November 2016 Archives

November 18, 2016 3:37 PM

Wheeler's FCC: Decisionmaking by Political Favoritism

An independent, "expert agency," like the FCC, is at its most effective when it is focused on keeping the industries it regulates running smoothly, in the interests of consumers, by filling policy "potholes."  On the other hand, nothing incites partisan rancor like addressing "problems" that look a lot more like ideological crusades, rather than good faith efforts to address genuine consumer grievances.  

Under Chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC became a battlefield for "proxy wars" pitting business interests against each other in the name of ideology--that, itself, was a disguise for transparent political favoritism.  These battles were fought not by the traditional strength of evidence and argument, but instead through PR campaigns, produced social media outrage, and 3rd party Hessians claiming the "public" or "progressive" interest mantle. This approach has devalued the deliberative process and the role of  the majority and minority commissioners in driving consensus at the expert agency.

A Regulatory "Pothole"

A good example of a regulatory "pothole" is the agency's response to rapid adoption of VoIP technology by consumers in the early 2000's.  Though VoIP calls were a cheaper substitute for PSTN calls in most respects, because VoIP calls didn't use the PSTN, consumers could not access E911 service.  

After some well-publicized tragedies, the FCC quickly focused on this specific issue (out of a larger number of issues) in its already-pending 2004 VoIP NPRM.  Acting quickly, and unanimously, the FCC issued an Order in 2005, adopting some interim measures to: 1) better inform consumers of the limits of nomadic VoIP services, and 2) to ensure that "interconnected" VoIP providers quickly became able to offer E911 service to their customers by terminating calls through CLECs.  

But, if the VoIP 911 matter was an example of interested stakeholders (carriers and public safety/law enforcement) forthrightly putting their interests on the table, and the FCC balancing those interests to find the best solution for consumers, the FCC's recent Broadband Privacy Order provides a good illustration of the exact opposite type of proceeding. 

Broadband Privacy ≠ Internet Privacy

The Commission's classification of broadband Internet access service as a "telecommunications service," in its 2015 Open Internet Order, in turn, allowed the FCC to define what information, with respect to this service, it would define as "customer proprietary network information" ("CPNI") under Section 222 of the Act.  Section 222 defines CPNI as, essentially, information that the service provider knows by virtue of providing a telecom service to a customer, and requires the carrier to obtain customer permission before selling the customer's CPNI to a third party.  

The Interent Service Providers ("ISPs") argued that consumer Internet usage information is not information uniquely held by the ISP, in the way that CPNI was uniquely in possession of a telecommunications carrier in 1996 (when Congress wrote the law).  See, e.g., AT&T Comments pp.9-30.  Rather, the primary market for consumers' internet usage information is the online advertising market. , in which the ISPs do not possess sufficient unique, or valuable, consumer information to even possess a measurable share of the market.

Indeed, consumer Internet usage information is "monetized" in the online advertising market--a market in which almost 2/3's of all revenue, and 90% of growth since 1Q 2015, is controlled by Google and Facebook!  Significantly, the online advertising market is also one in which no ISP even possess a measurable share of the market.  Not surprisingly, according to Princeton University researchers, Google and Facebook account for all of the top 10 third party trackers on the Web

 The ISPs explained that, despite the FCC's rhetoric in its NPRM about consumer "privacy,"

[n]o matter what the Commission does in this proceeding, major actors in the Internet ecosystem will continue to track and use all of the same information the proposed rules would keep ISPs from efficiently tracking and using.

See, e.g., AT&T Comments at p. 35 (emphasis added).  Thus, they argued, the FCC's proposed rules would not enhance consumer privacy, but merely foreclose competition in the online advertising market.

Party Participation vs. Proxy Participation

Given the competitive significance of the FCC's proposed rules, you might think the record in this proceeding would pit edge providers and ISPs against each other, with each side trying to show why the ISPs do/don't possess some unique information about their customers that is worthy of rules protecting its disclosure.  If this was your guess, you'd be half right; the ISPs definitely showed up with their best information/arguments.  

On the other side, though, neither Google/Alphabet, nor Facebook appears in any search of this docket.  Yet, the FCC had no trouble finding support in the record for its contention  that it is the ISPs from whom consumers' information needed protection, and not the two dominant firms in the business of collecting and selling that information.  If you look through the Order, you'll see that a majority of the support the FCC cites is supplied by parties with ties to Google, Facebook, or other edge providers.

For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (cited 45 times in the Order) is a frequent advocate for, and recipient of funding from, both Google and Facebook.  We've discussed Public Knowledge (56 cites) here before, but it and other groups that the Commission cites frequently, like the Center for Democracy & Technology (61 cites),  and the New America Foundation Open Technology Institute (72 cites) are also supported by Google.  The Commission also cited a paper filed by Upturn, which is a legal/policy advocacy group, whose involvement was sponsored by the Media Democracy Fund (supported by edge providers Microsoft and Tumblr.) 

