U.S. Actually Performed Worse During Covid Than Some Net Neutrality Countries, Not Better.

Every time the net neutrality debate flares up, the ISP industry and its anti-net neutrality allies come up with some reason why leaving unfettered gatekeeper power in the hands of the people who invented the cable video bundle is awesome rather than something that needs oversight to prevent rip offs and anticompetitive behavior. It used to be “net neutrality/Title II will kill investment.” This claim has been repeatedly disproven (you can see some Free Press explanation for why this is nonsense here, here and here). Furthermore, Covid showing the truly massive dimensions of the persistent digital divide has largely discredited “deregulation will spur investment — really!” to all but the most diehard true believers.

 

With Title II back on the table again, we are seeing the repetition of yet another talking point that sounds plausible but turns out to be totally wrong when you actually dig into the evidence. ISPs and their defenders are repeatedly claiming that the U.S. did better than other net neutrality countries (specifically, the EU27) when it came to handling the crush of Covid-19 induced traffic. Unsurprisingly, they credit the lack of regulation for this amazing response. Once again, this claim does not hold up to real scrutiny.

 

As with the investment nonsense, this is a highly complicated area and therefore subject to a lot of spin and heated arguments over what the data actually show and how to explain it. It is made even more difficult by the complete lack of any official statistics (or, as the recent BITAG report put it more politely: “Data sources vary from independent measurement systems to self-reported internal company sources.” (P 7 n.1) So I will just give a few headlines up top and dig into the details below.

 

Contrary to industry boosterism, everything was not awesome for networks during Covid. As one industry observer put it: “By ‘handling’ the volumes they mean that their networks are not crashing and shutting down. But I think there is a whole lot more to these headlines than what they are telling the public.” For reports from the actual time about U.S. problems, see here, here, and here.

 

The U.S. Performed Worse Than Some Countries With Net Neutrality Laws. Studies vary, but one important one looked at not simply the EU and U.S., but also the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and Canada. EFTA member states have the same net neutrality mandates as the EU (sometimes referred to as the EU27, referring to the full member 27 as distinct from the EFTA). Canada has treated broadband as a telecom service for something like 2 decades now, and has similar net neutrality laws to the U.S. 2016 rules. As this study found the U.S. internet traffic as a whole suffered a 4.9% increase in congestion as compared to 7.25% for the entire EU27, but this was significantly higher than for EFTA (3.3%) or Canada (2.4%). Additionally, when surveyed a week later, EFTA and Canada had made significantly greater progress on reducing congestion than the U.S. Furthermore, the U.S. numbers were for the largest cities with the strongest networks. If you start taking out members of the EU27 who aren’t considered our economic peers, the numbers for Europe improve to be comparable with those of the U.S. So sure, there were some differences but they had nothing to do with net neutrality regulations.

 

There isn’t a lot of evidence to support the “U.S. did better than the EU” claim. While you can find some studies that support the thesis that the U.S. did “better” by some set of metrics, there are a lot of other studies that show that from a consumer perspective, E.U. and U.S. subscribers had similar experiences. See here, here, here, and here.

 

The Netflix Red Herring. The “EU asked YouTube and Netflix to downgrade traffic” factoid beloved of ISPs and their supporters is a red herring. Yes, EU regulators approached Netflix, YouTube when lockdowns began to reduce the quality of their video from high-def to standard. But this was a prophylactic precaution to head off a potential concern, not a response to congestion. Only in the U.S. — and only among industry and Libertarians — would the idea of government and all industry sectors coordinating and accepting “a joint responsibility to take steps to ensure the smooth functioning of the internet” be regarded as a sign of weakness or regulatory overreach rather than a simple statement of reasonable prudence and preparedness.

 

More below . . .

Continue reading

No, California Net Neutrality Law Did Not “Nail” Veterans — Carriers Are Using Vets as Pawns.

