Telecom & Cable Regulation

Congress passed joint resolutions to rescind FCC online privacy regulations this week, which President Trump is expected to sign. Ignore the hyperbole. Lawmakers are simply attempting to maintain the state of Internet privacy law that’s existed for 20-plus years.

Since the Internet was commercialized in the 1990s, the Federal Trade Commission has used its authority to prevent “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” to prevent privacy abuses by Web companies and ISPs. In 2015, that changed. The Obama FCC classified “broadband Internet access service” as a common carrier service, thereby blocking the FTC’s authority to determine which ISP privacy policies and practices are acceptable.

Privacy advocates failed to convince the Obama FTC that de-identified browsing history is “sensitive” data. (The FTC has treated SSNs, medical information, financial information, precise location, etc. as “sensitive” for years and companies must handle these differently.) The FCC was the next best thing and in 2016 they convinced the FCC to say that browsing history is “sensitive data,” but it’s sensitive only when ISPs have it.

This has contributed to a regulatory mess for consumers and tech companies. Technological convergence is here. Regulatory convergence is not.

Consider a plausible scenario. I start watching an NFL game via Twitter on my tablet on Starbucks’ wifi. I head home at halftime and watch the game from my cable TV provider, Comcast. Then I climb into bed and watch overtime on my smartphone via NFL Mobile from Verizon.

One TV program, three privacy regimes. FTC guidelines cover me at Starbucks. Privacy rules from Title VI of the Communications Act cover my TV viewing. The brand-new FCC broadband privacy rules cover my NFL Mobile viewing and late-night browsing.

Other absurdities result from the FCC’s decision to regulate Internet privacy. For instance, if you bought your child a mobile plan with web filtering, she’s protected by FTC privacy standards, while your mobile plan is governed by FCC rules. Google Fiber customers are covered by FTC policies when they use Google Search but FCC policies when they use Yelp.

This Swiss-cheese approach to classifying services means that regulatory obligations fall haphazardly across services and technologies. It’s confusing to consumers and to companies, who need to write privacy policies based on artificial FCC distinctions that consumers disregard.

The House and Senate bills rescind the FCC “notice and choice” rules, which is the first step to restoring FTC authority. (In the meantime, the FCC will implement FTC-like policies.) 

Considering that these notice and choice rules have not even gone into effect, the rehearsed outrage from advocates demands explanation: The theatrics this week are not really about congressional repeal of the (inoperative) privacy rules. Two years ago the FCC decided to regulate the Internet in order to shape Internet services and content. The leading advocates are outraged because FCC control of the Internet is slipping away. Hopefully Congress and the FCC will eliminate the rest of the Title II baggage this year.

US telecommunications laws are in need of updates. US law states that “the Internet and other interactive computer services” should be “unfettered by Federal or State regulation,” but regulators are increasingly imposing old laws and regulations onto new media and Internet services. Further, Federal Communications Commission actions often duplicate or displace general competition laws. Absent congressional action, old telecom laws will continue to delay and obstruct new services. A new Mercatus paper by Roslyn Layton and Joe Kane shows how governments can modernize telecom agencies and laws.

Legacy Laws

US telecom laws are codified in Title 47 of the US Code and enforced mostly by the FCC. That the first eight sections of US telecommunications law are devoted to the telegraph, the killer app of 1850, illustrates congressional inaction towards obsolete regulations.

In the last decade, therefore, several media, Internet, and telecom companies inadvertently stumbled into Communications Act quagmires. An Internet streaming company, for instance, was bankrupted for upending the TV status quo established by the FCC in the 1960s; FCC precedents mean broadcasters can be credibly threatened with license revocation for airing a documentary critical of a presidential candidate; and the thousands of Internet service providers across the US are subjected to laws designed to constrain the 1930s AT&T long-distance phone monopoly.

US telecom and tech laws, in other words, are a shining example of American “kludgeocracy”–a regime of prescriptive and dated laws whose complexity benefits special interests and harms innovators. These anti-consumer results led progressive Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig to conclude in 2008 that “it’s time to demolish the FCC.” While Lessig’s proposal goes too far, Congress should listen to the voices on the right and left urging them to sweep away the regulations of the past and rationalize telecom law for the 21st century.

Modern Telecom Policy in Denmark

An interesting new Mercatus working paper explains how Denmark took up that challenge. The paper, “Alternative Approaches to Broadband Policy: Lessons on Deregulation from Denmark,” is by Denmark-based scholar Roslyn Layton, who served on President Trump’s transition team for telecom policy, and Joe Kane, a masters student in the GMU econ department. 

