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.

This article originally appeared at techfreedom.org.

Today, the FCC voted on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would  force pay-tv or multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) to change their existing equipment to allow third-party set-top boxes to carry their signals. Currently, MVPD subscribers typically pay $15–20/month to lease set-top boxes from their cable, satellite, or telco video provider. Those set-top boxes allow subscribers to view video programming on their TVs and, in some cases, also provide access to online video distributors (OVDs) such as Netflix and Hulu. However, Chairman Wheeler and some interest groups say those leasing fees are too high, that MVPDs have a stranglehold on video programming, and that the set-top box market must be opened to competition from third parties.

“Regulating set-top boxes may do serious damage to video programmers, especially small ones and those geared to minorities,” said Berin Szoka. “That’s why Congressional Democrats, minority groups and other voices have urged caution. Yet FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler blithely dismisses these concerns, insisting that ‘this is just the beginning of a fact-finding process.’ Do not believe him. If that were true, the FCC would issue a Notice of Inquiry to gather data to inform a regulatory proposal. Instead, the FCC has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. That means the FCC Chairman has already made up his mind, and that the agency is unlikely to adjust course.”

This is simply the latest example of the FCC abusing the rulemaking process by bypassing the Notice of Inquiry,” concluded Szoka. “Every time the FCC does this, it means the gun is already loaded, and ‘fact-finding’ is a mere formality. It’s high time Congress put a stop to this pretense of objectivity and require the FCC to begin all major rulemakings with an NOI. That key reform was at the heart of an FCC reform bill initially proposed by Republicans in 2013 — but, tellingly, removed at the insistence of Congressional Democrats.”

The FCC’s proposal is based on the recommendations of the Downloadable Security Technology Advisory Committee (“DSTAC”), which was directed to investigate this issue by Congress in the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014.

The FCC is also abusing the advisory committee process—once again,” argued Tom Struble, Policy Counsel at TechFreedom. “The Commission acts as if the DSTAC unanimously supported the NPRM’s proposal. In fact, the DSTAC recommended two alternative approaches, only one of which was taken up by the FCC. This is only the most recent example of the FCC abusing the advisory committee process, denying broad input from stakeholders and steering the committee to issue recommendations that suit the administration’s policy preferences. The FCC should have used an NOI to seek comment on both the DSTAC recommendations. But at the very least, Chairman Wheeler should drop his absurd pretense that the FCC is merely beginning a fact-finding process.”

This article originally appeared at techfreedom.org.

TechFreedom has sued the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to overturn the agency’s recently adopted “interim” drone regulations, which require that drones that weigh over 250 grams be registered for a $5 fee.

Whether or or not requiring drone registration is a wise policy, the rules the FAA rushed out before Christmas are unlawful,” said Berin Szoka, President of TechFreedom. “They exceed the authority Congress has given the FAA. Moreover, the agency illegally bypassed the most basic transparency requirement in administrative law: that it provide an opportunity for the affected public to comment on its regulations. That means the FAA could not fully consider the real-world complexities of regulating drones. Thus, the FAA’s rules could lead to a host of unintended consequences.”

The notice-and-comment rulemaking process serves an important role in ensuring that regulation doesn’t do more harm than good,” said Tom Struble, Policy Counsel at TechFreedom. “It ensures that the agency is exposed to viewpoints from all the relevant stakeholders, and it forces the agency to weigh competing considerations before issuing a rule. The holiday rush did not justify the FAA bypassing standard notice-and-comment rulemaking, and the paltry cost-benefit analysis contained in the IFR does not pass muster. The D.C. Circuit should set aside these interim rules and force the FAA to go back to the drawing board.”

See TechFreedom’s petition for review here.

Dan BrennerI was shocked and saddened to hear tonight that L.A. Superior Court Judge Dan Brenner was struck and killed in Los Angeles yesterday. I am just sick about it. He was a great man and good friend.

Dan was an outstanding legal mind who, before moving back out to California to become a judge in 2012, made a big impact here in DC while serving as a legal advisor to FCC chairman Mark Fowler in the 1980s. He went on to have a distinguished career as head of legal affairs at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. He also served as an adjunct law professor in major law schools and wrote important essays and textbooks on media and broadband law.

More than all that, Dan Brenner was a dear friend to a great many people, and he was always the guy with the biggest smile on his face in any room he walked into. Dan had an absolutely infectious spirit; his amazing wit and wisdom inspired everyone around him. I never heard a single person say a bad word about Dan Brenner. Even people on the opposite side of any negotiating table from him respected and admired him. That’s pretty damn rare in a town like Washington, DC.

And Dan was a great friend to me. Continue reading →

This article originally appeared at techfreedom.org.