Even groups with names as innocuous as Consumer Federation of America/California, Consumer Watchdog, and National Consumers League are groups for which Google discloses support.  Academics, as well, may have more than an "academic" interest.

Princeton University Professor, Nick Feamster comments, but doesn't disclose that he has received $1.6  million from Google over the past 5 years.  Other Princeton faculty members filed comments similar to Feamster's.  And, in May, Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy, of which Feamster is Acting Director, was a co-sponsor, along with Google-funded Center for Democracy and Technology, of a policy conference on the topic of "broadband privacy."  The Google Transparency Project notes that 5 of the 7 panelists at the event had received support from Google.   

You Need Not Be Present to Win

The reasons behind some parties' participation doesn't mean that their advocacy/arguments were wrong, but the FCC woud have benefited more from a direct exchange between both sides with first-hand knowledge of the consumer information they track.  And, why weren't Google and Facebook in the record, making these points, themselves? 

One reason could have been that more information about these firms' dominance in online advertising came out over the summer, including a paper by one of the Princeton academics in this proceeding, noting that Google and Facebook controlled all the top 10 third-party trackers.  Another reason for Google's absence may have been that it went back on its self-imposed ban on using consumers' personally-identifiable information in its web tracking, according to this ProPublica report

Would it have been embarrassing for the leading edge providers to ask the government for protection from competition?  Maybe, but consumers deserved the ability to transparently see which side--between two interested parties--the government was choosing, and why.  

   *    *    *

The FCC's leadership has been willing to undertake ideological crusades for the sole purpose of advantaging politically-favored firms.  The transparent nature of the FCC's actions ensure that they will quickly be undone by a subsequent Commission.  The legacy of such leadership leaves only acrimony among the majority of Commissioners trying to put consumers first.  Hopefully, the next FCC will  learn from history.


  

November 4, 2016 11:09 AM

Why Is DoJ Siding Against Consumers in its DirecTV Complaint?

On Wednesday of this week (11/02), the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice ("DoJ") sued AT&T arguing that its DirecTV subsidiary was the "ringleader of information sharing agreements" among rivals that "corrupted" competition among rivals to carry the Dodgers' cable TV channel. Complaint at para 2.  According to the DoJ, this is the primary reason that Dodgers' fans in L.A.--living outside of Time Warner Cable's ("TWC") service area have not been able to watch Dodgers' games since the 2013 season.

Unfortunately, the DoJ seems dangerously unaware of findings by a federal court--in an antitrust case on the exact same subject matter being litigated during the same time frame as the facts in the DoJ complaint--that the exclusive sports distribution contracts (that raise consumer rates) may well be the more obvious Sherman Act violation. When we know what DirecTV knew--as a defendant to that litigation--we can better understand why the DoJ could not be more wrong in this case.

L.A. Regional Sports Networks ("RSNs")

Until 2011, Fox Sports was the leading RSN in the L.A. area.  It had two channels, one of which distributed games of the Lakers, Kings, and the Anaheim Angels, and the other of which distributed the games of the Clippers, Dodgers, and Anaheim Ducks. 

But, as Fox's contract with the Lakers was ending in 2011, TWC swooped in and paid $3 billion for the rights to broadcast the Lakers' non-national games for the next 20 years.  As DoJ recounts in its complaint, TWC raised the prices to carry the Lakers (as a standalone channel) well above any range of what any of the other pay TV distributors considered fair value. DoJ Complaint paras. 29-39.
 
In 2013, Guggenheim Partners paid an unheard of $2.15 billion for the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team ("Dodgers").   The private equity investors then turned around and sold the exclusive rights to distribute Dodgers' games--in the form of a dedicated "Dodgers channel"--to TWC for an even-more-unheard-of price of $8.3 billion.

Reportedly, TWC never budged on its demands, that every pay TV distributor (i.e., competitors and other cable/satellite companies), would have to pay it--on a per-subscriber basis for the rights to broadcast Dodgers games--regardless of how many of these distributor's customers want to watch the games.  Until Wednesday, the narrative was that TWC's "unmitigated disaster" of a deal showed that perhaps there was some limit to the ever skyrocketing costs of sports programming.

DoJ to TWC's Rescue

The DoJ contends that DirecTV privately told other pay TV companies that it was not going to pay TWCs outrageous demands. The DoJ argues that, but for this exchange of information, TWC's competitors, and other pay TV distributors in the L.A. Dodgers home market, would have been happy to pay (and pass along to their consumers) the supra-monopoly prices being demanded by TWC.

