Inter Net Neutrality

What an interesting play on words.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “inter” is a verb that means “to deposit (a dead body) in the earth or in a tomb.”

Earlier this week, the Chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) outlined plans to bury the Internet rules promulgated under the Obama administration that required providers of Internet services to treat all web traffic equally.  Those rules, among other things, limit the ability of ISPs to favor content or customers, to block or slow down the online services they provide.  Under the proposed changes, ISPs (wired and wireless) would be allowed to offer web-based services at different speeds and differing quality of service.  In addition, they could enable more favorable speed or quality, or both, for websites that paid a fee – as long as that relationship was disclosed.

Over the years, a lively and heated debate over the nature and extent of regulation needed to protect consumers without stifling innovation has continued.  Proponents of eliminating the rules claim that allowing the market to create different financial and performance models will spur investment and the development of technology, while critics argue that consumer prices would increase and so would barriers to entry and start-up costs for new companies.  Critics point to the airline industry (where the FCC net neutrality rules have never been applicable) as an example of the potential for harm – one U.S. air carrier provides easy access to one online video service which has paid the airline for such priority status, while others are not enabled with the same speed or quality.

Under the previous administration, the Internet and ISPs (both wired and wireless) were treated as utilities, virtually excluding them from regulatory oversight by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), whose fact-based, case-by-case, analytical approach to regulation is generally perceived as more suitable (and friendly) for emerging technology and evolving markets.  Based on Chairman Ajit Pai’s remarks, in another reversal of the prior administration’s approach, it appears the FCC is now willing to share oversight with the FTC and have the FTC be responsible for monitoring ISP disclosures, determining if consumers are being harmed and determining whether these firms are engaging in anti-competitive or unfair trade practices.  The FCC indicated it plans to enact the new rules early in the new year.  Stay tuned.

If you have any questions or want more information about this or any Legal Bytes’ post, don’t hesitate to contact me, Joe Rosenbaum, a New York based partner at Rimon, P.C., or any of the other lawyers at Rimon with whom you regularly work.

 

 

For Want of a Nail: The AT&T – Time Warner Merger

– By Stephen Díaz Gavin

In Poor Richard’s Almanack, Benjamin Franklin included his own version of an old proverb : “For the want of a nail the shoe was lost, For the want of a shoe the horse was lost, For the want of a horse the rider was lost, For the want of a rider the battle was lost, For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost, And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.” In the case of AT&T’s proposed $85.4 billion purchase of Time Warner Communications, for want of the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”), the battle might now be lost.

When the merger was announced, AT&T confidently predicted that the deal would get the regulatory “green light”, from the FCC and the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) portraying the deal as a classic “vertical” merger that removed no competitors from any market. Mindful that AT&T was still smarting from its 2011 failure to convince the FCC to permit its acquisition of T-Mobile in a horizontal merger, AT&T wanted to avoid FCC review, if at all possible.  AT&T and Time Warner maintained this situation was different.  They pointed to the fact that both DOJ and FCC had allowed a large vertical merger to proceed in 2011 when Comcast was permitted to acquire NBC Universal from General Electric.  Just this past February, Time Warner reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) that it did not plan to transfer any of its licenses to AT&T, so FCC approval would not be necessary. Curiously, few questioned AT&T’s suggestion that there was no role for the FCC because the licenses did not themselves provide service to the public, even though the Communications Act applies to all radio licenses, not just those intended to provide direct service to the public. Apparently a sure thing only weeks ago, the acquisition has  run into significant regulatory difficulties and the DOJ has now raised the prospect that AT&T will have to divest either the Turner Broadcasting unit, which includes CNN and other popular channels, or its DirecTV business.

So what is happening now and why? Consider the political landscape for one. There has been considerable bipartisan political opposition to AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner. Both leading Republican and Democratic members of Congress have spoken skeptically of the merger. Indeed, despite some relatively benign requirements (not including any divestitures), the DOJ approved the Comcast/NBC Universal merger with no divestiture obligations on Comcast. It is no coincidence that opposition to the Comcast acquisition was largely from programmers and public interest groups, but not, as is the case here, politicians as well.

