Killing FTC Regulation?

NCTA, the lobbying group for the big cable companies filed a pleading with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asking the agency to not get involved with regulating the broadband industry. When the FCC killed net neutrality, Chairman Ajit Pai promised that it was okay for the FCC to step away from broadband regulation since the FTC was going to take over much of the regulatory role. Now, a month after net neutrality went into effect we have the big cable ISPs arguing that the FTC should have a limited role in regulation broadband. The NTCA comments were filed in a docket that asks how the FTC should handle the regulatory role handed to them by the FCC.

Pai’s claim was weak from the outset because of the nature of the way that the FTC regulates. They basically pursue corporations of all kinds that violate federal trade rules or who abuse the general public. For example, the FTC went after AT&T for throttling customers who had purchased unlimited data plans. However, FTC rulings don’t carry the same weight as FCC orders. Rulings are specific to the company under investigation. Rulings might lead other companies to modify their behavior, but an FTC order doesn’t create a legal precedent that automatically applies to all carriers. In contrast, FCC rulings can be made to apply to the whole industry and rulings can change the regulations for every ISP.

The NCTA petition asks the FTC to not pursue complaints about regulatory complaints against ISPs. For example, they argue that the agency shouldn’t be singling out ISPs for unique regulatory burdens, but should instead pursue the large Internet providers like Facebook and Google. The NCTA claims that market forces will prevent bad behavior by ISP and will punish a carrier that abuses its customers. They claim there is sufficient competition for cable broadband, such as from DSL, that customers will leave an ISP that is behaving poorly. In a world where they have demolished DSL and where cable is a virtual monopoly in most markets they really made that argument! We have a long history in the industry that says otherwise, and even when regulated by the FCC there are long laundry lists of ways that carriers have mistreated their customers.

One of the more interesting requests is that the ISPs want the FTC to preempt state and local rules that try to regulate them. I am sure this is due to vigorous activity at the state level currently to create rules for net neutrality and privacy regulations. They want the FTC to issue guidelines to state Attorney Generals and state consumer protection agencies to remind them that broadband is regulated only at the federal level. It’s an interesting argument to make after the FCC has punted on regulating broadband and when this filing is asking the FTC to do the same. The ISPs want the FTC to leave them alone while asking the agency to act as the watchdog to stop others from trying to regulate the industry.

I think this pleading was inevitable since the big ISPs are trying to take full advantage of the FCC walking away from broadband regulation. The ISPs view this as an opportunity to kill regulation everywhere. At best the FTC would be a weak regulator of broadband, but the ISPs don’t want any scrutiny of the way they treat their customers.

The history of telecom regulation has always been in what I call waves. Over time the amount of regulations build up to a point where companies can make a valid claim of being over-regulated. Over-regulation can then be relieved either by Congress or by a business-friendly FCC who loosens regulatory constraints. But when regulations get too lax the big carriers inevitably break enough rules that attracts an increase of new regulation.

We are certainly hitting the bottom of a trough of a regulatory wave as regulations are being eliminated or ignored. Over time the large monopolies in the industry will do what monopolies always do. They will take advantage of this period of light regulation and will abuse customers in various ways and invite new regulations. My bet is that customer privacy will be the issue that will start the climb back to the top of the regulatory wave. The ISPs argument that market forces will force good behavior on their part is pretty laughable to anybody who has watched the big carriers over the years.

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