One of the lynchpins of the FCC’s plans to reverse net neutrality is their assertion that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is ready to step in and protect consumers from any abuse by the big ISPs. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai argues that the FTC should always have been the go-to agency for privacy issues and issues like broadband rates. However, it’s possible, and perhaps even likely that the FTC will be legally unable to take on that role.
There is an open lawsuit that challenges whether the FTC has any authority over big ISPs like AT&T. The FTC sued AT&T and levied a $100 million fine on the company for abuses of their unlimited cellular data plans. AT&T stopped selling unlimited data plans in 2011. But the company had sold millions of limited plans that had promised that customers could keep the plans for life. This is about the time that customers could actually begin using large amounts of cellular data due to the burgeoning OTT video market, and AT&T started to pressure customers to drop the grandfathered unlimited plans. AT&T eventually took steps to throttle unlimited data users and even went so far as to block customers from using Facetime, the Apple product that lets customers video chat.
AT&T immediately appealed the FTC decision using the argument that Section 5 of the original FTC charter precluded the agency from regulating ‘common carriers’. The original Telecommunications Act of 1934, which established the FCC, had defined common carrier to be a company that provide public telecommunications facilities – which has been taken to mean facility-based telecom providers. Originally the common carrier definition meant the old Ma Bell and other regulated telephone companies, but over the years the FCC has expanded that definition to include other telecom facility-based providers including cellular carriers and long-haul fiber owners.
In February of 2016 the appeals court agreed with AT&T and said that the FTC had no jurisdiction to regulate a common carrier, even for “non-common carrier activities”. This means that the FTC could not regulate AT&T for its telecom business, but also couldn’t regulate other endeavor that the company might undertake, such as AT&T’s actions as the owner of DirecTV or their future actions as a programmer after a merger with Time Warner.
The FTC appealed that decision and the case is still open. The agency pointed out that the ruling created a huge enforcement gap. At the time it of the FTC appeal it was assumed that the FCC would continue to regulate telecom-related issues for common carriers, but the FTC pointed out that the ruling meant that nobody was regulating non-common carrier activities of common carriers like AT&T.
Almost immediately after this court ruling the formerly unthinkable happened and the FCC now wants to walk away from regulating broadband – the most important of the common carrier activities of AT&T and other ISPs. In doing so, the FCC argues that the FTC will be able to take over the regulation of issues like privacy, billing abuses, excessive rates, etc. However, the 2016 court ruling says that the FTC has no jurisdiction over any of the actions of a common carrier like AT&T.
The fact that the FCC is walking away from its responsibilities does not somehow create the right for the FTC to step in and regulate common carriers. This means that after the FCC reverses Title II authority that there might be no agency in the federal government able to regulate any consumer activities of common carriers like AT&T, even in areas that are not telecom related. It would free up AT&T and other common carriers to subject customers to enormous abuses with nobody able to step in to protect customers. AT&T and other common carriers could inflict unimaginable abuses on customers without consequence, up perhaps to the point of outright fraud, at which point the Justice Department could probably intervene.
To make matters worse, the FTC is not sure that they can really regulate companies like AT&T even should they win the appeal of the AT&T lawsuit. FTC Commissioner Terrell McSweeny says in this opinion piece that the FTC is ill-equipped to regulate companies like AT&T. He says the agency is underfunded for such activities and doesn’t have a staff that has the technical expertise to understand complex telecom issues – exactly the kind of expertise that resides at the FCC.
McSweeny further says that even if the FTC is able to take on this role that the agency doesn’t really regulate companies. Instead, the agency punishes companies for consumer abuses, many years after transgressions. That is not the same thing as proactively establishing rules to regulate corporations. He says that the FTC could not really preclude AT&T from abusing customers, and at best could occasionally fine them for the worst of such abuses, many years after they occurred.
Sadly, we have an FCC that is aware of the regulatory gap and which is still willing to walk away from regulating broadband. It’s not hard to imagine what a company like AT&T might do with zero constraints. It’s likely that we’ll see huge price increases, unsavory practices like stringent data caps, constant violations of customer privacy through the mining of customer data, etc. The only constraint against such practices would be competitive pressures, but the other big ISPs in the market would also be unregulated and it’s not hard to imagine that cable companies would match AT&T abuses rather than compete against them.
The FCC will continue to regulate ISPs but not as telecoms — instead as information services under Title I of the Communications Act, effectively treating ISPs like the old AOL, CompuServe or LexisNexis. That regulatory framework is consistent with the walled garden, vertical integration being aggressively pursued by the legacy telephone and cable companies to own both the content and the delivery infrastructure. That robust vertical integration in turn will likely to draw antitrust regulatory scrutiny from the Justice Department.