February 19, 2018

Arlington v. FCC: What it Means for Net Neutrality

[Cross-posted on my blog, Managing Miracles]

On Monday, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Arlington v. FCC. At issue was a very abstract legal question: whether the FCC has the right to interpret the scope of its own authority in cases in which congress has left the contours of their jurisdiction ambiguous. In short, can the FCC decide to regulate a specific activity if the statute could reasonably be read to give them that authority? The so-called Chevron doctrine gives deference to administrative agencies’ interpretation of of their statutory powers, and the court decided that this deference extends to interpretations of their own jurisdiction. It’s all very meta, but it turns out that it could be a very big deal indeed for one of those hot-button tech policy issues: net neutrality.

Scalia wrote the majority opinion, which is significant for reasons I will describe below. The opinion demonstrated a general skepticism of the telecom industry claims, and with classic Scalia snark, he couldn’t resist this footnote about the petitioners, “CTIA—The Wireless Association”:

This is not a typographical error. CTIA—The Wireless Association was the name of the petitioner. CTIA is presumably an (unpronounceable) acronym, but even the organization’s website does not say what it stands for. That secret, known only to wireless-service-provider insiders, we will not disclose here.

Ha. Ok, on to the merits of the case and why this matters for net neutrality.
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The Next Step towards an Open Internet

Now that the FCC has finally acted to safeguard network neutrality, the time has come to take the next step toward creating a level playing field on the rest of the Information Superhighway. Network neutrality rules are designed to ensure that large telecommunications companies do not squelch free speech and online innovation. However, it is increasingly evident that broadband companies are not the only threat to the open Internet. In short, federal regulators need to act now to safeguard social network neutrality.

The time to examine this issue could not be better. Facebook is the dominant social network in countries other than Brazil, where everybody uses Friendster or something. Facebook has achieved near-monopoly status in the social networking market. It now dominates the web, permeating all aspects of the information landscape. More than 2.5 million websites have integrated with Facebook. Indeed, there is evidence that people are turning to social networks instead of faceless search engines for many types of queries.

Social networks will soon be the primary gatekeepers standing between average Internet users and the web’s promise of information utopia. But can we trust them with this new-found power? Friends are unlikely to be an unbiased or complete source of information on most topics, creating silos of ignorance among the disparate components of the social graph. Meanwhile, social networks will have the power to make or break Internet businesses built atop the enormous quantity of referral traffic they will be able to generate. What will become of these businesses when friendships and tastes change? For example, there is recent evidence that social networks are hastening the decline of the music industry by promoting unknown artists who provide their music and streaming videos for free.

Social network usage patterns reflect deep divisions of race and class. Unregulated social networks could rapidly become virtual gated communities, with users cut off from others who could provide them with a diversity of perspectives. Right now, there’s no regulation of the immense decision-influencing power that friends have, and there are no measures in place to ensure that friends provide a neutral and balanced set of viewpoints. Fortunately, policy-makers have a rare opportunity to preempt the dangerous consequences of leaving this new technology to develop unchecked.

The time has come to create a Federal Friendship Commission to ensure that the immense power of social networks is not abused. For example, social network users who have their friend requests denied currently have no legal recourse. Users should have the option to appeal friend rejections to the FFC to verify that they don’t violate social network neutrality. Unregulated social networks will give many users a distorted view of the world dominated by the partisan, religious, and cultural prejudices of their immediate neighbors in the social graph. The FFC can correct this by requiring social networks to give equal time to any biased wall post.

However, others have suggested lighter-touch regulation, simply requiring each person to have friends of many races, religions, and political persuasions. Still others have suggested allowing information harms to be remedied through direct litigation—perhaps via tort reform that recognizes a new private right of action against violations of the “duty to friend.” As social networking software will soon be found throughout all aspects of society, urgent intervention is needed to forestall “The Tyranny of The Farmville.”

Of course, social network neutrality is just one of the policy tools regulators should use to ensure a level playing field. For example, the Department of Justice may need to more aggressively employ its antitrust powers to combat the recent dangerous concentration of social networking market share on popular micro-blogging services. But enacting formal social network neutrality rules is an important first step towards a more open web.

Net Neutrality: When is Network Management "Reasonable"?

Last week the FCC released its much-awaited Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on network neutrality. As expected, the NPRM affirms past FCC neutrality principles, and adds two more. Here’s the key language:

1. Subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access service may not prevent any of its users from sending or receiving the lawful content of the user’s choice over the Internet.

2. Subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access service may not prevent any of its users from running the lawful applications or using the lawful services of the user’s choice.

3. Subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access service may not prevent any of its users from connecting to and using on its network the user’s choice of lawful devices that do not harm the network.

4. Subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access service may not deprive any of its users of the user’s entitlement to competition among network providers, application providers, service providers, and content providers.

5. Subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access service must treat lawful content, applications, and services in a nondiscriminatory manner.

6. Subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access service must disclose such information concerning network management and other practices as is reasonably required for users and content, application, and service providers to enjoy the protections specified in this part.

That’s a lot of policy packed into (relatively) few words. I expect that my colleagues and I will have a lot to say about these seemingly simple rules over the coming weeks.

Today I want to focus on the all-purpose exception for “reasonable network management”. Unpacking this term might tell us a lot about how the proposed rule would operate.

Here’s what the NPRM says:

Reasonable network management consists of: (a) reasonable practices employed by a provider of broadband Internet access to (i) reduce or mitigate the effects of congestion on its network or to address quality-of-service concerns; (ii) address traffic that is unwanted by users or harmful; (iii) prevent the transfer of unlawful content; or (iv) prevent the unlawful transfer of content; and (b) other reasonable network management practices.

The key word is “reasonable”, and in that respect the definition is nearly circular: in order to be “reasonable”, a network management practice must be (a) “reasonable” and directed toward certain specific ends, or (b) “reasonable”.

In the FCC’s defense, it does seek comments and suggestions on what the definition should be, and it does say that it intends to make case-by-case determinations in practice, as it did in the Comcast matter. Further, it rejects a “strict scrutiny” standard of the sort that David Robinson rightly criticized in a previous post.

“Reasonable” is hard to define because in real life every “network management” measure will have tradeoffs. For example, a measure intended to block copyright-infringing material would in practice make errors in both directions: it would block X% (less than 100%) of infringing material, while as a side-effect also blocking Y% (more than 0%) of non-infringing material. For what values of X and Y is such a measure “reasonable”? We don’t know.

Of course, declaring a vague standard rather than a bright-line rule can sometimes be good policy, especially where the facts on the ground are changing rapidly and it’s hard to predict what kind of details might turn out to be important in a dispute. Still, by choosing a case-by-case approach, the FCC is leaving us mostly in the dark about where it will draw the line between “reasonable” and “unreasonable”.