Mozilla v. FCC Reaction, or Net Neutrality Telenovela Gets Renewed For At Least Two More Seasons.

I’ve been doing network neutrality an awfully long time. More than 20 years, actually. That was when we started arguing over how to classify cable modem service. As complained almost a decade ago, this is the issue that just will not die. I understand that, given the central importance of broadband to our society and economy. Nevertheless, my feeling on this can be summed up by the classic line from Godfather III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” [subtle product placement] I even went so far as to write a book on platform regulation to try to get away from this (available free here). [/subtle product placement] . But no. Here we are again, with a decision that creates further muddle and guarantees this will keep going until at least after the 2020 election.

Sigh.

 

Getting on to the basics, you can find the decision in its 186-page glory here. You can find a good analysis of what potentially happens next for net neutrality by my colleague John Bergmayer here. The short version is that we lost the big prize (getting the Order overturned, or “vacated” as we lawyers say), but won enough to force this back to the FCC for further proceedings (which may yet result in the “Restoring Internet Freedom Order” or RIFO being reversed and/or vacated) and open up new fronts in the states. The net result on balance is rather similar to what we had after the 2014 court decision that tossed out the 2010 net neutrality rules but laid the groundwork for reclassifying broadband as Title II; a curve ball that lets all sides claim some sort of win and creates enough uncertainty to likely keep the worst ISP abuses in check for the time being. (Mind you, ISPs will continue to test the boundaries, as they are already doing without actual enforceable rights in place.)

 

Most importantly, industry and the FCC can’t get what they want most (preemption of state authority) without going full Title II. This puts the FCC in a bind, since it can’t deliver the thing industry most wants. It also means that various state laws (especially the comprehensive California net neutrality law) and various executive orders imposing some sort net neutrality obligations now go into effect get to be litigated individually. As with the California privacy law passed last year, industry now has significant incentive to stop fooling around and offer real concessions to get some sort of federal law on the books. Also like the California Privacy Law, this is not going to be enough to overcome industry reluctance against a law with teeth and therefore is unlikely to go anywhere. So we are likely stuck until after the 2020 election.

 

I also want to emphasize that even the parts where we lost, as in 2014, contain the groundwork for ultimately winning. This gets lost in the headlines (particularly in the triumphant crowing of FCC majority). But like any good telenovela, this latest dramatic plot twist has lots of foreshadowing for the next few seasons and a set up for an even BIGGER plot twist in future seasons.

 

My incredibly long, highly personal and really snarky dissection of the D.C. Circuit’s opinion in Mozilla v. FCC and what it means going forward below.

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Can Trump Really Have The FCC Regulate Social Media? So No.

Last week, Politico reported that the White House was considering a potential “Executive Order” (EO) to address the ongoing-yet-unproven allegations of pro-liberal, anti-conservative bias by giant Silicon Valley companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google. (To the extent that there is rigorous research by AI experts, it shows that social media sites are more likely to flag posts by self-identified African Americans as “hate speech” than identical wording used by whites.) Subsequent reports by CNN and The Verge have provided more detail. Putting the two together, it appears that the Executive Order would require the Federal Communications Commission to create regulations designed to create rules limiting the ability of digital platforms to “remove or suppress content” as well as prohibit “anticompetitive, unfair or deceptive” practices around content moderation. The EO would also require the Federal Trade Commission to somehow open a docket and take complaints (something it does not, at present, do, or have capacity to do – but I will save that hobby horse for another time) about supposed political bias claims.

