Articles by Brent Skorup

Brent SkorupBrent is a research fellow with the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center at GMU. He has an economics degree from Wheaton College and a law degree from George Mason University. Opinions are his own.


The FCC appears to be dragging the TV industry, which is increasingly app- and Internet-based, into years of rulemakings, unnecessary standards development and oversight, and drawn-out lawsuits. The FCC hasn’t made a final decision but the general outline is pretty clear. The FCC wants to use a 20 year-old piece of routine congressional district pork, calculated to help a now-dead electronics retailer, as authority to regulate today’s TV apps and their licensing terms. Perhaps they’ll succeed in expanding their authority over set top boxes and TV apps. But as TV is being revolutionized by the Internet the legacy providers are trying to stay ahead of the new players (Netflix, Amazon, Layer 3), regulating TV apps and boxes will likely impede the competitive process and distract the FCC from more pressing matters, like spectrum and infrastructure. Continue reading →

I came across an article last week in the AV Club that caught my eye. The title is: “The Telecommunications Act of 1996 gave us shitty cell service, expensive cable.” The Telecom Act is the largest update to the regulatory framework set up in the 1934 Communications Act. The basic thrust of the Act was to update the telephone laws because the AT&T long-distance monopoly had been broken up for a decade. The AV Club is not a policy publication but it does feature serious reporting on media. This analysis of the Telecom Act and its effects, however, omits or obfuscates important information about dynamics in media since the 1990s.

The AV Club article offers an illustrative collection of left-of-center critiques of the Telecom Act. Similar to Glass-Steagall  repeal or Citizens United, many on the left are apparently citing the Telecom Act as a kind of shorthand for deregulatory ideology run amuck. And like Glass-Steagall repeal and Citizens United, most of the critics fundamentally misstate the effects and purposes of the law. Inexplicably, the AV Club article relies heavily on a Common Cause white paper from 2005. Now, Common Cause typically does careful work but the paper is hopelessly outdated today. Eleven years ago Netflix was a small DVD-by-mail service. There was no 4G LTE (2010). No iPhone or Google Android (2007). And no Pandora, IPTV, and a dozen other technologies and services that have revolutionized communications and media. None of the competitive churn since 2005, outlined below, is even hinted at in the AV Club piece. The actual data undermine the dire diagnoses about the state of communications and media from the various critics cited in the piece.  Continue reading →

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton’s campaign released a tech and innovation agenda. The document covers many tech subjects, including cybersecurity, copyright, and and tech workforce investments, but I’ll narrow my comments to the areas I have the most expertise in: broadband infrastructure and Internet regulation. These roughly match up, respectively, to the second and fourth sections of the five-section document.

On the whole, the broadband infrastructure and Internet regulation sections list good, useful priorities. The biggest exception is Hillary’s strong endorsement of the Title II rules for the Internet, which, as I explained in the National Review last week, is a heavy-handed regulatory regime that is ripe for abuse and will be enforced by a politicized agency.

Her tech agenda doesn’t mention a Communications Act rewrite but I’d argue it’s implied in her proposed reforms. Further, her statements last year at an event suggest she supports significant telecom reforms. In early 2015, Clinton spoke to tech journalist Kara Swisher (HT Doug Brake) and it was pretty clear Clinton viewed Title II as an imperfect and likely temporary effort to enforce neutrality norms. In fact, Clinton said she prefers “a modern, 21st-century telecom technology act” to replace Title II and the rest of the 1934 Communications Act. Continue reading →

The FCC’s transaction reviews have received substantial scholarly criticism lately. The FCC has increasingly used its license transaction reviews as an opportunity to engage in ad hoc merger reviews that substitute for formal rulemaking. FCC transaction conditions since 2000 have ranged from requiring AOL-Time Warner to make future instant messaging services interoperable, to price controls for broadband for low-income families, to mandating merging parties to donate $1 million to public safety initiatives.

In the last few months alone,

  • Randy May and Seth Cooper of the Free State Foundation wrote a piece that the transaction reviews contravene rule of law norms.
  • T. Randolph Beard et al. at the Phoenix Center published a research paper about how the FCC’s informal bargaining during mergers has become much more active and politically motivated in recent years.
  • Derek Bambauer, law professor at the University of Arizona, published a law review article that criticized the use of informal agency actions to pressure companies to act in certain ways. These secretive pressures “cloak what is in reality state action in the guise of private choice.”