The “Nordic model” is often caricatured by American conservatives (and progressives like Bernie Sanders) as socialist control of industry. But as AEI’s James Pethokoukis and others point out, it’s time both sides updated their 1970s talking points. “[W]hen it comes to regulatory efficiency and business freedom,” Tyler Cowen recently noted, “Denmark has a considerably higher [Heritage Foundation] score than does the U.S.”

Layton and Kane explore Denmark’s relatively free-market telecom policies. They explain how Denmark modernized its telecom laws over time as technology and competition evolved. Critically, the center-left government eliminated Denmark’s telecom regulator in 2011 in light of the “convergence” of services to the Internet. Scholars noted,

Nobody seemed to care much—except for the staff who needed to move to other authorities and a few people especially interested in IT and telecom regulation.

Even-handed, light telecom regulation performs pretty well. Denmark, along with South Korea, leads the world in terms of broadband access. The country also has a modest universal service program that depends primarily on the market. Further, similar to other Nordic countries, Denmark permitted a voluntary forum, including consumer groups, ISPs, and Google, to determine best practices and resolve “net neutrality” controversies.

Contrast Denmark’s tech-neutral, consumer-focused approach with recent proceedings in the United States. One of the Obama FCC’s major projects was attempting to regulate how TV streaming apps functioned–despite the fact that TV has never been more abundant and competitive. Countless hours of staff time and industry time were wasted (Trump’s election killed the effort) because advocates saw the opportunity to regulate the streaming market with a law intended to help Circuit City (RIP) sell a few more devices in 1996. The biggest waste of government resources has been the “net neutrality” fight, which stems from prior FCC attempts to apply 1930s telecom laws to 1960s computer systems. Old rules haphazardly imposed on new technologies creates a compliance mindset in our tech and telecom industries. Worse, these unwinnable fights over legal minutiae prevent FCC staff from working on issues where they can help consumers. 

Americans deserve better telecom laws but the inscrutability of FCC actions means consumers don’t know what to ask for. Layton and Kane illuminate that alternative frameworks are available. They highlight Denmark’s political and cultural differences from the US. Nevertheless, Denmark’s telecom reforms and pro-consumer policies deserve study and emulation. The Danes have shown how tech-neutral, consumer-focused policies not only can expand broadband access, they reduce government duplication and overreach.

If Congress and the President wanted to prevent intrusive regulation of the Internet, how would they do it? They know that silence on the issue wouldn’t protect Internet services. As Congress learned in the 1960s and 1970s with cable TV, congressional silence, to the FCC, looks like permission to enact a far-reaching regulatory regime.

In the 1990s, Congress knew the FCC would be tempted to regulate the Internet and Internet services and that silence would be seen as an invitation to regulate the Internet. Congress and President Clinton therefore passed a 1996 law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which stated:

It is the policy of the United States…to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation.

But this statement raised the possibility that the FCC would regulate Internet access providers and would claim (as FCC defenders do today) they were not regulating “the Internet,” only access providers. To preempt such sophistry, Congress added that the “interactive computer services” shielded from regulation include:

specifically a service or system that provides access to the Internet….

Congress proved prescient. For over a decade, as the FCC’s traditional areas of regulation waned in importance, advocates and FCC officials have sought to regulate Internet access providers and the Internet. After two failed attempts to regulate providers and enforce net neutrality norms, the FCC decided to regulate Internet access providers with Title II, the same provisions regulating telephone and telegraph providers. Section 230 featured prominently in the dissents of commissioners Pai and O’Rielly who both noted that the Open Internet Order was a simple rejection of the plain words of Congress. Nevertheless, two judges on DC Circuit Court of Appeals blessed those regulations and the Open Internet Order in 2016.

If “unfettered from Federal regulation” means anything, doesn’t it mean that the FCC cannot use Title II, its most stringent regulatory regime, to regulate Internet access providers? Is there any combination of words Congress could draft that would protect Internet access providers and Internet services from Title II?

There is a pending appeal challenging the Open Internet Order before the DC Circuit and after that is appeal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, in particular, might be receptive to a common-sense argument that “unfettered from Federal regulation” is hazy around the edges but it cannot mean regulation of ISPs’ content, services, protocols, network topology, and business models.