Twenty years ago today, President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. John Podesta, his chief of staff immediately saw the problem: “Aside from hooking up schools and libraries, and with the rather major exception of censorship, Congress simply legislated as if the Net were not there.”

Here’s our take on what Congress got right (some key things), what it got wrong (most things), and what an update to the key laws that regulate the Internet should look like. The short version is:

  • End FCC censorship of “indecency”
  • Focus on promoting competition
  • Focus regulation on consumers rather than arbitrary technological silos or political whim
  • Get the FCC out of the business of helping government surveillance

Trying, and Failing, to Censor the Net

Good: The Act is most famous for Section 230, which made Facebook and Twitter possible. Without 230, such platforms would have been held liable for the speech of their users — just as newspapers are liable for letters to the editor. Trying to screen user content would simply have been impossible. Sharing user-generated content (UGC) on sites like YouTube and social networks would’ve been tightly controlled or simply might never have taken off. Without Section 230, we might all still be locked in to AOL!

Bad: Still, the Act was very much driven by a technopanic over “protecting the children.”

  • Internet Censorship. 230 was married to a draconian crackdown on Internet indecency. Aimed at keeping pornography away from minors, the rest of the Communications Decency Act — rolled into the Telecom Act — would have required age verification of all users, not just on porn sites, but probably any UGC site, too. Fortunately, the Supreme Court struck this down as a ban on anonymous speech online.
  • Broadcast Censorship. Unfortunately, the FCC is still in the censorship business for traditional broadcasting. The 1996 Act did nothing to check the agency’s broad powers to decide how long a glimpse of a butt or a nipple is too much for Americans’ sensitive eyes.

Unleashing Competition—Slowly

Good: Congress unleashed over $1.3 trillion in private broadband investment, pitting telephone companies and cable companies against each other in a race to serve consumers — for voice, video andbroadband service.

  • Legalizing Telco Video. In 1984, Congress had (mostly) prohibited telcos from providing video service — largely on the assumption that it was a monopoly. Congress reversed that, which eventually meant telcos had the incentive to invest in networks that could carry video — and super-fast broadband.
  • Breaking Local Monopolies. Congress also barred localities from blocking new entry by denying a video “franchise.”
  • Encouraging Cable Investment. The 1992 Cable Act had briefly imposed price regulation on basic cable packages. This proved so disastrous that the Democratic FCC retreated — but only after killing a cycle of investment and upgrades, delaying cable modem service by years. In 1996, Congress finally put a stake through the heart of such rate regulation, removing investment-killing uncertainty.

Bad: While the Act laid the foundations for what became facilities-based network competition, its immediate focus was pathetically short-sighted: trying to engineer artificial competition for telephone service.

  • Unbundling Mandates. The Act created an elaborate set of requirements that telephone companies “unbundle” parts of their networks so that resellers could use them, at sweetheart prices, to provide “competitive” service. The FCC then spent the next nine years fighting over how to set these rates.
  • Failure of Vision. Meanwhile, competing networks provided fierce competition: cable providers gained over half the telephony market with a VoIP service, and 47% of customers have simply cut the cord — switching entirely to wireless. Though the FCC refuses to recognize it, broadband is becoming more competitive, too: 2014 saw telcos invest in massive upgrades, bringing 25–75 Mbps speeds to more than half the country by pushing fiber closer to homes. The cable-telco horse race is fiercer than ever — and Google Fiber has expanded its deployment of a third pipe to the home, while cable companies are upgrading to provide gigabit-plus speeds and wireless broadband has become a real alternative for rural America.
  • Delaying Fiber. The greatest cost of the FCC’s unbundling shenanigans was delaying the major investments telcos needed to keep up with cable. Not until 2003 did the FCC make clear that it would not impose unbundling mandates on fiber — which pushed Verizon to begin planning its FiOS fiber-to-the-home network. The other crucial step came in 2006, when the Commission finally clamped down on localities that demanded lavish ransoms for allowing the deployment of new networks, which stifled competition.

Regulation

Good: With the notable exception of unbundling mandates, the Act was broadly deregulatory.

  • General thrust. Congress could hardly have been more clear: “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.”
  • Ongoing Review & Deregulation. Congress gave the FCC broad discretion to ratchet down regulation to promote competition.

Bad: The Clinton Administration realized that technological change was rapidly erasing the lines separating different markets, and had proposed a more technology-neutral approach in 1993. But Congress rejected that approach. The Act continued to regulate by dividing technologies into silos: broadcasting (Title III), telephone (Title II) and cable (Title VI). Title I became a catch-all for everything else. Crucially, Congress didn’t draw a clear line between Title I and Title II, setting in motion a high-stakes fight that continues today.

