Media Regulation

It appears that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler is returning to a competition-based approach to communications regulation. Chairman Wheeler’s emphasis on “competition, competition, competition” indicates his intent to intervene in communications markets only when it is necessary to correct a market failure.

I expect most on both sides of the political spectrum would welcome a return to rigorous market analysis at the FCC, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. The American Television Alliance (ATVA), whose FCC petition wouldn’t withstand even a cursory market power analysis, is sure to be among the displeased.

The ATVA petition asks the FCC to regulate prices for retransmission consent (the prices video service providers (VSPs) pay for the rights to provide broadcast television programming to pay-TV subscribers) because retransmission fees and competition among VSPs are increasing. Though true, this data doesn’t indicate that TV stations or broadcast television networks have market power — it indicates that legislative and policy efforts to increase competition among VSPs are working. Continue reading →

In December, Reps. Upton and Walden announced that they intend to update the Communications Act, which saw its last major revision in 1996. Today marks the deadline to submit initial comments regarding updating the Act. Below is my submission, which includes reference to a Mercatus paper by Raymond Gifford analyzing the Digital Age Communications (DACA) reports. These bipartisan reports would largely replace and reform our deficient communications laws.

Dear Chairman Upton,

As you and Rep. Walden recently acknowledged, U.S. communications law needs updating to remove accumulated regulatory excess and to strengthen market forces. When the 1934 Communications Act was passed, there was a national monopoly telephone provider and Congress’s understanding of radio spectrum physics was rudimentary. Chief among the Communication Act’s many flaws was giving the Federal Communication Commission authority to regulate wired and wireless communications according to “public interest, convenience, and necessity,” an amorphous standard that has been frequently abused. If delegating this expansive grant of discretion to the FCC was ever sensible, it clearly no longer is. Today, eight decades later, with competition between video, telephone, and Internet providers taking place over wired and wireless networks, the public interest standard simply invites costly rent-seeking and stifles technologies and business opportunities.

Like an old cottage receiving several massive additions spanning decades by different clumsy architects, communications law is a disorganized and dilapidated structure that should be razed and reconstituted. As new technologies emerged since the 1930s—broadcast television, cable, satellite, mobile phones, the Internet—and upended existing regulated businesses, the FCC and Congress layered on new rules attempting to mitigate the distortions.

Congressional attempts at reforming communications laws have appeared regularly ever since the 1996 amendments. During the last such attempt, in 2011, the Mercatus Center released a study discussing and summarizing a model for communications law reform known as the Digital Age Communications Act (DACA). That model legislation—consisting of five reports released in 2005 and 2006—came from the bipartisan DACA Working Group. The reports addressed five areas:

1. Regulatory framework;
2. Universal service;
3. Spectrum reform;
4. Federal-state jurisdiction; and
5. Institutional reform.

The DACA reports represent a flexible, market-oriented agenda from dozens of experts that, if implemented, would spur innovation, encourage competition, and benefit consumers. The regulatory framework report is the centerpiece recommendation and adopts a proposal largely based on the Federal Trade Commission Act, which provides a reformed FCC with nearly a century of common law for guidance. Significantly, the reports replace the FCC’s misused “public interest” standard with the general “unfair competition standard” from the FTC Act.

Despite the passage of time, those reports have held up remarkably well. The 2011 Mercatus paper describing the DACA reports is attached for submission in the record. The scholars at Mercatus are happy to discuss this paper and the cited materials below—including the DACA reports—further with Energy & Commerce Committee staff as they draft white papers and reform proposals.

Thank you for initiating discussion about updating the Communications Act. Reform can give America’s innovative technology and telecommunications sector a predictable and technology-neutral legal framework. When Congress replaces command-and-control rules with market forces, consumers will be the primary beneficiaries.

Sincerely,

Brent Skorup
Research Fellow, Technology Policy Program
Mercatus Center at George Mason University

Resources

Digital Age Communications Act (DACA) Working Groups Reports.

JEFFREY A. EISENACH ET AL., THE TELECOM REVOLUTION: AN AMERICAN OPPORTUNITY (1995).