This week, in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, my colleague Christopher Koopman and I added to this recent scholarship on the FCC’s controversial transaction reviews. Continue reading →

For decades Congress has gradually deregulated communications and media. This poses a significant threat to the FCC’s jurisdiction because it is the primary regulator of communications and media. The current FCC, exhibiting alarming mission creep, has started importing its legacy regulations to the online world, like Title II common carrier regulations for Internet providers. The FCC’s recent proposal to “open up” TV set top boxes is consistent with the FCC’s reinvention as the US Internet regulator, and now the White House has supported that push.

There are a lot of issues with the set top box proposal but I’ll highlight a few. I really don’t even like referring to it as “the set top box proposal” because the proposal is really aimed at the future of TV–video viewing via apps and connected devices. STBs are a sideshow and mostly just provide the FCC a statutory hook to regulate TV apps. Even that “hook” is dubious–the FCC arbitrarily classifies apps and software as “navigation devices” but concludes that actual TV devices like Chromecast, Roku, smartphones, and tablets aren’t navigation devices. And, despite what activists say, this isn’t about “cable” either but all TV distributors (“MVPDs”) like satellite and telephone companies and Google Fiber, most of whom are small TV players. Continue reading →

The FCC has signaled that it may vote to overhaul the Lifeline program this month. Today, Lifeline typically provides a $9.25 subsidy for low-income households to purchase landline or mobile telephone service from eligible providers. While Lifeline has problems–hence the bipartisan push for reform–years ago the FCC structured Lifeline in a way that generally improves access and mitigates abuse (the same cannot be said about the three other major universal service programs).

A direct subsidy plus a menu of options is a good way to expand access to low-income people (assuming there are effective anti-fraud procedures). A direct subsidy is more or less how the US and state governments help lower-income families afford products and services like energy, food, housing, and education. For energy bills there’s LIHEAP. For grocery bills there’s SNAP and WIC. For housing, there’s Section 8 vouchers. For higher education, there’s Pell grants.

Programs structured this way make transfers fairly transparent, which makes them an easy target for criticism but also promotes government accountability, and gives low-income households the ability to consume these services according to their preferences. If you want to attend a small Christian college, not a state university, Pell grants enable that. If you want to purchase rice and tomatoes, not bread and apples, SNAP enables that. The alternative, and far more costly, ways to improve consumer access to various services is to subsidize providers, which is basically how Medicare the rural telephone programs operate, or command-and-control industrial policy, like we have for television and much of agriculture.

Because the FCC is maintaining the consumer subsidy and expanding the menu of Lifeline options to include wired broadband, mobile broadband, and wifi devices, there’s much to commend in the proposed reforms. Continue reading →

Yesterday, almost exactly one year after the FCC classified Internet service as a common carrier service, Sen. Mike Lee and his Senate cosponsors (including presidential candidates Cruz and Rubio) introduced the Restoring Internet Freedom Act. Sen. Lee also published an op-ed about the motivation for his bill, pointing out the folly of applying a 1930s AT&T Bell monopoly law to the Internet. It’s a short bill, simply declaring that the FCC’s Title II rules shall have no force and it precludes the FCC from enacting similar rules absent an act of Congress.

It’s a shame such a bill even has to be proposed, but then again these are unusual times in politics. The FCC has a history of regulating new industries, like cable TV, without congressional authority. However, enforcing Title II, its most intrusive regulations, on the Internet is something different altogether. Congress was not silent on the issue of Internet regulation, like it was regarding cable TV in the 1960s when the FCC began regulating.

Former Clinton staffer John Podesta said after Clinton signed the 1996 Telecom Act, “Congress simply legislated as if the Net were not there.” That’s a slight overstatement. There is one section of the Telecommunications Act, Section 230, devoted to the Internet and it is completely unhelpful for the FCC’s Open Internet rules. Section 230 declares a US policy of unregulation of the Internet and, in fact, actually encourages what net neutrality proponents seek to prohibit: content filtering by ISPs.

The FCC is filled with telecom lawyers who know existing law doesn’t leave room for much regulation, which is why top FCC officials resisted common carrier regulation until the end. Chairman Wheeler by all accounts wanted to avoid the Title II option until pressured by the President in November 2014. As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, the White House push for Title II “blindsided officials at the FCC” who then had to scramble to construct legal arguments defending this reversal. The piece noted,

The president’s words swept aside more than a decade of light-touch regulation of the Internet and months of work by Mr. Wheeler toward a compromise.

