Back in October 2014, before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reclassified as Title II, both the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) brought complaints against AT&T Mobility for failure to disclose the extent they throttled “unlimited” customers once they passed a fairly low monthly limit. You can see the FCC Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL) here. You can see the FTC complaint, filed in the district court for Northern California, here (press release here). As some of you may remember, the FCC was still debating whether or not to reclassify broadband as a Title II telecom service. Opponents of FCC reclassification (or, indeed, of any FCC jurisdiction over broadband) pointed to the FTC enforcement action as proof that the FTC could handle consumer protection for broadband and the FCC should avoid exercising jurisdiction over broadband altogether.
In particular, as noted in this Washington Post piece, FTC Commissioner Maureen Olhausen (R) and then-FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright (R), both vocal opponents of FCC oversight of broadband generally and reclassification specifically, tweeted that the FTC complaint showed the FTC could require broadband providers to keep their promises to consumers without FCC net neutrality rules. Wright would subsequently reiterate this position in Congressional testimony, pointing to the FTC’s enforcement complaint under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTCA) (15 U.S.C. 45) as an “unfair and deceptive” practice to prove that the FTC could adequately protect consumers from potential harms from broadband providers.
Turns out, according to the Ninth Circuit, not so much. As with so much the anti-FCC crowd asserted during the net neutrality debate, this turns out (pending appeal) to be dead wrong. Why? Contrary to what some people seem to think, most notably the usual suspects at Cable’s Team Rocket (who are quoted here as saying “reclassifying broadband means the FTC can’t police any practices of common carriers, at least in the Ninth Circuit” which is either an utterly wrong reading of the case or an incredibly disingenuous remark for implying that reclassification had something to do with this decision. You can see their full press release, which borders on the Trump-esque for its incoherence, here.)
As I explain below, the Ninth Circuit’s decision did not rest on reclassification of broadband. To the contrary, the court made it explicitly clear that it refused to consider the impact of reclassification because, even assuming mobile broadband was not a Title II service, AT&T Mobility is a “common carrier” by virtue of offering plain, ordinary mobile voice service (aka “commercial mobile radio service,” aka CMRS). The Ninth Circuit agreed with AT&T that because AT&T offers some services as common carrier services, AT&T Mobility is a “common carrier” for purposes of Section 5(a)(2) of the FTCA and thus exempt from FTC enforcement even for its non-common carrier services.
Given that Tech Freedom and the rest of the anti-FCC gang wanted this case to show how the Federal Trade Commission could handle all things broadband, I can forgive — and even pity — Tech Freedom’s desperate effort in their press release to somehow make this the fault of the FCC for reclassifying and conjuring an imaginary “gap” in broadband privacy protection rather than admit Congress gave that job to the FCC. After all, denial is one of the stages of grief, and it must come as quite a shock to Cable’s Team Rocket to once again see that Team PK-chu was right after all (even if it doesn’t make me particularly happy that we were, for reasons I will explain below). But this is policy, not therapy. As of today, instead of two cops on the beat for broadband consumer protection access, we have one — the Federal Communications Commission. Fortunately for consumers, the FCC has been taking this job quite seriously with both enforcement actions and rulemakings. So while I consider it unfortunate that Ninth Circuit has cut out the FTC on non-common carrier related actions by companies offering a mix of common carrier and non-common carrier services, the only people who need to panic are Tech Freedom and the rest of the anti-FCC crowd.
OTOH, longer term, this does create a more general concern for consumer protection in more deregulated industries (such as airlines) covered by the exemptions in Section 5 of the FTCA. Yes, I know most folks reading this blog think the universe revolves around broadband, but this decision impacts airlines, bus services, private mail services like UPS, and any other company offering a common carrier service “subject to the Acts to regulate Commerce.” (15 U.S.C. 45(a)(2)) (Also meat packers and a few other named exceptions). So while I am hopeful the FTC appeals this to the full Ninth Circuit for en banc review (and even the Supreme Court, if necessary) from a general consumer protection perspective, the only direct result of this case for broadband policy is to underscore how important it is for the FCC to do its job despite the industry nay-sayers and their Libertarian cheerleaders.
More below . . .