  • Away from Regulatory Silos. Bill Kennard, Clinton’s FCC Chairman, quickly saw just how obsolete the Act was. His 1999 Strategic Plan remains a roadmap for FCC reform.
  • Away from Title II. Kennard also indicated that he favored placing all broadband in Title I — mainly because he understood that Title II was designed for a monopoly and would tend to perpetuate it. Vibrant competition between telcos and cable companies could happen only under Title I. But it was the Bush FCC that made this official, classifying cable modem as Title I in 2002 and telco DSL in 2005.
  • Net Neutrality Confusion. The FCC spent a decade trying to figure out how to regulate net neutrality, losing in court twice, distracting the agency from higher priorities — like promoting broadband deployment and adoption — and making telecom policy, once an area of non-partisan pragmatism, a fiercely partisan ideological cesspool.
  • Back to Title II. In 2015, the FCC reclassified broadband under Title II — not because it didn’t have other legal options for regulating net neutrality, but because President Obama said it should. He made the issue part of his re-assertion of authority after Democrats lost the 2014 midterm elections. Net neutrality and Title II became synonymous, even though they have little to do with each other. Now, the FCC’s back in court for the third time.
  • Inventing a New Act. Unless the courts stop it, the FCC will exploit the ambiguities of the ‘96 Act to essentially write a new Act out of thin air: regulating way up with Title II, using its forbearance powers to temporarily suspend politically toxic parts of the Act (like unbundling), and inventing wholly new rules that give the FCC maximum discretion—while claiming the power to do anything that somehow promotes broadband. The FCC calls this all “modernization” but it’s really a staggering power grab that allows the FCC to control the Internet in the murkiest way possible.
  • Bottom line: The 1996 Act gives the FCC broad authority to regulate in the “public interest,” without effectively requiring the FCC to gauge the competitive effects of what it does. The agency’s stuck in a kind of Groundhog Day of over-regulation, constantly over-doing it without ever learning from its mistakes.

Time for a #CommActUpdate

Censorship. The FCC continues to censor dirty words and even brief glimpses of skin on television because of a 1978 decision that assumes parents are helpless to control their kids’ media consumption. Today, parental control tools make this assumption obsolete: parents can easily block programming marked as inappropriate. Congress should require the FCC to focus on outright obscenity — and let parents choose for themselves.

Competition. If the 1996 Act served to allow two competing networks, a rewrite should focus on driving even fiercer cable-telco competition, encouraging Google Fiber and others to build a third pipe to the home, and making wireless an even stronger competitor.

  • Title II. If you wanted to protect cable companies from competition, you couldn’t find a better way to do it than Title II. Closing that Pandora’s Box forever will encourage companies like Google Fiber to enter the market. But Congress needs to finish what the 1996 Act started: it’s not enough to stop localities from denying franchises video service (and thus broadband, too).
  • Local Barriers. Congress should crack down on the moronic local practices that have made deployment of new networks prohibitive — learning from the success of Google Fiber cities, which have cut red tape, lowered fees and generally gotten out of the way. Pending bipartisan legislationwould make these changes for federal assets, and require federal highway projects to include Dig Once conduits to make fiber deployment easier. That’s particularly helpful for rural areas, which the FCC has ignored, but making deployment easier inside cities will require making municipal rights of way easier to use. Instead of rushing to build their own broadband networks, localities should have to first at least try to stimulate private deployment.

Regulation. Technological silos made little sense in 1993. Today, they’re completely obsolete.

  • Unchecked Discretion. The FCC’s right about one thing: rigid rules don’t make sense either, given how fast technology is changing. But giving the FCC sweeping discretion is even more dangerous: it makes regulating the Internet inherently political, subject to presidential whim and highly sensitive to elections.
  • The Fix. There’s a simple solution: write clear standards that let the FCC work across all communications technologies, but that require the FCC to prove that its tinkering actually makes consumers better off. As long as the FCC can do whatever it claims is in the “public interest,” the Internet will never be safe.
  • Rethinking the FCC. Indeed, Congress should seriously consider breaking up the FCC, transferring its consumer protection functions to the Federal Trade Commission and its spectrum functions to the Commerce Department.

Encryption. Since 1994, the FCC has had the power to require “telecommunications services” to be wiretap-ready — and the discretion to decide how to interpret that term. Today, the FBI is pushing for a ban on end-to-end encryption — so law enforcement can get backdoor access into services like Snapchat. Unfortunately, foreign governments and malicious hackers could use those backdoors, too. Congress is stalling, but the FCC could give law enforcement exactly what it wants — using the same legal arguments it used to reclassify mobile broadband under Title II. Law enforcement is probably already using this possibility to pressure Internet companies against adopting secure encryption. Congress should stop the FCC from requiring back doors.

This article originally appeared at techfreedom.org.

