Chairman Genachowski and His Howling Commissioners: Reading the Open Internet Report (Part I)

At the last possible moment before the Christmas holiday, the FCC published its Report and Order on “Preserving the Open Internet,” capping off years of largely content-free “debate” on the subject of whether or not the agency needed to step in to save the Internet.

In the end, only FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski fully supported the final solution.  His two Democratic colleagues concurred in the vote (one approved in part and concurred in part), and issued separate opinions indicating their belief that stronger measures and a sounder legal foundation were required to withstand likely court challenges.  The two Republican Commissioners vigorously dissented, which is not the norm in this kind of regulatory action.  Independent regulatory agencies, like the U.S. Courts of Appeal, strive for and generally achieve consensus in their decisions.

So for now we have a set of “net neutrality” rules that a bi-partisan majority of the last Congress, along with industry groups and academics, strongly urged the agency not to adopt, and which were deemed unsatisfactory by four of the five Commissioners.  It’s hardly a moment of pride for the agency, which has been distracted by the noise around these proceedings since Genachowski was first confirmed by the Senate.  Important work freeing up radio spectrum for wireless Internet, reforming the corrupt Universal Service Fund, and promoting the moribund National Broadband Plan have all been sidelined.

How did we get here?  In October, 2009, the agency first proposed new rules, but their efforts were sidetracked by a May court decision that held the agency lacked authority to regulate broadband Internet.  After flirting with the dangerous (and likely illegal) idea of “reclassifying” broadband to bring it under the old telephone rules, sanity seemed to return.  Speaking to state regulators in mid-November, the Chairman made no mention of net neutrality or reclassification, saying instead that “At the FCC, our primary focus is simple: the economy and jobs.”

Just a few days later, at a Silicon Valley event, the Chairman seemed to reverse course, promising that net neutrality rules would be finalized.  He also complimented the “very smart lawyers” in his employ who had figured out a way to do it without the authorization of Congress, which has consistently failed to pass enabling legislation since the idea first surfaced in 2003.  (Most recently, Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman floated a targeted net neutrality bill days before the mid-term elections, but never introduced it.)

From then until the Commission’s final meeting before the new Congress comes to town in January, Commissioners and agency watchers lobbied hard and feinted outrage with the most recent version of the rules, which the agency did not make public until after the final vote was taken on Dec. 21.  In oral comments delivered at the December meeting, two commissioners complained that they hadn’t seen the version they were to vote on until midnight the night before the vote.  Journalists covering the event didn’t have the document all five Commissioners referenced repeatedly in their spoken comments, and had to wait two more days for all the separate opinions to be collated.

Why the Midnight Order?  FCC Commissioners do not serve at the whim of Congress or the President, so the mid-term election results technically had no effect on the chances of agency action.  Chairman Genachowski has had the votes to approve pretty much anything he wants to all along, and will for the remainder of his term.

Even with a Republican House, legislation to block or overturn FCC actions is unlikely.  The Republicans would have to get Democratic support in the Senate, and perhaps overcome a Presidential veto.

But Republicans could use net neutrality as a bargaining chip in future negotiations, and the House can make life difficult for the agency by holding up its budget or by increasing its oversight of the agency, forcing the Chairman to testify and respond to written requests so much as to tie the agency in knots.

So doing something as Congress was nearly adjourned and too busy to do much but bluster was perhaps the best chance the Chairman had for getting something—anything—on the Federal Register.

More likely, the agency was simply punting the problem.  Tired of the rancor and distraction of net neutrality, the new rules—incomplete, awkward, and without a solid legal foundation—move the issue from the offices of the FCC to the courts and Congress.  That will still tie up agency resources and waste even more taxpayer money, of course, but now the pressure of industry and “consumer advocate” groups will change its focus.  Perhaps this was the only chance the Chairman had of getting any real work done.