The ersatz “parallel version of the FCC” in the White House didn’t understand the implications of what they were asking for and put the FCC in a tough spot. The Title II rules and legal justifications required incredible wordsmithing but still created internal tensions and undesirable effects, as pointed out by the Phoenix Center and others. This policy reversal, to go the Title II route per the President’s request, also created First Amendment and Section 230 problems for the FCC. At oral argument the FCC lawyer disclaimed any notion that the FCC would regulate filtered or curated Internet access. This may leave a gaping hole in Title II enforcement since all Internet access is filtered to some degree, and new Internet services, like LTE Broadcast, Free Basics, and zero-rated video, involve curated IP content. As I said at the time, the FCC “is stating outright that ISPs have the option to filter and to avoid the rules.”

Nevertheless, Title II creates a permission slip regime for new Internet services that forces tech and telecom companies to invest in compliance lawyers rather than engineers and designers. Hopefully in the next few months the DC Circuit Court of Appeals will strike down the FCC’s net neutrality efforts for a third time. In any case, it’s great to see that Sen. Lee and his cosponsors have made innovation policy priority and want to continue the light-touch regulation of the Internet.

People are excited about online TV getting big in 2016. Alon Maor of Qwilt predicts in Multichannel News that this will be “the year of the skinny bundle.” Wired echoes that sentiment. The Wall Street Journal’s Geoffrey A. Fowler said, “it’s no longer the technology that holds back cable cutting–it’s the lawyers.”

Well, I’m here to say, lawyers can’t take all the blame. In my experience, it’s the technology, too. Some of the problem is that most discussion about the future of online TV and cable cutting fails to distinguish streaming video-on-demand (SVOD) and streaming linear TV (“linear” means continuous pre-programmed and live “channels”, often with commercials, much like traditional cable). Continue reading →

Another year in the books for the Technology Liberation Front. Many developments unfolded in 2015 in the technology world and we covered much of it (on TLF and in other outlets). The most popular posts this year revolved around the Internet of Things, privacy, unlicensed spectrum, and municipal and public broadband networks. Thanks for reading, and enjoy the year in review. Continue reading →

The FCC’s Open Internet Order is long and complex and the challenge to it is likewise difficult to untangle. The agency regularly engages in ad hoc rulemaking that results, per Judge Posner, in “unprincipled compromises of Rube Goldberg complexity among contending interest groups viewed merely as clamoring suppliants who have somehow to be conciliated.” The Open Internet Order is no exception and therefore faces several legal vulnerabilities.

In my view, the soft underbelly of the Order is the agency’s position that ISPs are not First Amendment speakers. While courts are generally very deferential to agencies, they are not deferential on constitutional questions. Further, the court panel (two Democrat appointees, one Republican appointee), unfortunately, was not in the carriers’ favor. The major carriers, however, have focused their arguments on whether the agency should receive deference in classifying Internet access as a telecommunications service.

That said, it’s possible the major carriers could get at least a partial win with their arguments. That likelihood is increased because Alamo Broadband and Dan Berninger raised the First Amendment problems with the Order. Given the strength of the First Amendment arguments, the Court might shy away from reaching the issue of whether ISPs are speakers. Below, some thoughts on the moments during oral arguments that surprised me and what went according to predictions.

The Unexpected

A receptive ear in Judge Williams re: the First Amendment arguments. (Good for: ISPs) The First Amendment arguments went better than I’d expected. Alamo and Berninger’s counsel, Brett Shumate, argued the First Amendment issues well and had good responses for skeptical questions. Shumate found a receptive ear in Judge Williams, who seemed to understand the serious First Amendment risks posed by the Order. Williams repeatedly brought up the fact that MetroPCS a few years ago tried to curate the Internet and provide its customers free YouTube, only to face resistance from the FCC and net neutrality activists.

The other two judges were more skeptical but Shumate corrected some misconceptions. The biggest substantive objection from Srinivasan, who sounded the most skeptical of the First Amendment arguments, was that if the Court reaches the First Amendment issues, it has determined that the FCC has reasonably classified Internet access as a common carrier service. He suggested that this means the First Amendment issues mostly disappear. No, Shumate explained. Congress and the FCC can call services whatever they want. They could declare Google Search or Twitter feeds a common carrier service tomorrow and that would have zero effect on whether filtering by Google and Twitter is protected by the First Amendment. Tatel asked whether Section 230’s liability protections suggest ISPs are common carriers and Shumate corrected that misconception, a subject I have written on before.