Today, TechFreedom and a coalition of free-market groups urged Congress to protect Americans against malicious or frivolous litigation that threatens to stifle free speech and undermine the digital economy. In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, the coalition called for passage of H.R. 2304, the SPEAK FREE Act, which would give defendants across the nation access to a special motion to dismiss SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation). The bill would also empower courts to shift fees, so that defendants who prevail on an anti­-SLAPP motion would not have to face legal costs.

The coalition letter reads:

Each year, a multitude of Americans fall victim to lawsuits called SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) that are aimed at unfairly intimidating and silencing them. These kinds of lawsuits are highly effective, despite being without merit, since the legal costs, invasion of privacy, and hassle associated with fighting them is rarely considered a worthwhile use of individuals’ time.

SLAPPs threaten online free speech and the business models that thrive on consumer reviews,” said Tom Struble, Policy Counsel at TechFreedom. “Without an easy judicial mechanism to dismiss groundless lawsuits and shift fees, consumers and small businesses often have no choice but to relent to the demands of companies with deeper pockets. 28 states have already adopted anti-SLAPP standards — it’s time for Congress to do the same.”

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We can be reached for comment at media@techfreedom.org.

With great fanfare, FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler is calling for sweeping changes to the way cable TV set-top boxes work.

In an essay published Jan. 27 by Re/Code, Wheeler began by citing the high prices consumers pay for set-top box rentals, and bemoans the fact that alternatives are not easily available. Yet for all the talk and tweets about pricing and consumer lock-in, Wheeler did not propose an inquiry into set-top box profit margins, nor whether the supply chain is unduly controlled by the cable companies. Neither did Wheeler propose an investigation into the complaints consumers have made about cable companies’ hassles around CableCards, which under FCC mandate cable companies must provide to customers who buy their own set-top boxes.

In fact, he dropped the pricing issue halfway through and began discussing access to streaming content:

To receive streaming Internet video, it is necessary to have a smart TV, or to watch it on a tablet or laptop computer that, similarly, do not have access to the channels and content that pay-TV subscribers pay for. The result is multiple devices and controllers, constrained program choice and higher costs.

This statement seems intentionally misleading. Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire sell boxes that connect to TVs and allow a huge amount of streaming content to play. True, the devices are still independent of the set-top cable box but there is no evidence that this lack of integration is a competitive barrier.

Continue reading →

This article originally appeared at techfreedom.org.

Today, TechFreedom joined a coalition of over 40 organizations from across the country in urging Senate leadership to permanently ban taxes on Internet access. In a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Harry Reid, the coalition voiced support for a permanent extension of the Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA), which bans states and localities from imposing Internet access taxes and discriminatory taxes on electronic commerce. The bill is currently embedded in H.R. 644, the Trade Facilitation and Enforcement Act.

The letter reads:

After decades of progress in connecting more Americans to the Internet, the lack of a permanent ban on Internet access taxes could reverse this progress. Numerous studies continue to show that cost remains an obstacle to Internet access and, if taxes on the Internet go up, even fewer people will be able to afford to go online. This would impede our nation’s long held goal of universal Internet access.

Americans’ broadband bills shouldn’t be used as bargaining chips by Senators who want to impose online sales taxes,” said Tom Struble, Policy Counsel at TechFreedom. “For 17 years, the Internet access tax ban has helped encourage broadband adoption and investment. If Senators want an online sales tax, then pass it on the merits — but handcuffing a broadband tax with sales tax is irresponsible. Consumers are already facing the prospect of higher bills, as the FCC is likely to soon impose universal service fees on broadband as part of its Title II regime imposed in the name of ‘net neutrality.’ Let’s not make that problem worse. The Senate should act quickly to end the uncertainty and pass permanent, Internet tax freedom.”

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 →

This article was originally posted on techfreedom.org

On January 11, TechFreedom joined nearly 200 organizations, companies, and experts from more than 40 countries in urging world leaders to support strong encryption and to reject any law, policy, or mandate that would undermine digital security. In France, India, the U.K, China, the U.S., and beyond, governments are considering legislation and other proposals that would undermine strong encryption. The letter is now open to public support and is hosted at https://www.SecureTheInternet.org.

The letter concludes:

Strong encryption and the secure tools and systems that rely on it are critical to improving cybersecurity, fostering the digital economy, and protecting users. Our continued ability to leverage the internet for global growth and prosperity and as a tool for organizers and activists requires the ability and the right to communicate privately and securely through trustworthy networks.

There’s no middle ground on encryption,” said Tom Struble, Policy Counsel at TechFreedom. “You either have encryption or you don’t. Any vulnerability imposed for government use can be exploited by those who seek to do harm. Privacy in communications means governments must not ban or restrict access to encryption, or mandate or otherwise pressure companies to implement backdoors or other security vulnerabilities into their products.”