 

(I really don’t expect I have to explain why this sort of ham-handed effort at political interference in the free flow of ideas and information is a BAD IDEA. For one thing, I’ve covered this fairly extensively in chapters five and six of my book, The Case for the Digital Platform Act. Also, Chris Lewis, President of my employer Public Knowledge, explained this at length in our press release in response to the reports that surfaced last week. But for those who still don’t get it, giving an administration that regards abuse of power for political purposes as a legitimate tool of governance power to harass important platforms for the exchange of views and information unless they promote its political allies and suppress its critics is something of a worst case scenario for the First Amendment and democracy generally. Even the most intrusive government intervention/supervision of speech in electronic media, such as the Fairness Doctrine, had built in safeguards to insulate the process from political manipulation. Nor are we talking about imposing common carrier-like regulations that remove the government entirely from influencing who gets to use the platform. According to what we have seen so far, we are talking about direct efforts by the government to pick winners and losers — the opposite of net neutrality. That’s not to say that viewpoint-based discrimination on speech platforms can’t be a problem — it’s just that, if it’s a problem, it’s better dealt with through the traditional tools of media policy, such as ownership caps and limits on the size of any one platform, or by using antitrust or regulation to create a more competitive marketplace with fewer bottlenecks.)

 

I have a number of reasons why I don’t think this EO will ever actually go out. For one thing, it would completely contradict everything that the FCC said in the “Restoring Internet Freedom Order” (RIFO) repealing net neutrality. As a result, the FCC would either have to reverse its previous findings that Section 230 prohibits any government regulation of internet services (including ISPs), or see the regulations struck down as arbitrary and capricious. Even if the FCC tried to somehow reconcile the two, Section 230 applies to ISPs. Any “neutrality” rule that applies to Facebook, Google, and Twitter would also apply to AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. 

 

But this niggles at my mind enough to ask a good old law school hypothetical. If Trump really did issue an EO similar to the one described, what could the FCC actually do under existing law?

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Pai Continues Radical Deregulation Agenda. Next On The Menu — SMS Texting and Short Codes

In December 2007, Public Knowledge (joined by several other public interest groups] filed a Petition For Declaratory Ruling asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to clarify that both SMS Text Messaging and short codes are “Title II” telecommunications services. Put another way, we asked the FCC to reaffirm the basic statutory language that if you use telephones and the telephone network to send information from one telephone number to another, it meets the definition of “telecommunications service.” (47 U.S.C. 153(53)) We did this because earlier in 2007 Verizon had blocked NARAL from using its short code for political action alerts. While we thought there might be some question about short codes, it seemed pretty obvious from reading the statute that when you send “information between or among points of the users choosing, without change in the form or content as sent and received” (definition of “telecommunications”), over the phone network, using phone numbers that it is a “telecommunications service.”

 

Sigh.

 

On the anniversary of the repeal of net neutrality, FCC Chair Ajit Pai now proposes another goodie for carriers – classifying both short codes and text messages as Title I “information service” rather than a Title II telecommunications service. As this is even more ridiculous than last year’s reclassification of broadband as Title I, the draft Order relies primarily on the false claim that classifying text messaging as Title I is an anti-robocall measure. As we at PK pointed out a bunch of times when the wireless carriers first raised this argument back in 2008 – this is utter nonsense. Email, the archetypal Title I information service, is (as Pai himself pointed out over here) chock full of spam. Furthermore, as Pai pointed out last month, the rise in robocalls to mobile phones has nothing to do with regulatory classification and is primarily due to the carriers not implementing existing technical fixes. (And, as the Wall St J explained in this article, robocallers have figured out how to get paid just for connecting to a live number whether or not you answer, which involves a kind of arbitrage that does not work for text messages.)

 

As if that were not enough, the FCC issued a declaratory ruling in 2015, reaffirmed in 2016, that carriers may block unwanted calls or texts despite being Title II common carriers. There is absolutely nothing, nada, zip, zero, that classifying text messages as Title II does that makes it harder to combat spam. By contrast, Title II does prevent a bunch of blocking of wanted text messages as an anticompetitive conduct which we have already seen (and which is occurring fairly regularly on a daily basis, based on the record in the relevant FCC proceeding (08-7). This includes blocking immigrants rights groups, blocking health alerts, blocking information about legal medical marijuana, and blocking competing services. We should therefore treat the claims by industry and the FCC that only by classifying text messaging as “information services” can we save consumers from a rising tide of spam for what they are – self-serving nonsense designed to justify stripping away the few remaining enforceable consumer rights.