It’s a cliche villain scene: “Don’t force me to kill the hostages. Unless you do as I say, their blood is on your hands.” While no one would mistake policy fights for a hostage situation (usually), the same principle applies frequently when challenging industry to stop anticompetitive and anti-consumer practices. Industry will take some anti-competitive practice that provides an apparent marginal benefit to someone sympathetic and threaten that the proposed law change will make it impossible for them to do the “nice” because it stops them from doing the bad thing.

 

So it is no surprise that after California’s 2018 net neutrality law survived it’s first day in court, carriers are doing everything in their power to make it look like banning zero-rating (which the California law does to some degree, but not completely. See more detail below.) is bad for consumers. Almost immediate, for example, AT&T announced it would discontinue its anti-competitive practices of zero-rating it’s own video product and “sponsored data” from third parties. But carriers have now reached a new low by claiming that California’s net neutrality law forces them to discontinue zero rating a specific telehealth program available from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Needless to say, opponents of net neutrality have rushed to trumpet this claim without troubling themselves to investigate whether it is even true.

 

Spoiler alert: Its not true.

 

As net neutrality expert and law professor Barbara Van Schewick explained in a blog post immediately after the Politico story broke, California’s net neutrality law does not prevent carriers from zero rating telehealth programs for veterans. What the law does do, as it was designed to do, is prevent carriers from choosing a single program among a universe of competitors and anointing this one program as the only program that gets such special treatment. Or, as I explain below, carriers can choose to continue to zero rate the Veterans Affairs program in a number of ways, provided they don’t disadvantage other programs that do the same thing (here, veterans health). Mind you, carriers could also decide not to impose artificial bandwidth caps as a means of overcharging consumers and/or favoring their own affiliated content. But hey, where’s the fun and profit in that?

 

I break this out below . . . .

Continue reading

Markey’s Bet on Net Neutrality Pays Off (But Not How You Think).

The results are in on the highly contested MA senate primary race between incumbent Senator Ed Markey and 4-term Congressman Joe Kennedy. While about 15% of the vote remains to be counted, it appears that Markey has won by about 10 points. That’s an amazing margin considering that he was trailing by double digits when Kennedy first announced his primary challenge and Markey was widely seen as the next Washington insider destined for the dustbin.

 

But as just about every activist in a wide range of causes pointed out when hearing of the primary challenge, Ed Markey is not your typical Washington insider. To the contrary, Markey has shown leadership on a host of vitally important issues for decades — and long before they were popular in democratic caucus. Markey’s campaign also bucked conventional wisdom by running aggressively on his record. Markey’s Senate win in 2014 was assured when he won the democratic primary, so it is unsurprising that many people in the state outside the activist community were unaware of just how much they owe to Ed Markey. Readers here most likely know him for his telecom work, but the impressive list includes fighting for the environment before it was cool, fighting for privacy before it was cool, and fighting for accessibility rights (which, sadly, is still not as cool as it should be). Markey’s commitment on the environment goes back well before the Green New Deal, and he was huge in writing the pro-environmental provisions in the 2005 Energy Act. He was a primary drafter of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1999. He is responsible for the closed captioning provisions and the video description provisions of the Communications Act.

 

And, of course, he was one of the earliest supporters of net neutrality, going up against members of his own party to fight the anti-net neutrality provisions of the 2006 effort to rewrite the Communications Act. You can see me gush about Markey back in 2006 here. But my appreciation for Markey goes back to the 1990s, when he was one of the few members of Congress who actually cared enough about getting the technical issues right to dig in deep on the creation of ICANN.

 

All of this paid off yesterday in Markey’s primary challenge. Markey’s early decision to back net neutrality — like his decisions on privacy and disability access — were made when no one thought any of these things would matter in an election one way or another. And I’m not going to claim that net neutrality was a deciding issue for the voters of Massachusetts. But it is part of an overall record that established Markey as a genuine progressive leader and effective fighter long before anyone considered those election advantages. In particular, net neutrality is a highly popular issue among the young online progressive activist community that press reports are saying were essential to Markey’s astonishing turn around from trailing by double digits to winning by double digits (or almost double digits depending on the final count).

