried to take shortcuts. The FCC tried to promote net neutrality by enforcing a set of “principles” that originated in a former chairman’s speech and were never promulgated in a notice-and-comment rulemaking. The FCC commissioners endorsed these principles without investigating whether there was a systemic problem (ie, more than a few anecdotes of misbehavior). Indeed, Chairman Martin’s Notice of Inquiry on “Broadband Industry Practices” that was launched around the same time the FCC took its enforcement action against Comcast turned up no evidence of a systemic problem. If the FCC now tries to impose net neutrality by reclassifying broadband as a “Title II” common carrier, it will have to do the difficult but necessary work of demonstrating, with real factual evidence, that broadband is more like a common carrier than like the lightly-regulated “information service” the commission previously decided it was.
We don’t need Congress to free the FTC from Magnuson-Moss. Instead, Congress should impose the same requirements on the FCC. Sometimes, taking the time to do your homework leads to better decisions, sooner.