A major FCC concession that ISPs have to option to change their offerings and escape common carrier regulation. (Good for: ISPs) Title II advocates are spinning the terse First Amendment exchanges as a victory. I’m not convinced. The reason the arguments didn’t generate more heat was because the FCC lawyer made a huge concession at the outset: ISPs that choose to filter the Internet are not covered by the Open Internet Order.

FCC lawyer: “If [ISPs] want to curate the Internet…that would drop them out of the definition of Broadband Internet Access Service.”

Judge Williams: “They have that option under the Order?”

FCC lawyer: “Absolutely, your Honor. …If they filter the Internet and don’t provide access to all or substantially all endpoints, then they drop out of the definition of [BIAS] and the rules don’t apply to them.”

This admission seriously undermines the purposes of the Order. The FCC is stating outright that ISPs have the option to filter and to avoid the rules. That seems to mean that Comcast’s Stream Internet protocol television service, where it is curating streaming TV programs, is not covered by the rules. If Facebook’s Free Basics or a similar service launched in the US giving free, limited access to the Web, that is not covered by the Order. Finally, this means that the many broadband packages that offer family-friendly filtering are outside of the FCC’s rules. It’s not clear how much remains to be regulated since all ISPs reserve the right to filter content and each filters at least some content.

Judge Tatel directing most questioning. (Good for: wash) Many view Judge Tatel as the “swing vote” but I was surprised at the relative quiet from Williams and Srinivasan. Tatel was the most inquisitive, by my listening. He was much more skeptical of some of the FCC’s arguments regarding interconnection than I expected but also more skeptical of the First Amendment arguments than I expected.

Little discussion of Chevron Step 0. (Good for: FCC) Many on the free-market side wanted to make this case about Chevron Step 0 and the notion that Title II is too economically and socially significant to warrant deference. Unfortunately, at oral argument there was very little discussion of Chevron Step 0.

The Expected

Focus on agency discretion. (Good for: FCC) The judges generally seem to see this as a straightforward Chevron case and the questions focused on Chevron Step 1, whether there is ambiguity in the statute about “offering telecommunications” for the FCC to interpret. As expected, the FCC did fairly well in their arguments because these technical issues are very hard to untangle.

On Chevron Step 2, whether the reinterpretation of “telecommunications service” to include Internet access was reasonable, the US Telecom attorney was strong. He leaned heavily on the fact that in Section 230, which amends the Communications Act, Congress announces a national policy that the Internet and specifically Internet access services, should remain “unfettered by Federal regulation.” That would seem to preclude the FCC from using, at the very least, its most powerful regulatory weapon–common carriage–against Internet access providers. Even if “telecommunications service” is ambiguous, he stated, it was unreasonable to include Internet access in that definition.

Focus on whether mobile broadband can be properly classified under Title II. (Benefit: ISPs) As many commentators have noted, the idea that the traditional phone network and the mobile broadband network can be classified as the same interconnected network is far-fetched. Each judge seemed very skeptical of the FCC’s argument and Tatel suggested there was a lack of adequate notice.

Srinivasan pointed out that striking down the wireless rules and maintaining the wireline rules would mean that using the same tablet in different areas of your house would lead to different regulatory treatment, depending on whether you’re on the cellular broadband network or Wifi. Title II supporters think this is pretty clever gotcha but communications law already abounds with seemingly absurd FCC- and court-created legal distinctions. (The FCC invents its own absurd distinction and offers vastly different regulatory treatment for DNS operated by an ISP v. DNS operated by literally anyone else.)

Conclusion

Predictions about major regulatory cases are notoriously difficult. I’ve read (and made) enough predictions about big court cases to know that prognosticators almost always get it wrong. If that’s the case, at least consider one thought-provoking outcome: the rules are largely struck down because the FCC provided inadequate notice on most of the major issues of classification.

If the rules, in contrast, were sustained under Chevron and judged to have had adequate notice, the Court would likely need to confront the First Amendment issues. I don’t think Tatel and Srinivasan, especially, want to rule on these hard constitutional questions. The judges must know the Supreme Court has, as Prof. Susan Crawford says, an “absolutist approach” to the First Amendment that protects speakers of all kinds. Sustaining the rules means the FCC risks a loss on First Amendment grounds on appeal that would nearly eliminate the ability of the FCC to regulate the Internet. For that reason, and because of the notice problems, the Court may strike down the rules on notice and comment grounds, thereby preserving the ability of the FCC to take a fourth bite at the apple.