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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?

  Continue reading

Net Neutrality Oral Argument Highlights Problem For Pai: You Can’t Hide The Policy Implications Of Your Actions From Judges.

Friday, February 1, we had approximately 4.5 hours of oral argument before Judge Millett, Judge Wilkins, and Senior Judge Williams. You can listen to a recording of the oral argument here. As everyone who does this for a living will tell you, you can’t judge the outcome by what happens at oral argument. Because that’s the biggest set of tea leaves we have that can tell us anything about the black box of the court making its decision, however, we all speculate shamelessly. Unsurprisingly, Williams seemed most favorable to the FCC. He dissented in USTA v. FCC, and generally prefers deregulatory policy choices. Millett, as expected, pushed both sides hard. But ultimately both she and Wilkins seemed to come down against the FCC on several issues, including a lengthy discussion of the Section 257 argument I highlighted last week.

 

My colleague John Bergmayer has this summary of the substance of the argument. I want to just highlight one theme, the refusal of the FCC to be honest about the expected policy consequences of its actions. I highlight this for several reasons. First, people need to understand that while the agency can always change its mind, it has to follow the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which includes addressing the factual record, acknowledging the change in policy from the previous FCC, and explaining why it makes a different decision this time around. As I have noted for the last couple of years, there is a lot of confusion around this point. On the one hand, it doesn’t mean you have to show that the old agency decision was wrong. But on the other hand, it doesn’t mean you get to pretend like the old opinion and its old factual record don’t exist. Nor do you get to ignore the factual record established in this case.

 

It was on these points that Millett and Wilkins kept hammering the FCC, and where they are likely in the biggest trouble in terms of the Order. Because FCC Chair Ajit Pai has pretty much made it his signature style to ignore contrary arguments and make ridiculous claims about his orders, this problem has already chomped the FCC on the rear end pretty hard (ironically, in an opinion released on Friday), and will likely continue to do so.

 

More below . . .

Continue reading

Fun Arguments To Watch At Net Neutrality Oral Argument, or Did Marsha Blackburn Accidentally Save Net Neutrality?

At last, the contest everyone has been waiting for is finally here! Get ready tomorrow (Friday February 1) for the oral argument in Mozilla v. FCC, the challenge to the 2017 repeal of net neutrality and re-reclassification of broadband as a Title I “information service.” (aka the “Restoring Internet Freedom Order” or “RIFO”).  Obviously, as one of the counsel’s in the case, I am utterly confident that we will totally prevail, so I am not going to try to rehash why I think we win. Besides, you can get horse race coverage and results anywhere. ToTSF is where you go for the geeky and get your policy wonk on!

 

So in preparation for the Superb Owl of the the 2018 telecom season, I thought I would point out some of the more fun arguments that may come up. As always, keep in mind that oral argument is a perilous guide to the final order, and the judges on the panel have a reputation for peppering both sides with tough questions. Also, there is a lot of legal ground to cover, and many important issues raised in the briefs may not get discussed at all because of time limitations. With all that in mind, here are some things to look for if you are lucky enough to be in the courtroom tomorrow, or listen to the full audio when it’s released.

Continue reading

How Popular Is Net Neutrality? Opponents Have to Hide They Are Campaigning Against It.

Nothing brings home the peculiar nature of “the D.C. Beltway Bubble” than listening to the local news station WTOP. Lets start with the fact that our local 24-hour news station is actually the most popular radio station in the D.C. market. It’s also fun when some incident around the White House or the Capital ends up sequentially on the national news, the local news, and the traffic report.

 

But what really sets D.C. apart is our advertisements. The political ads never stop. Particularly when a major vote is about to happen — such as the upcoming vote in the Senate on S. J. Res. 52, aka the “net neutrality CRA,” aka the repeal of the FCC’s net neutrality repeal. Today (May 9), Senator Markey will file the resolution to force the vote — which is expected to actually happen next week. So, naturally, we are getting all kinds of ads from broadband companies and their various associations (e.g., Broadband for America) trying to push the public to get their Senators to vote against the resolution.

