Award Winning Blog

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Misguided Wisdom in Substituting the Generalist FTC for Sector-Specific FCC Expertise

            A number of important, fundamental questions about the scope and nature of government oversight lie within the broad and breathless debate over network neutrality.  Does the public benefit from government oversight by an agency with particular expertise in the industries overseen, or can a generalist agency do a better job?  A related question asks whether ex ante regulations, which anticipate problems, can better serve the public than ex ante remedies occurring after investigation.

            I firmly believe in the essentialness of sector specific expertise, but see ex ante network neutrality regulations as possibly constraining customized services that meet specific subscriber requirements.  For example, I believe the FCC would have the necessary expertise to differentiate between an ISP tactic that hurts consumers and competition and one that does not, e.g., many types of zero rating.

            To the best of my knowledge, no critic of the FCC—even ones keen on shutting it down—have gone on record stating that a generalist agency can and should assume responsibility for spectrum management.  Shifting that essential task to the Commerce Department, for example, probably would heighten the bias favoring retained government “ownership” of choice spectrum with less likelihood for consideration whether government agencies can do more with less.

            The Office of Chairman Pai has endorsed the generalist FTC in lieu of FCC investigation and sanctioning of anticompetitive, or consumer harming practices:

MYTH:  The Federal Trade Commission is not well equipped and has far fewer powers to protect consumers from misconduct by Internet service providers.

  • FACT:  The Federal Trade Commission has broad authority to police unfair, deceptive, and anticompetitive practices online and has brought over 500 enforcement actions to protect consumers online, including actions against Internet service providers and some of the biggest companies in the online ecosystem.  And unlike the FCC, the Federal Trade Commission can order consumer redress (such as refunds) for violations of federal law.

            If I read this correctly, Chairman Pai would pass off an important safeguarding function to a “sister agency” with no concern about impact on budget, staff numbers and jurisdictional wingspan.  Such magnanimity from someone whose position typically requires vigilance against reduction in function, relevance and budget.

            Perhaps Chairman Pai honestly believes the FTC has a better handle on the situation.  Alternatively, he does not think this, but considers it politically wise to abdicate responsibility so the problem will go away.
            The problem will not go away, but the cop on the beat will lack sector-specific expertise.  A particularly glaring deficiency will lie in content carriage issues at the lower layers of the stack of Internet Service Provider functions.  The FTC has greater experience with obvious snookery by content con artists.  Now it will reinvent the wheel on the many ways an ISP might use its platform intermediary function  and content/app carriage activity in anticompetitive and other harmful ways. 

            One last point: Chairman Pai appears to imply that the FTC can generate remedies to harmful behavior with financial and other sanctions that the FCC cannot.  The FCC surely can fine ventures under its jurisdiction.  Perhaps the Chairman has rushed to the conclusion that a reclassification of ISPs as information service providers removes any opportunity to sanction and penalize ISPs making the FTC the government agency of first, last and only resort.

            How humble.