The Report and Order

Too much ink has already been spilled on both the substance and the process of this order, but there are a few tidbits from the documents that are worth calling out.  In this post, I look at the basis for issuing what the agency itself calls “prophylactic rules.”  In subsequent posts, I’ll look at the final text of the rules themselves and compare them to the initial draft, as well as to alternatives offered by Verizon and Google and Congressman Waxman.  Another post will review the legal basis on which the rules are being issued, and likely legal challenges to the agency’s authority.  I’ll also examine the FCC’s proposed approach to enforcement of the rules.

“Prophylactic” Rules

Even the FCC acknowledges that the “problem” these new rules solve doesn’t actually exist…yet.  The rules are characterized as “prophylactic” rules—a phrase that appears eleven times in the 87-page report.  The report fears that the lack of robust broadband competition in much of the U.S. (how many sets of redundant broadband infrastructure do consumer advocates want companies to build out, anyway?) could lead to ISPs using their market influence to squeeze content providers, consumers, or both.

This hasn’t happened in the ten years broadband Internet has been growing in both capability and adoption, of course, but still, there’s a chance.  As the report (¶ 21) puts it in challenged grammar, “broadband providers potentially face at least three types of incentives to reduce the current openness of the Internet.”

We’ll leave to the side for now the undiscussed potential that these new rules will themselves cause unintended negative consequences for the future development or deployment of technologies built on top of the open Internet.  Instead, let’s look at the sum total of the FCC’s evidence, collected over the course of more than a year with the help of advocates who believe the “Internet as we know it” is at death’s door, that broadband providers are lined up to destroy the technology that, ironically, is the source of their revenue.

To prove that these “potential” incentives are neither “speculative or merely theoretical,” the FCC cites precisely four examples between 2005 and 2010 where it believes broadband providers have threatened the open Internet (¶ 35).   These are:

1.      A local ISP that was “a subsidiary of a telephone company” settled claims it had interfered with Voice over Internet Telephony (VoIP) applications used by its customers.

2.      Comcast agreed to change its network management techniques when the company was caught slowing or blocking packets using the BitTorrent protocol (the subject of the 2010 court decision holding the agency lacked jurisdiction over broadband Internet).

3.      After a mobile wireless provider contracted with an online payment service, the provider “allegedly” blocked customers’ attempts to use competing services to pay for purchases made with mobile devices.

4.      AT&T initially restricted the types of applications—including VoIP and Slingbox—that customers could use on their Apple iPhone.

In the world of regulatory efficiency, this much attention being focused on just four incidents of potential or “alleged” market failures is a remarkable achievement indeed.  (Imagine if the EPA, FDA, or OSHA reacted with such energy to the same level of consumer harm.)

But in legal parlance, regulating on such a microscopically thin basis goes well beyond mere “pretense”—it’s downright embarrassing the agency couldn’t come up with more to justify its actions.  Of the incidents, (1) and (2) were resolved quickly through existing agency authority, (3) was merely alleged and apparently did not even lead to a complaint filed with the FCC (the footnote here is to comments filed by the ACLU, so it’s unclear who is being referenced) and (4) was resolved—as the FCC acknowledges–when customers put pressure on Apple to allow AT&T as the sole iPhone network provider to allow the applications.

Even under the rules adopted, (2) would almost surely still be allowed.  The Comcast case involved use of the BitTorrent protocol.  Academic studies performed since 2008 (when the protocol has been expanded to more legal uses, that is), find that over 99% of BitTorrent traffic still involves unlicensed copyright infringement.  Thus the vast majority of the traffic involved is not “lawful” traffic and, therefore, is not subject to the rules.  The no blocking rule (§8.5) only prohibits blocking of “lawful content, applications, services or non-harmful devices.”  (emphasis added)

Indeed, the FCC encourages network providers to move more aggressively to block customers who use the Internet to violate intellectual property law.  In ¶ 111, the Report makes crystal clear that the new rules “do not prohibit broadband providers from making reasonable efforts to address the transfer of unlawful content or unlawful transfers of content… Internet rules should not be invoked to protect CR infringement….” (Perhaps the FCC, which continues to refer to BitTorrent as an “application” or believes it to be a website, simply doesn’t understand how the BitTorrent protocol actually works.)