Comcast and AT&T already control 62.3% of U.S. high-speed internet broadband capacity – significant market power and the capability, as internet service providers, to engage in strategies intended to block competitors. Public interest groups and content providers have again raised the concern that like Comcast before it, AT&T will now itself be a programmer with an incentive for anti-competitive behavior. On the programming side, “competitors” like Google, Amazon.com Video, Facebook and others are dependent on ISPs like Comcast and AT&T to reach users. Some officials at DOJ are also apparently frustrated with AT&T trying to circumvent the regulatory process by creating a sense of “inevitability” around approvals and although behavioral safeguards were imposed in the Comcast/NBC approval, there has been growing concern these have not been successful in preventing abuses.

If the AT&T/Time Warner merger fails, it may well be for want of the FCC’s involvement at the very outset. For many reasons, this entire situation might well have been avoided if AT&T had bit the bullet and sought review by the FCC, along with DOJ. Not doing so, bypasses the public notice and comment procedures and disregards the “safety valve” provided by same public airing of the issues. Although impossible to know at this point, perhaps the public interest emphasis of the FCC might even had taken some pressure off the DOJ to look at more drastic alternatives, such as divestitures of key assets. Instead of the FCC that would have considered imposing “public interest” conditions on the merger, AT&T must now deal with a DOJ Antitrust Division head who believes only in structural remedies, such as divestitures.  We may never know if want of the FCC, like the want of a nail, will cause the battle to be lost, but it increasingly looks that way.

This posting was adapted and extracted from a more detailed Client Alert written by Stephen Díaz Gavin, a Partner in Rimon’s Washington, D.C. office and coordinator of Rimon’s Affiliation with Studio Legale Palmieri in Rome, Italy. You can read the entire alert, entitled “AT&T’s Multibillion Dollar Purchase of Time Warner Might Fail for Not Involving FCC,” and if you need more information, feel free to contact Stephen Díaz Gavin directly. As always, if you need any assistance you can always contact me, Joe Rosenbaum, a Partner at Rimon in New York or any of the lawyers at Rimon with whom you regularly work.

First Joint Consultations May Foreshadow Effectiveness of Privacy Shield

–  Stephen Díaz, Partner, Rimon, P.C. &  Claudio Palmieri, Of  Counsel Rimon, P.C. (Principal, Studio Legale Palmieri –Rimôn Italia)

On October 6, 2015, the Court of Justice of the European Union invalidated the so-called “Safe Harbor” that previously governed data transfers between the U.S. and the EU (Case C-362/14 – Maximillian Schrems v. Data Protection Commissioner, 6 October 2015).

As you already know if you read our Legal Bytes’ posting in May concerning the US-EU Data Transfer Privacy Shield, personal data cannot be transferred to from the EU to a non-European Union/European Economic Area country, unless that country can ensure “adequate levels of protection” for such personal data. While the European Commission had identified a number of countries that met the ‘adequate protection’ test, the United States was not one of them and without the Safe Harbor understandings, transatlantic exchanges of data – both for commercial and national security reasons – were at risk of being non-compliant with EU regulations!  In an attempt to temporarily address the data transfer issues, the EU and the U.S. proposed a new framework for exchanges of personal data for commercial purposes, known as the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield (“Privacy Shield”) which was formally launched on July 12, 2016.

Further complicating matters, a new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into effect on May 25, 2018.    In furtherance of a formal and more permanent agreement under the Privacy Shield and in contemplation of the new regulations, representatives of the U.S. and the EU have announced they will meet in Washington, DC during the week of September 18, 2017, for the first Annual Review of the Privacy Shield.  In advance of the meeting, the EU’s official Working Group (WP 29) sent the European Commission their recommendations and consistent with previous pronouncements, they believe the meeting should focus on enforcement of rights and obligations, as well as changes in U.S. law since the adoption of the Privacy Shield.  WP29 recommended discussions focus on these issue and that any formal agreement must deal with both commercial, as well as law enforcement and national security access.

These concerns and considerations are explored in more detail in our full Client Alert: No Certainty in Future of Privacy Shield as Transatlantic Consultations Set to Begin and it is clear that the September consultations may well be an indication of whether the Privacy Shield will prove an adequate regulatory regime for the transatlantic transfer of personal data and whether meaningful progress is likely in the current environment.

If you would like more information, a better understanding or need guidance regarding compliance with these regulations, contact Stephen Díaz Gavin, a Rimon Law Partner based in Washington, DC or Claudio Palmieri is of counsel to Rimon, P.C. and the principal of Studio Legale Palmieri –Rimôn Italia in Rome, Italy. Of course you can always contact me, Joe Rosenbaum, or any of the lawyers at Rimon with whom you regularly work.