I understand the sentiment that a net neutrality compromise is urgently needed to save the Internet from Title II. But until the Open Internet Order appeals have concluded, I think it’s premature to compromise and grant the FCC permanent authority to regulate the Internet with vague standards (e.g., no one knows what “reasonable throttling” means). A successful appeal could mean a third and final court loss for net neutrality purists, thereby restoring Section 230’s free-market protections for the Internet. Until the Supreme Court denies cert or agrees with the FCC that up is down, black is white, and agencies can ignore clear statutes, I’m not persuaded that Congress should nullify its own deregulatory language of Section 230 with a net neutrality compromise.

Is the incentive auction a disappointment? For consumers, this auction is not a disappointment. At least–not yet.

Scott Wallsten at the Technology Policy Institute has a good rundown. My thoughts below:

By my count, this was the eighth major auction of commercial, flexible-use spectrum since auctions were authorized in 1993. On the most important question–how much spectrum was repurposed from restricted uses to flexible, licensed uses?–this auction stacks up pretty well.

At 70 MHz, this was the third largest auction in terms of total spectrum repurposed, trailing the mid-1990s PCS auction (120 MHz) and 2006 AWS-1 auction (90 MHz).

On the next most important question–how quickly will new services be deployed?–the verdict is still out. Historically, repurposing spectrum like this typically takes six to twelve years. Depending on how you classify it, this proceeding commenced in 2010 (when the FCC proposed the incentive auction) or 2012 (when Congress authorized the auction). With the auction over, broadcasters have over three years to clear out of the spectrum but some believe it will take longer. Right now, it looks like the process will take seven to eleven years total–not great but pretty typical. 

Some people are disappointed, however, with this auction, particularly some in the broadcasting industry and in the FCC or Congress, who expected higher auction revenues.

High revenue gets nice headlines but is far less important than the amount of spectrum repurposed. It’s an underreported story but close to 290 MHz of spectrum, nearly 45% of all liberalized, licensed spectrum, was de-zoned by the FCC, not auctioned. De-zoning spectrum generates zero auction revenue for the government but consumers see substantial benefits from this de-zoning, even if the government does not directly benefit. I recently wrote a policy brief about the benefits of de-zoning spectrum.

In any case, in terms of revenue, this auction was not a failure. At around $17 billion, it’s third out of eight, trailing the 2008 700 MHz band auction (about $21 billion in 2015 dollars) and the massive haul from the 2015 AWS-3 auction (about $42 billion).

At close, broadcasters will receive $10 billion for the 70 MHz of available licensed spectrum. Some broadcasters consider it a failure, just as a home seller is disappointed when her home sells below list price. The broadcasters initially requested $86 billion for 100 MHz of available spectrum. When the carriers’ bids didn’t match that price, some broadcasters pulled out and the remaining broadcasters lowered their price.

Were there better ways of repurposing broadcast spectrum? Broadcasters have a point that the complexity of the auction might have reduced buyer and seller participation (which means lower bids and fewer deals). As Wallsten notes, an overlay auction (like AWS-1) or simply de-zoning the spectrum might have been better (faster) alternatives. But it goes too far deem this auction a failure (at least until we know how long the broadcaster repack takes).

Title II allows the FCC to determine what content and media Internet access providers must transmit on their own private networks, so the First Amendment has constantly dogged the FCC’s “net neutrality” proceedings. If the Supreme Court agrees to take up an appeal from the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, which rejected a First Amendment challenge this summer, it will likely be because of Title II’s First Amendment deficiencies.

Title II has always been about handicapping ISPs qua speakers and preventing ISPs from offering curated Internet content. As former FCC commissioner Copps said, absent the Title II rules, “a big cable company could block access to an investigative report about its less-than-stellar customer service.” Tim Wu told members of Congress that net neutrality was intended to prevent ISPs from favoring, say, particular news sources or sports teams.

But just as a cable company chooses to offer some channels and not others, and a search engine chooses to promote some pages and not others, choosing to offer a curated Internet to, say, children, religious families, or sports fans involves editorial decisions. As communications scholar Stuart Benjamin said about Title II’s problem, under current precedent, ISPs “can say they want to engage in substantive editing, and that’s enough for First Amendment purposes.”

Title II – Bringing Broadcast Regulation to the Internet

Title II regulation of the Internet is frequently compared to the Fairness Doctrine, which activists used for decades to drive conservatives out of broadcast radio and TV. As a pro-net neutrality media professor explained in The Atlantic last year, the motivation for the Fairness Doctrine and Title II Internet regulation is the same: to “rescue a potentially democratic medium from commercial capture.” This is why there is almost perfect overlap between the organizations and advocates who support the Fairness Doctrine and those who lobbied for Title II regulation of the Internet. Continue reading →

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 corporate welfare, 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 →