Raymond L. Gifford, The Continuing Case for Serious Communications Law Reform, Mercatus Center Working Paper No. 11-44 (2011).

PETER HUBER, LAW AND DISORDER IN CYBERSPACE: ABOLISH THE FCC AND LET COMMON LAW RULE THE TELECOSM (1997).

On its face, Verizon won a resounding victory in Verizon v. FCC since the controversial net neutrality regulations were vacated by all three DC Circuit judges. This marks the second time in four years the FCC had its net neutrality enforcement struck down.

Look at published reactions, though, and you’ll see that both sides feel they suffered a damaging loss in yesterday’s decision.

Prominent net neutrality advocates say “the court loss was even more emphatic and disastrous than anyone expected” and a “FEMA-level fail.”

Conversely, critics of net neutrality say that it was a “big win for FCC” and that “the court has given the FCC near limitless power to regulate not just broadband, but the Internet itself.”

Most analysis of the case will point out that it’s a mixed bag for both sides. What is clear is that the net neutrality movement suffered an almost complete loss in the short term. The FCC’s regulations from the Open Internet Order preventing ISPs from “unreasonable discrimination” and “blocking” of Internet traffic were struck down. The court said those prohibitions are equivalent to common carrier obligations. Since ISPs are not common carriers–per previous FCC rulings–most of the Open Internet Order was vacated.

The long term is more uncertain and net neutrality critics have ample reason to be concerned. The court yesterday said the FCC has broad authority to regulate ISPs’ treatment of traffic under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. This somewhat unanticipated conclusion–given its breadth–leaves the FCC with several options if it wants to enact net neutrality or “net neutrality-lite” regulations.

Putting aside the possibility that the FCC or Verizon will appeal the decision, these are the developments to watch:

1. Title II reclassification.

The FCC could always reclassify ISPs as common carriers and subject them to common carrier obligations. I think this is unlikely for several reasons.

First, reclassification would absolutely poison relationships with Congressional Republicans, some important Democrats, and the broadband industry. This is a large reason why then-FCC Chairman Genachowski did not seriously pursue reclassification in 2010. If anything, the political climate is worse for reclassification. Republicans and ISPs simply oppose reclassification more than Democrats and advocates support it.

Second, the content companies–like Google, Hulu, and Netflix–who would ostensibly benefit from net neutrality seem to have cooled to the idea. Part of content companies’ waning interest in net neutrality, I suspect, is exhaustion. This fight has gone on for a decade with little to show for it. They may also realize that ISPs are not likely to engage in truly abusive behaviors. Broadband speeds and capacity have advanced substantially in a decade and concerns about being squeezed out have lessened. There are also powerful norms that ISPs are not likely to violate. Consumers don’t like unseemly behavior by ISPs–like throttling a competing VoIP or video provider. If only because of the PR risk, ISPs have significant incentives to maintain the level of service they have historically provided.

Third, reclassification is a time-consuming and legally fraught process. Even the most principled net neutrality proponents don’t want ISPs subjected to every applicable Title II obligation. But “forbearance” of Title II regulations means several regulatory proceedings, each one potentially subject to litigation.

Finally, Chairman Tom Wheeler, fortunately, does not appear to be an ideologue willing to spend most of his tenure as chairman re-fighting this bitter fight. His comments last month were telling:

I think we’re also going to see a two-sided market where Netflix might say, ‘well, I’ll pay in order to make sure that . . . my subscriber receives, the best possible transmission of this movie.’ I think we want to let those kinds of things evolve.

This statement struck dread in the hearts of many net neutrality proponents. I’ve always believed he was talking about specialized services when he made this statement since pay-for-priority deals were essentially banned by the Open Internet Order. Regardless, his apparent comfort with changing pricing dynamics in two-sided markets indicates he is not a net neutrality partisan. I suspect Chairman Wheeler wants to go down as the chairman who guided America to a mobile future. His priorities seem to be in getting spectrum auctions right, not in rehashing old battles.