Under the more limited wireless rules adopted, (3) and (4) would probably still be allowed as well.  We don’t know enough about (3) to really understand what is “alleged” to have happened, but the no-blocking rule (§ 8.5) says only that mobile broadband Internet providers “shall not block consumers from accessing lawful websites, subject to reasonable network management; nor shall such person block applications that compete with the provider’s voice or video telephony service, subject to reasonable network management.”

A mobile payment application wouldn’t seem to be included in that limitation, and in the case of the iPhone, it was Apple, not AT&T, that wanted to limit VoIP.

Even so, the Report makes clear that the wireless rule (¶ 102) doesn’t apply to app stores: “The prohibition on blocking applications that compete with a broadband provider’s voice or video telephony services does not apply to a broadband provider’s operation of application stores or their functional equivalent.”  So if the software involved in incidents (3) and (4) involved rejection of proposed apps for the respective mobile devices, there would still be no violation under the new rules.

And the caveat for “reasonable network management” (§8.11(d)) says only that a practice is “reasonable if it is appropriate and tailored to achieving a legitimate network purpose, taking into account the particular network architecture of the broadband Internet access service.”  Voice and video apps, depending on how they have been implemented, can put particular strain on a wireless broadband network.  Blocking particular VoIP or apps like Slingbox might be allowed, in other words.

So that’s it.  Only four or fewer actual examples of non-open behavior by ISPs in ten years.  And the rules adopted to curb such behavior would probably only apply, at best, to the single case of Madison River (1), a local telephone carrier with six hundred employees, in a case the FCC agreed to drop without a formal finding of any kind nearly six years ago.

But maybe these aren’t the real problems.  Maybe the real problem is, as many regulatory advocates argue vaguely, the lack of “competition” for broadband.  Since the first deployment of high-speed Internet, multiple technologies have been used to deliver access to consumers, including DSL (copper), coaxial cable, satellite, cellular (3G and now 4G), wireless (WiFi and WiMax), and broadband over power lines.  According to the National Broadband Plan, 4% of the U.S. population still doesn’t have access to any of these alternatives.  In many parts of the country, only two providers are available and in others, the offered speeds of alternatives vary greatly, leaving high-bandwidth users without effective alternatives.

If lack of competition is the problem, though, why not solve that problem?  Well, perhaps the FCC would rather sidestep the issue, since it has demonstrated it is the wrong agency to encourage more competition.  The FCC, for example, has supported legal claims by states that they can prohibit municipalities from offering wireless service, and has dragged its feet on approving trials for broadband over power lines—the best hope for much of the 4% who today have no broadband option, most of whom live in rural areas which already have power line infrastructure.

Indeed, if there are anti-competitive behaviors now or in the future, existing antitrust law, enforceable by either the Department of Justice or the Federal Trade Commission, provide much more powerful tools both to prosecute and remedy activities that genuinely harm consumers.

It’s hard, by comparison, to find many examples in the long history of the FCC where it has used its sometimes vast authority to solve a genuine problem.  The Carterfone decision, which Commissioner Copps cites enthusiastically in his concurrence, and (finally) the opening of long distance telephony to competition, certainly helped consumers.  But both (and other examples) could also be seen as undoing harm caused by the agency in the first place.  And both dealt with technologies and applications that were mature.  Why does anyone believe the FCC can “prophylactically” solve a problem dealing with an emerging, rapidly-evolving new technology that has thrived in the last decade in part because it was unregulated?

The new rules, which are aimed at ensuring “edge” providers do not need to get “permission to innovate” from ISPs, may have the unintended effect of requiring ISPS—and edge providers—to get “permission to innovate” from the FCC.  That hardly seems like a risk worth taking for a problem that hasn’t presented itself.