 

Once again, beyond the obvious free expression concerns and competition concerns, playing cutesy games with regulatory definitions will have a bunch of unintended consequences that the draft order either shrugs off or fails to consider. Notably:

 

  1. Classifying texting as Title I will take revenue away from the Universal Service Fund (USF). This will further undermine funds to support rural broadband.

 

  1. Classifying texting as Title I disrupts the current automatic roaming framework established by the FCC in 2007.

 

  1. Classifying texting as Title I may, ironically, take it out of the jurisdiction of the Robocall statute (Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) of 1991).

 

  1. Trashing whatever consumer protections, we have for text messages, and taking one more step to total administrative repeal of Title II completely. Which sounds like fun if you are a carrier but leaves us operating without a safety net for our critical communications infrastructure (as I’ve been writing about for almost ten years).

 

I unpack all of this below.

 

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Hurricane Michael A Wake Up Call On Why Total Dereg of Telecom A Very Bad Idea.

Readers of Harry Potter should be familiar with Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic who refuses to believe Voldemort will return because believing that would require taking precautions and generally upsetting lots of powerful and important people. Instead of preparing for Voldemort’s return, Fudge runs a smear campaign to discredit Potter and Dumbledore, delaying the Wizarding World from preparing to resist Voldemort until too late.

 

I was reminded of this when I read Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai’s statement of frustration with the slow pace of restoring communications in the Florida in the wake of Hurricane Michael. Pai explicitly echoes similar sentiments of Florida Governor Rick Scott, that carriers are not moving quickly enough to restore vital communications services. Pai is calling on carriers not to charge customers for October and to allow customers to switch to rival carriers without early termination fees.

 

What neither Pai nor Scott mention is their own roll in creating this sorry state of affairs. Their radical deregulation of the telephone industry, despite the lessons of previous natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, guaranteed that providers would chose to cut costs and increase profits rather than invest in hardening networks or emergency preparedness. That is how markets actually work in the real world (as opposed to in the delightful dereg fantasy land dreamed up by hired economists). But rather than take precautions that might annoy or upset powerful special interests, they chose to mock the warnings as the panic of “Chicken Little, Ducky Lucky and Loosey Goosey proclaiming that the sky was falling.”

 

Now, however, the Chicken Littles come home to roost and, as predicted, private market incentives have not prompted carriers to prepare adequately for a massive natural disaster. This result was not only predictable, it was predicted — and mocked. So now, like Cornelius Fudge, Chairman Pai and Governor Scott find themselves confronted with the disaster scenario they stubbornly refused to believe in or safeguard against. And while I do not expect this to change Pai’s mind, this ought to be a wake up call to the 37 states that have eliminated direct regulatory oversight of their communications industry that they might want to reconsider.

 

Still, as Public Knowledge is both suing the FCC to reverse its November 2017 deregulation Order, and has Petitioned the FCC to reconsider its June 2018 further deregulation Order, perhaps the FCC will take this opportunity to rethink the certainty with which it proclaimed that carrier’s have so much incentive to keep their customers that they would never cut corners and risk service going down. Or perhaps Congress will now pay attention and decide that their constituents need enforceable rights and real protections rather than promises and platitudes.

 

I provide a lot more detail below.

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The FCC Decides Rural America Has Too Many Broadband Options, So They Are Taking Away 5G Spectrum To Give To The Big Guys.