2. Pay-for-priority deals.

The legal uncertainties need to be settled before ISPs begin looking at prioritization deals, but they’ll probably pursue some. For example, gaming services might want to pay ISPs to make sure gamers receive low latency connections and large enterprise customers might want prioritized traffic for services like virtual desktops for, say, on-the-road employees. No one knows how common these deals will be. In any case, these deals will probably be closely monitored by the FCC for perceived abuses of market power, as explained next.

3. Increased FCC scrutiny using Section 706.

Substantial and costly scrutiny of ISPs’ traffic management from the FCC is the long-term fear. It now appears that the FCC has many tools to regulate how ISPs treat traffic under Section 706. I call this net neutrality-lite but 706 authority has the potential to be a more powerful weapon than the Open Internet Order. Not only can the FCC use 706 to regulate ISPs through adjudications, the mere threat of using 706 against ISPs may induce compliance. If there is a bright side to the court’s recognition of the FCC’s 706 authority, it’s that it makes Title II reclassification of ISPs less likely.

Verizon v. FCC was mostly a win for those of us who viewed the Open Internet Order as a regulatory overreach. Risks remain since net neutrality as a policy goal will not die, but reclassification is a long shot, fortunately. Policy watchers will be analyzing Wheeler’s actions, in particular, to see whether the FCC pursues its Section 706 authority to regulate ISPs. Hopefully the court’s decision is accepted as final and marks the end of the most heated battles over net neutrality. The FCC could then turn its attention to important issues like spectrum auctions, the IP transition, and the rapidly changing television market.

Retransmission consent came under attack again this month, and two long-awaited bills on the subject have finally been introduced—the Next Generation Television Marketplace Act (H.R. 3720) by Rep. Steve Scalise, and the Video CHOICE (Consumers Have Options in Choosing Entertainment) Act (H.R. 3719) by Rep. Anna G. Eshoo.

The American Cable Association’s Matthew M. Polka has reiterated his view that the process whereby cable and satellite TV providers negotiate with broadcasters for the right to retransmit broadcast signals is a “far cry from the free market,” and Alan Daley and Steve Pociask with the American Consumer Institute claim that retransmission consent jeopardizes the Broadcast Television Spectrum Incentive Auction.

As Jeff Eisenach pointed out at the Hudson Institute, “Congress created retransmission consent in 1992 to take the place of the property rights that it and the FCC abrogated.  Prior to 1992, broadcasters weren’t permitted to charge anyone for retransmitting their signals.” Continue reading →

The decision to forgo distribution is referred to as a “blackout” in the cable context and “blocking” in the Internet context, but the economic considerations affecting such negotiations are substantially the same.

The American Television Alliance (ATVA), a coalition comprised primarily of cable and satellite TV operators, is using the playbook of net neutrality proponents in abid to convince the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate prices for broadcast television content. The goal of ATVA’s cable and satellite members is to increase their profit margins by convincing the government to artificially lower the cost of programming they resell to consumers. I suspect the goal of ATVA’s non-profit memberse.g.Public Knowledge and New America Foundation, is to solidify the FCC’s flawed rationale for adopting net neutrality rules in 2010, which imposed restrictions on market arrangements between Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Internet content providers without finding a market failure.

Many of ATVA’s cable members are also ISPs that have routinely argued against the imposition of net neutrality regulations in the market for Internet services. By supporting ATVA, these same companies appear to have abandoned the intellectual foundation for opposition to net neutrality. Are they now signaling their intent to embrace net neutrality regulation of the Internet? Continue reading →

From the time Tom Wheeler was nominated to become the next FCC Chairman, many have wondered, “What would Wheeler do?” Though it is still early in his chairmanship, the only ruling issued in Chairman Wheeler’s first meeting signals a pro-investment approach to communications regulation.

The declaratory ruling clarified that the FCC would evaluate foreign investment in broadcast licensees that exceeds the 25 percent statutory benchmark using its existing analytical framework. It had previously been unclear whether broadcasters were subject to the same standard as other segments of the communications industry. The ruling recognized that providing broadcasters with regulatory certainty in this respect would promote investment and that greater investment yields greater innovation.

