Award Winning Blog

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Walking on Egg Shells, Failing a Litmus Test and Shown the Door

FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly probably will leave the FCC far sooner than anyone would have anticipated a few days ago.  See The President had nominated him for a second term with only one legislator in any way agitated.  Republican Oklahoma Senator Inhofe held up a vote in light of Commissioner O’ Rielly’s support for a 5G competitor with plans on using radio spectrum near GPS frequencies, but sufficiently separated to avoid the potential for interference.  See

The FCC established a 23 MHz “guardband” separating the proposed Ligado wireless service and GPS position location frequencies.  That safeguard apparently was not enough for incumbent government and private users, absent some major cash inducement.  See

Commissioner O’Reilly and I can agree to disagree on many issues, including his antipathy directed at the International Telecommunication Union; see e.g.,  Nevertheless, I deplore his shabby treatment and the state of telecommunications planning in the United States.  The Wall Street Journal and I uncharacteristically agree that “[i]n saner times few on the right [or left] would dispute . . . [the] points” he made.

Commissioner O’Reilly’s cardinal sin: expressing discomfort with an initiative by President Trump and the National Telecommunications Administration (part of the Commerce Department) to make the FCC a congressionally authorized regulator of Internet content.  See  NTIA wants the FCC to interpret Sec. 230 of the Communications Decency Act as conferring direct jurisdiction to investigate whether Internet Service Providers and platform operators, such as Facebook, can lose a liability exemption for unmoderated content passing through their networks.

On a bipartisan basis, most people agree that Sec. 230 does not give the FCC any sort of jurisdiction.  Even if it did have some hook, the Commission deems Internet access off limits, as a largely unregulated information service.  Previously, few on the Right or Left would ignore the First Amendment value in depriving government of any role in adjudicating fairness and sanctioning debatable media bias.  Could NTIA and the FCC find a way to sanction anti-conservative bias, but have no grounds to punish Fox for pro-conservative bias on its web site?

Commissioner O’Reilly has to walk on eggshells lest he upset the President and Executive Branch officials.  Apparently, his appointment to an independent, regulatory agency, created by Congress, accords him little insulation from litmus tests and quick dismissal.


Hipster and Geriatric Antitrust Doctrine

Relentless concentration in broadband and other industries, coupled with ever increasing market power, has triggered more interest in antitrust law and policy.  Predictably, this increased scrutiny generates questions about the viability of case precedent and the empirical “proof” supporting policy.  It also encourages advocates—with a political agenda—to argue for maintenance of the status quo, or substantial change.

The “stay the course” camp sees no need to change doctrine, despite the Internet’s ascendency and the significant difference between “bricks and mortar” commerce and e-commerce.  These mandarins disparage advocates for change and dismiss anything new as “hipster,” undisciplined and wrong.  They have received millions of dollars to spread their gospel, early and often.

The insurgent group plays into the hands of status quo thinkers when their progressive goals subverts, subordinates, or ignores the core mission of antitrust law: to remedy market failures generated by single companies or cartels who use market dominance, conspiracies and other bad actions to harm competition and consumers.  Insurgents also muddy their message when they combine normative goals, inherent in antitrust enforcement, with public policy objectives well outside the antitrust enforcement mission.

A pox on both houses!  The mandarins act as though Chicago School doctrine operates as unimpeachable law.  They see no need to recalibrate and modify based on changed circumstances.  They make no distinction between downward price trends in bricks and mortar markets and the perception of “free” and enhanced value proposition from broadband-mediated services that require no cash payment, but extract great and sellable value from data mining.
The insurgents play into the hands of the mandarins when they lack the discipline and intellectual rigor needed to show the wisdom in incremental adjustments based on changed circumstances.  They become easy targets by pushing normative goals, baked into the antitrust regime, into a progressive, social policy agenda.

I seethe when reading arrogant, inflexible, hubristic and condescending hipster antitrust critiques.  I dismiss as naive, undisciplined and ineffectual the insurgents’ wish list for antirust enforcement.  The incumbents may not win on points, but they appear to have won in courts, legislatures and classrooms.  They have powerful and rich incumbents underwriting their academic work.  That investment has paid handsome dividends.

For example, the FCC and Justice Department continue to approve mergers and acquisitions that trigger “Defcon4” alerts about extreme market concentration.  Somehow, basic economics about market power and concentration do not matter if sponsored researchers can show how consumers theoretically benefit.

One can easily declare a winner when judges and their clerks, well versed in Chicago School doctrine, cannot understand that “free” does not mean without significantly high  individual and social costs.