The FCC is about to take spectrum away from rural providers and we are making a last minute effort to stop it. Last week, my employer Public Knowledge sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai asking him to change the draft Order altering the rules for the “Citizen’s Broadband Radio Service” (CBRS) to keep several of the old rules in place. Specifically, we want the FCC to keep at least some license areas at census tract size, rather than making them bigger and therefore unaffordable for small providers like wireless ISPs (WISPs). We also want the FCC to keep “use or share,” a rule that says that if the licensee is not using a piece of their license area it becomes open for general use on an unlicensed basis until the licensee actually starts using it. We’re also asking the FCC to leave the license terms at 3 years with no expectation it will be renewed (that is to say, it gets re-auctioned at the end of 3 years) rather than go to 10-year terms with an expectation of renewal. Finally, if the FCC is going to change the terms of the licenses as proposed, they need to have some meaningful build out obligations to ensure that rural areas get served.

 

I explain all this below, as well as linking to this nifty tool so you can contact your member of Congress and ask them to tell the FCC to leave rural America some useful spectrum so those who actually want to serve rural America can do so.

More below . . . .

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“A Woman of Valor Who Can Find?” Farewell to Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

This week has been the going away for Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, often called “the Conscience of the Commission.” Not some soppy, Jiminy Cricket-style conscience sitting helplessly on your shoulder pleading and wheedling to try to get you to be good. Clyburn has been a conscience that kicks ass and takes names. The fact that, despite these hyper-partisan times, so many of her Republican colleagues and former colleagues were positively clamoring at her official FCC send off to praise her with genuine warmth for her empathy, graciousness and passion proves (as I once said about Jim Cicconi, who came out of retirement to add his own praise at Clyburn’s official farewell), you can be extremely effective without being a total jerk.

 

Many people understand the duty of public service. But for Mignon Clyburn, it is a calling.

 

As you can tell, I’m a big fan. If you wonder why, read her going away speech from the appreciation/going away party the public interest community held for her last Wednesday — although simply reading the words cannot convey the stirring passion and eloquence with which she read it. Too many people who care deeply about social justice dismiss communications law as a wonky specialty. Those with the passion to follow the instruction of the prophet Isaiah to “learn to do good, seek justice, comfort the oppressed, demand justice for the orphan and fight for the widow” often chose to go into fields where this struggle is more obvious such as civil rights or immigration law. But as Clyburn made clear through both words and actions, we desperately need this same passion in communications law. “The communications sector does not just intersect with every other critical sector of our economy, society, and democracy; it is inextricably intertwined. Healthcare, education, energy, agriculture, commerce, governance, civic engagement, labor, housing, transportation, public safety—all rely on this modern communications infrastructure. Any weaknesses or shortcomings, systemic or isolated, will have ripple effects that can be difficult to discern, but are unmistakable in their impact.”

 

Some reflections on Clyburn’s tenure below . . .

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Interest Rates And Auction Policy –Why The FCC Should Move Quickly On A 5G Auction.

It is a measure of how much communications policy warps my brain that my thoughts about the rise in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the likelihood that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates aggressively as a result have little to do with the impact on stocks, or even my credit card debt, but go directly to the impact on any future spectrum auction. Short version — nothing good. So if we needed another reason for the FCC to move quickly to schedule the next 5G Auction, the potential rise in interest rates is a good one.

 

I explain this in more detail below . . .

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Can The States Really Pass Their Own Net Neutrality Laws? Here’s Why I Think Yes.

We are seeing lots of activity in the states on net neutrality. The Governors of MontanaNew York and New Jersey have issued Executive Orders requiring that any broadband provider doing business with the state must certify that it won’t block, throttle, or prioritize any content or applications. Several states are looking at passing legislation applying some version of the 2015 FCC Net Neutrality Rules, with California furthest along in passing something that effectively replicates the pre-2017 rules. All of which raises the question — can the states actually do that?

 

The FCC not only says “no,” but in the 2017 Net Neutrality Repeal Order, the FCC purported to explicitly preempt any state effort to recreate any net neutrality rules. However, as I pointed out back in 2011 when Republican Commissioners wanted to preempt state reporting requirements, the FCC does not have unlimited preemption power. The FCC has to actually have some source of authority to preempt localities. Indeed, Chairman Pai was so insistent that the FCC lacked the authority to preempt state regulation of intrastate communications services that — in a highly unusual move — he refused to defend the portion of the FCC’s Prison Phone Order capping intrastate rates.