Bizarrely, DoJ contrasts the "anticompetitive" situation of today with an earlier--presumably "competitive"--negotiation period, in which TWC (as the new RSN for the Lakers) extorts a price from Cox Communications' subscribers of "60% more" than Cox's internal analysis indicated the content was worth. Complaint at para. 36. No, the DoJ's thinking is that if cable companies aren't just spending their customers' money and passing through rate increases, then something illegal is afoot.

The fact, though, is that the vertical distribution contracts--which are responsible for the sports programming price increases (that  DoJ is incomprehensibly fighting for)--were under antitrust scrutiny, and coming up short, throughout the relevant time period covered by the DoJ suit.  After looking at these contracts in the light of antitrust precedent, we can truly appreciate just how wrong the DoJ was to go after the victim--and not the cause--of spiraling sports programming costs.

Consumers Fight Anticompetitive RSN Contracts

In 2012, consumers filed class action antitrust lawsuits against the MLB and the NHL in the Southern District of New York. See, e.g., Laumann v. NHL, et al. and Garber v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, et al., 907 F. Supp.2d. 462 (SDNY 2012).  These cases squarely attacked the contracts at the heart of the exclusive "home television territory" ("HTT") distribution model.  Specifically, consumers alleged that the contracts between the teams, MLB (and the NHL), and the RSNs of DirecTV and Comcast, illegally restricted competition in the broadcasting/streaming markets because these agreements also restrict the right of the "away" team--a non-party to these contracts--to sell its own broadcast feed to anyone in the HTT area of another RSN.
 
MLB fans can only watch games of their "home team" by purchasing a cable package from the RSN (or a distributor of the RSN, such as AT&T, Verizon FiOS, or a satellite or cable company).  Fans of other teams could only watch the games of out-of-market teams by purchasing an out-of-market package ("OMP") from the leagues (for streaming customers) or from the RSN (distributing on behalf of the leagues).

The plaintiffs' successfully argued (at every pre-trial stage) that the complicated web of contracts between the teams, the leagues, and DirecTV and Comcast (which prevented a non-party to the contract (i.e., any "away team") from selling its own independently-produced feed of the game to any fan in any part of the country) were "contracts . . . in restraint of trade" in violation of the Sherman Act.  The plaintiffs' contention was that, but for these contracts, fans could purchase the away-team feeds of games on an "a la carte" basis, even if they did not want to buy home team's cable package.

The Case History/Court Findings

Throughout the case, DirecTV and Comcast (in the same role as TWC in the DoJ case), vigorously argued at every possible stage that, as the RSNs, they were merely accepting terms set forth by the Leagues and that they did not benefit from the exclusivity--and the higher-than-competitive consumer prices--that this exclusivity produced.  The court rejected this argument in both the defendant's motions to dismiss in 2012 (opinion) and their motions for summary judgment in 2014 (opinion).

The court explained that,

evidence that the Television Defendants would not have entered the contracts at the prices prescribed but for the territorial restrictions, is sufficient evidence from which a fact finder could infer a tacit horizontal agreement among the RSNs and MVPDs

See, Opinion Denying Defendant's Motions for Summary Judgment, at 50 (emphasis added). Further, in rejecting the defendant's motions for summary judgment, the court found,

The clubs in each League have entered an express agreement to limit competition between the clubs - and their broadcaster affiliates - based on geographic territories. There is also evidence of a negative impact on the output, price, and perhaps even quality of sports programming.
See, Id. at 30/57.

In May of 2015, the court certified the plaintiff's class to go forward to trial in order to seek injunctive relief, but not money damages, because there was no common monetary impact among the class members. This decision pretty much guaranteed that the case would settle, which it did, on the eve of trial, earlier this year.  The settlement agreement, unfortunately, leaves intact the geographic market exclusivity, which, in turn, ensures that sports content costs will continue to spiral.

To What End?

In many ways, this is/was the perfect case for an antitrust enforcement agency to bring--meritorious, but without the profit potential to ensure the efficacy of private enforcement. However, there is no evidence the DoJ was even aware of this antitrust litigation.

So, instead of taking up the consumer's side, the DoJ chose to sue on behalf of conduct that a United States District Court has already characterized as "express agreement[s] to limit competition between the clubs - and their broadcaster affiliates - based on geographic territories" and their corresponding "evidence of a negative impact on the output, price, and perhaps even quality of sports programming." It is sad that the DoJ didn't follow antitrust developments in this field closely enough to know that agreements which result in distributors paying 60% premiums over value is the result of a "corruption of competition"--rather than competition itself.

Finally, it is interesting to consider that, until several months ago, DirecTV had every reason to believe that a court would be likely to find that its RSN contracts were an illegal restraint of trade.  How ironic that, having dodged a bullet with respect to its RSN agreements, DirecTV would find itself the target of another lawsuit for not agreeing to pay the most anti-consumer RSN contract in America!