The FCC’s decision to apply the same standards for reviewing foreign ownership of broadcasters as it applies to other segments of the communications industry is very encouraging. It affirms the watershed policy decisions in the USF/ICC Transformation Order, in which the FCC concluded that “leveling the playing field” promotes competition whereas implied subsidies deter investment and are “unfair for consumers.” Continue reading →

Tom BrokawI think I owe Tom Brokaw an apology. When I first started reading his most recent Wall Street Journal column, “Imagine the Tweets During the Cuban Missile Crisis,” I assumed that I was in for one of those hyper-nosalgic essays about how the ‘good ‘ol days’ of mass media had passed us by and why the new media era is an unmitigated disaster. Instead, I was pleased to read his very balanced and sensible view of the old versus news media environments. Reflecting on the evolution of the media marketplace over the past 50 years since JFK’s assassination, Brokaw notes that:

The media climate has changed dramatically. The New Frontier, as Kennedy liked to call his administration, received a great deal of attention, but 50 years ago the major national information sources consisted of a handful of big-city daily newspapers, a few weekly news periodicals and two dominant TV network evening newscasts. Now the political news comes at us 24/7 on cable, through the air, the digital universe, on radio and print. And it comes to us more and more as opinion rather than a recitation of the facts as best they can be determined. News is a hit-and-run game, for the most part, with too little accountability for error.

This leads Brokaw to wonder if the amazing media metamorphosis has been, on net, positive or negative. “The virtual town square has been wired and expanded,” he notes, “but the question remains whether more voices make for a healthier political climate. With a keystroke we can easily move from an online credible source of information to a website larded with opinion or deliberately malicious erroneous claims. Have we simply enlarged the megaphone, cranked up the decibel level, and rallied the like-minded without regard to facts or consequences?” Continue reading →

Christopher Wolf, director of the law firm Hogan Lovells’ Privacy and Information Management group, addresses his new book with co-author Abraham Foxman, Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet. To what extent do hateful or mean-spirited Internet users hide behind anonymity? How do we balance the protection of the First Amendment online while addressing the spread of hate speech? Wolf discusses how to define hate speech on the Internet; whether online hate speech leads to real-world violence; how news sites like the Huffington Post and New York Times have dealt with anonymity; lessons we should impart on the next generation of Internet users to discourage hate speech; and cases where anonymity has proved particularly beneficial or valuable.

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Yesterday, Time Warner Cable and CBS reached a deal to end the weeks-long impasse that had resulted in CBS being blacked out in over 3 million U.S. households.

I predicted the two companies would resolve their differences before the start of the NFL season in a RealClearPolicy op-ed published last week:

From Los Angeles to New York, 3 million Americans in eight U.S. cities haven’t been able to watch CBS on cable for weeks, because of a business dispute between the network and Time Warner Cable (TWC). The two companies can’t agree on how much TWC should pay to carry CBS, so the network has blacked out TWC subscribers since August 1. With the NFL season kicking off on September 5, the timing couldn’t be worse for football fans.blackouts-work-1

Regulators at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) face growing pressure to force the feuding companies to reach an agreement. But despite viewers’ frustrations with this standoff, government intervention isn’t the answer. If bureaucrats begin “overseeing” disputes between network owners and video providers, television viewers will face higher prices or lower-quality shows.

TWC and CBS are playing hardball over serious cash. CBS reportedly seeks to double its fee to $2 per subscriber each month, which TWC claims is an outrageous price increase. But CBS argues it costs more and more to develop hit new shows like Under the Dome, so it’s only fair viewers pay a bit more.

Both sides have a point. TWC is looking out for its millions of subscribers—and its bottom line—by keeping programming costs down. CBS, on the other hand, needs cash to develop creative new content, and hopes it can make some money doing so.

Continue reading →

Timothy B. Lee, founder of The Washington Post’s blog The Switch discusses his approach to reporting at the intersection of technology and policy. He covers how to make tech concepts more accessible; the difference between blogs and the news; the importance of investigative journalism in the tech space; whether paywalls are here to stay; Jeff Bezos’ recent purchase of The Washington Post; and the future of print news.

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