 

 

The critical question is not, as some people seem to think, whether broadband involves interstate communications or not. Of course it does. So does ye olde plain old telephone service (POTS), and state regulated that up to the eyeballs back in the day (even if they have subsequently deregulated it almost entirely). The question is whether Congress has used its power over interstate commerce to preempt the states (directly or by delegating that power to the FCC), or whether Congress has so pervasively regulated the field so as to effectively preempt the states, or whether the state law — while framed as a permissible intrastate regulation — impermissibly regulates interstate commerce (aka the “dormant commerce clause” doctrine). Additionally, certain types of state action, such a the action of the state as a purchaser of services, are exceedingly difficult (if not impossible) to preempt.

 

As always with complicated legal questions, one cannot be 100% sure of how a court will decide. But for the reasons set forth below, I’m reasonably confident that the states can pass their own net neutrality laws. I’m even more confident that a state can decide to purchase services exclusively from carriers that make enforceable pledges not to prioritize or otherwise discriminate against content. Mind you, I don’t think either of these is an effective substitute for federal Title II classification and the 2015 rules. But I encourage states to do what they can and for activists to push for state action in addition to federal action where possible.

 

More below . . . .

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What You Need To Know About the 2017 Wireless Competition Report.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman (FCC) Ajit Pai has put the 20th Wireless Competition Report on the agenda for the FCC’s September Open Meeting. Technically, the Wireless Competition Report is a non-rulemaking agency report to Congress, similar to the many reports the FCC does on everything from the prices paid for cable services to the state of the Satellite industry. But the Wireless Competition Report has become something of a big deal in recent years, owing to the refusal of the FCC since 2010 to find whether or not there is “effective competition” in the wireless industry. At the same time, then-FCC Chair Julius Genachowski moved the Wireless Competition Report (along with a number of other reports) from being a Commission-level item voted on by the full Commission to a Bureau-level item. This torked a bunch of people off. Those who regarded the wireless market as obviously not competitive saw all this as a failure of courage to call out the wireless market for its lack of competition. OTOH, those who consider the wireless market a paragon of competition derided this as a means for the regulation-mad Obama Administration to impose regulation on a clearly competitive and functioning market.

 

Either way, Pai is now putting it back at the Commission level and the Report is once again finding that we have “effective competition” — whatever that means. So it seems like a good time to run through the Wireless Competition Report, what it is, what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and how it gets used and/or abused. And, of course, how it relates to net neutrality, since everything in the freaking world relates to net neutrality these days.

 

Short version: the Report is non-binding on anything but overall provides a picture of the wireless industry by the expert agency charged by Congress to oversee the industry. It is therefore useful evidence for a lot of things ranging from merger approval to future regulatory initiatives. This years report also finds (surprise!) that although speeds have dramatically improved for mobile broadband, as has deployment generally, the level of investment by carriers dropped 9% from 2015 to 2016. How to measure this investment and how this should or should not impact the Title II debate I have dealt with extensively in this blog post, and therefore won’t spend too much time on it here.

 

Longer version below . . .

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My Insanely Long Field Guide To Common Carriage, Public Utility, Public Forum — And Why The Differences Matter.

Once upon a time, social conservatives used to be major allies on both limiting media consolidation and on net neutrality. Why? Because they recognized that if you had a handful of corporate gatekeepers controlling access to the marketplace of ideas, they could easily get shut out. Market forces being market forces, companies pressured to censor unpopular or controversial speech and views will do so. Add to that the belief on the part of conservatives that they face ideological bias from the “mainstream media” or “Silicon Valley,” and you had many conservatives back in the day who stood shoulder to shoulder with us back when I was at Media Access Project to oppose Powell’s efforts to relax media ownership rules in 2003 and who opposed Congress’ first attempt to gut net neutrality — the COPE Act — in 2006.

