In my last post, took the 4 most famous net neutrality violations to see how they would come out under the current rules adopted in 2015 v. how they would come out under the regulatory framework following the FCC vote to repeal net neutrality rules, based on the draft Order. To condense the approximately 5500 word analysis — all 4 incidents are addressable under the 2015 rules. None of the incidents are addressable under the combined Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and antitrust regime that remains after the vote to repeal the rules, with the exception of Comcast’s deliberate deception about their blocking peer-2-peer protocols in 2007-08.
Since most folks won’t plow through 5500 words of legal analysis, I’ve gotten some requests to specifically address the claims by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and others that the FTC can address blocking as easily as the FCC and prevent any ISP from blocking any content or application. My short answer is: “No. The FTC CANNOT have a “no blocking” rule like the FCC has today. The FTC may stop an ISP from blocking content or services when it can prove that the blocking violates the antitrust laws, or that the blocking violates the ISP’s published terms of service, or if the ISP blocking causes (or is likely to cause) substantial harm to consumers and is not outweighed by countervailing benefits. And, as I covered extensively in my previous post, proving these things can be hard.
My somewhat longer answer, laid out in more detail below, is that Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 USC 45, simply cannot do what Section 201(b) and Section 202(a) of the Communications Act (47 U.S.C. 201(b) & 202(a)) can do. The two statutes are designed and interpreted very differently. The FTC has very broad jurisdiction but fairly limited authority because it is a very generalist agency. More importantly, it is purely an enforcement agency — designed to prosecute companies from doing what I will refer to here as “bad stuff.” Note, it is not even designed to prevent companies from doing the bad stuff in the first place. It is designed purely to enforce a fairly general consumer protection statute. In particular, the FTC Act Amendments of 1994 severely limited the FTC’s enforcement authority by adding Section 5(n), which requires the FTC to overcome certain obstacles before it can find conduct “unfair” and thus unlawful under Section 5(a).
By contrast, Congress designed the FCC to ensure that our critical communications infrastructure functions in a consistent and stable manner and to explicitly promote all kinds of industrial policy like innovation, universal service, affordability, and to ensure that telecommunications services operate in a manner that serves “the public convenience and necessity.” This is critical because we don’t generally require businesses to serve the public interest, we limit this requirement to a fairly small number of specific industries that are absolutely critical to the functioning of our economy and important in our daily lives. As a result, in contrast to the FTC, the FCC has very broad authority over telecommunications services but virtually no authority over other stuff — like information services.
As I explain below, this makes it literally impossible for the FTC to simply prohibit blocking (let alone prohibit “fast lanes” or “slow lanes”) as the FCC does. To the contrary, under the FTCA, the FTC cannot prevent a broadband carrier from blocking any website, application or service it chooses unless it can prove that this blocking (a) causes (or is likely to cause) “substantial injury” to consumers, (b) there is no other way the consumer could reasonably avoid the harm, and (c) there are no countervailing consumer benefits. While Section 5(n) does allow the FTC to consider “established public policies as evidence to be considered with all other evidence. Such policy considerations may not serve as the primary basis” for a finding of unfairness. So even if we assume that there is an “established public policy” against blocking, that alone does not allow the FTC to stop a broadband provider from blocking content or applications.
And all this, of course, assumes the FTC even has authority to deal with broadband carriers reclassified as information services, which remains up in the air at the moment pending the Ninth Circuit resolution of the en banc rehearing of FTC v. AT&T Mobility.
I explain all this in more detail below . . .