 

FCC Opens Radio and Television Broadcasting to Foreign Entities

by Stephen Díaz Gavin

For more than 80 years, Section 310(b) of the Communications Act of 1934 has been interpreted as prohibiting direct foreign ownership of more than 20% and indirect ownership of 25% or more of US radio and television broadcast stations.  Effective January 31, 2017, this will change as the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has removed longstanding prohibitions against these limitations on foreign ownership, although it has preserved the right, on a case-by-case basis, to block a foreign acquisition of a broadcast license in excess of 25% (e.g., for reasons of national security).

Foreign entities, for quite some time, have already been permitted to acquire control over non-broadcast licenses (e.g., nationwide cell carrier T-Mobile is majority owned by Deutsche Telekom). But the FCC has steadfastly enforced its longstanding foreign ownership control policies over broadcast station licenses.  Most famously, Rupert Murdoch had to become a U.S. citizen before being able to acquire control over what we know today as Fox Broadcasting.

Changes adopted to the rules of the FCC will enable approval of up to and including 100% aggregate foreign beneficial ownership (voting and/or equity) by foreign investors in the controlling U.S. parent of a broadcast licensee, subject to certain conditions.  The revised rules, which newly define and in certain respects create different rules for “named” and “un-named” investors, they will allow a named foreign investor that acquires less than 100% to increase its controlling interest to 100% at some time in the future.  If a named foreign investor acquires a “noncontrolling” interest, that investor will now be permitted to increase its voting and/or equity interest up to and including a “noncontrolling” interest of 49.99% in the future, if it chooses to do so.

Although the FCC’s expansive “public interest standard” in approving sales and investments in broadcast licenses, coupled with input from other Executive government agencies, could significantly delay or block investments from some countries, the strong support of this initiative by the remaining Republican members of the FCC would tend to indicate the FCC will be disposed to allow most transactions to proceed to closing.  Indeed, the FCC has already signaled its willingness to do so, by approving just such a foreign ownership acquisition in a recent declaratory ruling issued even before the new rules take effect, ending a decades long back-and-forth haggling over Mexican ownership of Univision.

For more information regarding the new FCC rules or assistance in handling the regulatory and transactional aspects of such an investment, contact the author, Stephen Díaz Gavin, or Phil Quatrini or Sandy Sterrett, all partners at Rimon, P.C.

Of course, you can always contact me, Joe Rosenbaum, the Editor!

The Paradox of Illumination

I first heard about the paradox of illumination from Lee Loevinger, an extraordinary gentleman I was privileged to know professionally.  Lee was a multi-faceted, multi-talented, thought-provoking lawyer whose sage advice and stimulating ideas continue to resonate with those honored to have known him, and everyone else wise enough to read his work and the words he left behind.

In a nutshell, the paradox of illumination is extraordinarily complex, but simple to describe.  Much like Albert Einstein who, when asked about his theory of relativity and the notion that time is not constant, described it in personal terms: if a man is at dinner for 10 minutes with a beautiful woman, it seems like a fleeting instant; but sit on a burning hot stove for 10 minutes and it seems like an eternity :).

The paradox of illumination can similarly be described on a personal level.  Sit in completely dark room.  Really.  Completely dark.  What can you see?  Nothing.  You know little about your surroundings and can only sense your own body – in fact, you don’t even know how far your surroundings extend beyond your immediate sensations.

Now light a match.  The circle of illumination allows you to see a little of what is around you – but the perimeter and beyond are still dark.  Now light a candle.  The circle of what you can see illuminated by the light is larger than before, but the size of the perimeter beyond which you cannot see is also a lot larger than before.  The larger the light, the larger the area of illumination, but larger by far is the perimeter beyond which we know nothing.

The more we can see and the more we know and understand about the world around us, the larger the amount becomes that we don’t know.  In other words, as the circle of our knowledge grows, so does the amount of knowledge we cannot see and don’t know.  The paradox of illumination is the paradox of knowledge.  Perhaps that is why Michelangelo, when he was more than 87 years old, still said, “Ancora Imparo” (I am still learning).

The New Robocop in Town: TCPA, When ‘ALL’ Really Means ALL

This post was written by Judith L. Harris, James M. Duchesne, and Joseph I. Rosenbaum.