 

The problem for the anti-net neutrality folks, however, is that network neutrality remains enormously popular with the general public. Which leaves these groups trying to rally the public with a problem. Die-hard anti-net neutrality folks like Rep. Marsha Blackburn may think “let ISPs discriminate so that your online experience can be more like going through a TSA security line before flying” is a selling point, people who actually sell stuff for a living recognize that “make your browsing experience like your airline experience with long waits and hidden fees” is kind of a loser.  So if you just advertise “The Senate is considering a resolution to restore the network neutrality rules the FCC repealed last December, call your Senator today and tell them to stand up for ISP freedom to throttle competitors charge new fees ‘innovate’!” — odds are good you will actually drive lots of people to call their Senator and tell them to vote for the resolution and restore net neutrality. (Which, btw, you can do here.) So how do you campaign against network neutrality without actually telling the public you are voting against restoring the net neutrality rules?

 

UPDATE: Jay Cassono has this piece in Medium providing details on a similar scam opposing net neutrality while pretending to be in favor.

Continue reading

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 . . . .

Continue reading

What You Need To Know About Repealing The Repeal of Net Neutrality — How The CRA Works.

There is a great deal of excitement, but also a great deal of misunderstanding, about the effort to “repeal the repeal” of net neutrality using the Congressional Review Act (CRA). On the one hand, we have folks who are confused by the enormous progress made so far and think that we are just one vote shy of repealing the repeal. On the other extreme, we have the folks declaring the effort totally doomed and impossible from the start.

 

You can read the relevant statutory provisions here at 5 U.S.C. 801-08. Briefly, a “Resolution of Disapproval” (which we refer to as a “CRA” rather than a “CRD” just to confuse people) must pass both the Senate and the House (in either order) and then be signed by the President like any other piece of legislation. If the President vetoes Congress may override the veto with a 2/3 vote as it can with any other vetoed legislation. You might think that this makes it impossible for the minority party to get legislation passed. But the CRA was designed to allow a majority of members to pass a Resolution of Disapproval over the objections of the leadership and on a bare majority (so it circumvents the filibuster). And while yes, it must still get past the President, there are reasons to think that is not as impossible as some folks think.

 

 

Right now, the action has been in the Senate, where Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has announced that all 47 Democrats (and the 2 independents who caucus with them) will vote for the CRA. With Republican Susan Collins (R-ME) joining her fellow Senator from Maine Angus King (I-ME), that makes the total number of yes votes 50. So if Dems find one more “yes” vote in the Senate, they can clear that hurdle. But while this is extraordinary news in a very short period of time (technically, it is still too early to even introduce a CRA on the FCC’s net neutrality vote, since the item has not been published in the federal register) — we still have a long way to go to get this over the finish line.

 

But, just to provide some historic perspective. Back in 2003, the nascent (and totally unanticipated by anybody — especially anybody with any experience in media policy) media reform movement rose up against the roll back of all media ownership rules by then-FCC chair Michael Powell. Republican FCC, Republican Congress, Republican President — all supportive of the roll back and big deregulators. Nevertheless, against all odds, we managed to push through a partial roll back by freezing the national ownership limit at 39% (which, not by coincidence, was the ownership level of the largest holding companies — News Corp. and Viacom — as seen in this West Wing episode). So yeah, sometimes the universe give us some long-shot unexpected surprises.

 

I discuss the details of a CRA, and why I think we can win this (and even if we don’t, why it still works in our favor overall), below. In the meantime, you can go to this Public Knowledge resource page to contact your Senators and Representative directly and push them to vote for the Net Neutrality CRA.

 

UPDATE: Matt Schettenhelm pointed out to me that while 30 Senators bypases the Committee and gets on the calendar, you still need to win a motion to proceed before debate and final up down vote. See this article here. I’ve corrected this below.

Continue reading