 

Then came the 2008 election and the Tea Party blowback of 2009-10. Net neutrality became a red team/blue team issue and even social conservatives who had previously supported net neutrality went silent on the issue.

 

Ironically, now that Republicans dominate all branches of government, conservatives are once again discovering the value of common carriage and government prohibition on any sort of interference with conduits of speech — at least with regard to social media platforms like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. Why? As conservatives have once again discovered, if companies retain the right to exert editorial control based on content, they will get pressured by the market and government to use that editorial discretion to censor “harmful” speech. That, and the perception that Silicon Valley has a distinct liberal bias, have prompted some in the conservative movement to rediscover the idea that common carrier regulations actually protect and promote free speech and are not a regulation of speech. Because without access to the public square — whether the real life public square or its digital equivalent — your freedom of speech is simply a freedom to whisper to yourself.

 

I am happy to agree that the time has come to consider whether social media platforms — and other essential elements of communications such as operating systems, DNS registration, or content hosting — should have non-discrimination obligations consistent with our traditional concepts of common carriage. I believe this would also have the salutary effect of protecting companies from liability or social pressure by taking away their discretion. After all, we don’t see anyone demanding that the major mobile providers stop providing cell phones to white supremacists or that broadband providers block subscribers from accessing websites like Daily Stormer. The public accepts that these companies have no choice, because they are common carriers and must serve everyone equally as a matter of law. By contrast, we have seen successful campaigns to pressure DNS registrars to refuse to host the Daily Stormer domain name, Cloudflare, which itself decided to stop servicing Daily Stormer after Daily Stormer claimed that Cloudflare’s decision not to suspend service constituted an endorsement, posted this excellent blog post on why their actions should make people very uncomfortable.

 

So this should be a great time to reforge the Left/Right alliance on media diversity and government regulation to prevent private censorship, right? I hope so. Unfortunately, this very important conversation keeps getting muddled for two reasons.

 

1) People keep confusing the concept of “common carriage” with the concept of “public utility.” The differences actually matter a lot, despite 15 years of anti-net neutrality advocates muddling the two.

2) The most active proponents of using government regulation to prevent private censorship on the conservative side are pretty much treating common carrier regulation as a form of revenge porn rather than as a serious public policy debate. “Oh, you don’t want me? You want to break up with me? Well I’ll show you! I’ll make it so you have to carry me!” Indeed, since 2006, when Google (to my considerable annoyance) became the poster child for net neutrality for opponents and a trade press obsessed with treating every policy debate as an industry food fight, the debate about common carrier obligations or non-discrimination obligations or even privacy has always triggered a “but what about edge providers? Waaaaahhhhh!! Regulate them! Regulate them!”

 

Now I should make it very clear that I can find plenty of progressives who have conceived passionate hatreds for “Silicon Valley” platforms for various reasons, and who also get confused on the concept of “public utility.” Additionally, I can find at least some conservative free market types who understand why we need to regulate things like Internet access differently than hosting services or social media. But it’s conservatives lusting to regulate “Silicon Valley” that have been getting the headlines, and are driving the discussion among Republicans in Congress. Plus I’m getting tired of being asked the same stupid questions by the same folks on Twitter. So I’ll call out the conservatives howling for Silicon Valley blood by name.

 

Anyway, because whether and how to regulate various parts of the Internet supply chain (or, if you prefer, ecosystem), I will try to explain below why common carriage obligations, such as network neutrality, are different from public utility regulation (even though most utility providers are common carriers), which is different from natural monopoly regulated rate of return/tariffing/price regulation. I will briefly explore some of the arguments in favor of applying some sort of public forum doctrine or common carrier obligation to social media platforms, and — because this invariably comes up in telecom space — why platform or other infrastructure providers are not and should not be covered by Title II or the FCC, even if we agree they should have some sort of public forum or even public utility obligations.

 

More below . . .

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