It’s Election Night 2010 in Maryland, where a high-profile gubernatorial race is coming to a close. The telephone rings once again, but this time, the message is not “go out and vote before the polls close.” Instead, a recorded message tells the voter, “Relax. Everything is fine. The only thing left is to watch [election results] on TV tonight.” The automated call with a recorded message (a “robocall“) ends with no indication as to who made it or where it came from. This was what actually happened to more than 112,000 African-American voters in Maryland on November 2, 2010. While these “robocalls” may have violated Maryland election laws (criminal charges were recently issued), they may also have violated the TCPA – the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (47 U.S.C. 227).

The TCPA amended the Communications Act of 1934 and is the primary law regulating telemarketing in the United States. Subsection (d) of the TCPA, entitled “Technical and procedural standards,” requires the Federal Communications Commission to create minimum technical and procedural standards for making calls using an artificial or prerecorded voice system (a “robocall”) and makes it a violation of the law if an individual ignores those standards. As part of those minimum standards, one must, at the beginning of the robocall, clearly disclose the identity of whoever initiated the call and at some point during the call, disclose the telephone number or address of that business, individual or entity.

The TCPA allows each state attorney general to enforce the law in federal court, and Maryland brought an action against the company that initiated the offending calls, as well as one of its owners, and one of its employees, claiming they violated the TCPA’s disclosure requirements in an effort to confuse voters and suppress voter turnout (Maryland v. Universal Elections). In response, Universal filed a motion to dismiss the suit, and just a few weeks ago (May 25, 2011), in its opinion dismissing that motion and allowing the suit to proceed, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland made some noteworthy observations regarding TCPA liability:

Purpose Doesn’t Matter. The defendants claimed that making “political robocalls” exempted them from the requirements of the TCPA. Nope. While the FCC may have exempted political robocalls from the requirement of obtaining prior consent, neither Congress nor the FCC exempted political robocalls from the minimum disclosure standards of the TCPA – the plain language of the rule states: “all artificial or prerecorded telephone messages.” Any robocall, for any purpose – commercial, political, or charitable – must contain a disclosure regarding who initiated the call and where that entity or individual can be contacted.

Individuals Can Be Liable. The plain language of the statute, cited in the court’s opinion, states: “It shall be unlawful for any person . . .” to violate the robocall disclosure requirement. Whether an owner of the company or an employee acting on behalf of the company, the court noted several instances in which individuals acting on behalf of corporations could be held personally liable for violating the TCPA (e.g., if they, “had direct, personal participation in or personally authorized the conduct found to have violated the statute”). The owner and employee here could be found liable not because they worked for Universal Elections, but because they were directly involved in initiating the calls that may have violated the TCPA. In other words, if an individual causes a corporation to act in a way that violates the TCPA, that individual can be found liable for the corporate action. Corporate, political campaign and nonprofit decision makers should be aware of this personal liability when they plan their calling campaigns.

One Who Initiates the Call, Not Just Makes It, Can Be Liable. In its motion, Universal argued that because it did not physically make the robocalls, it was not subject to the procedural disclosure standards of the TCPA. It hired a third party to place the robocalls and only recorded the message and uploaded it, and the 112,000 telephone numbers to be called, into the vendor’s system. Guess what the court said? “As the persons and entity responsible for recording the message, the defendants,” and not the conduit that distributed the message, “were in a position to ensure that the content of the message complied with the TCPA.”

If you are making pre-recorded calls, compliance is cheaper than the risk of damages. Maryland is seeking not just to enjoin the defendants from ever violating the TCPA again, but is also seeking monetary damages of $500 per TCPA violation (i.e., each call); and since the state alleges the violations were made willfully and knowingly, it claims the defendants were trying to deceive voters by failing to disclose who made the call, and is also asking the court to triple the damages and require the defendants pay the state’s attorneys’ fees.

A special thank you to James M. Duchesne, a legal intern at Rimon and one of the primary authors of this post. His contribution is greatly appreciated. If you need legal advice and representation on issues related to telemarketing, look no farther than Judith L. Harris and her team, working with our Advertising Technology & Media law practice group. Experienced. Knowledgeable. Seamless. Responsive. Cost Effective. We are happy to help.

Facebook Faces Yet Another Minor Case – Ads Add Added Woes

Facebook is facing another class-action, this time in Federal Court in Illinois, charging it used minors in its advertising. Although I haven’t done a search, there are at least two or three others – federal actions in California and New York and at least one state lawsuit filed in Southern California. In each of these cases, the allegations are essentially the same. Facebook takes user names, pictures and preferences, using the "Like" buttons, and then mashes or moshes (that word is the pits) them with paid sponsorship and advertising to target specific ads – sometimes referred to as "enhanced" or "premium" advertisements. The user’s name or likeness can be "pushed" to their Facebook friends – presumably people who the user has specifically permitted to be able to see such information; and also presumably by becoming a "friend," they, in turn, have manifested a desire or interest to know what the individual is doing, what she or he likes, opinions, where they are and what they are doing.

Aside from issues of free speech, voluntary opt-in and parent consent, especially where the individual is a minor and their name, image or likeness is used in an "ad" (and it’s not clear or settled that these are all "advertisements"), a question arises as to whether section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act insulates Facebook from liability as a neutral communications platform that doesn’t control what each individual does or offers – so long as they act in accordance with Facebook’s terms and conditions. Some commentators point out, however, that in 2007, a Federal Appeals Court in California (9th Circuit Court of Appeals) held that Roommates.com was not immune when their users posted ads that were illegal under the Fair Housing Act (See, Fair Housing Council v. Roommates.com LLC [PDF]. That said, in the Roommates case, the ads were, to some extent, structured, and categories of content and information for the ads encouraged, if not solicited, populating the database of advertising for roommates using the website. Facebook may well argue that simply providing a "Like" button and making it available for use, is no different from a brand owner making a gadget or widget icon available should a user want to place it on their site. The "platform" – in this case Facebook – has no part in the user’s decision, nor is it offering to customize the user’s "Like" decision in any way that could be construed as editing or adding new content as a publisher.

One thing is very clear. Nothing is clear. Stay tuned!

Welcome to Disco via SMS – Google Finds Itself Dancing in Court

This post was written by Judith L. Harris, with assistance from Rimon Summer Interns James Duchesne and Linda Shim.

A new trend is quickly taking hold. In recent months, a sizeable number of class action lawsuits have been filed involving unsolicited text messages. A messaging system called “Short Message Service,” better known as “SMS“, allows individuals to receive text messages on mobile phones.  Consumers unhappy with bulk, unsolicited SMS marketing messages are filing suit under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act 47 U.S.C. § 227 (“TCPA”) in alarming numbers. You can read a summary of the TCPA Rules [PDF], but to recap for these purposes, the TCPA prohibits any call from an automatic telephone dialing system to any mobile telephone service or any service for which the called party is charged. Since most mobile phone service plans charge on a message received/sent basis, the fact that SMS is subject to the TCPA’s prohibitions (just like land line phone calls), has caught many by surprise – including many of the most sophisticated operators in the mobile marketing space.

Lusskin v. Google [PDF] is one of the latest of these cases to be filed (Federal Court in California) and takes aim at Disco, launched by Google just this past March. In Lusskin, the plaintiffs are claiming that the Disco app gives Google the ability to “harvest all phone numbers” added by consumers so that Google “can independently send its own text message advertisements” promoting the Disco application. Individuals can use Disco to input names and mobile phone numbers (into groups); however, no permission or consent is required from someone whose name and number are added! When the group starts, Disco sends a message to members welcoming them, instructing them how the service works and how they can opt out. Once the groups are formed, messages can be sent from a single source, for a single charge, to all group members. Each member of the group receives the message and each can respond and, you guessed it, each response is sent to every other group member – an SMS mobile “chat room.”

Unbeknownst to Mr. Lusskin, he was added to one of these Disco groups and his mobile phone notified him of a text message from an unfamiliar number – the “welcome” message from Disco. Unfortunately, the “chat room” quickly turned into an angry and confused barrage of messages from the other unsuspecting group members responding to Disco’s first, unsolicited message. Messages poured in so rapidly and voluminously that Mr. Lusskin claims he was unable to use his mobile phone until the alleged 105+ SMS messages had all been received. Mr. Lusskin has filed as a class action, seeking relief for all persons who received the unsolicited initial welcoming text message from the Disco service. Mr. Lusskin also wants to include, as plaintiffs in the action, anyone who opted-out of the Disco service within 24 hours of receiving an unsolicited welcoming text message, or who was a member of a Disco group that was closed within 24 hours of its creation.

With a potential penalty of $500 in damages for each TCPA violation – each unsolicited message (and triple that number if a plaintiff can show the violation was willful or knowing) – no wonder consumers are seeking to use the TCPA to get some attention, or rather seeking to avoid getting unsolicited attention.

Are you in the mobile marketing arena? Need to understand the rules and regulations surrounding the medium? If you are an advertiser, marketer or sponsor involved in promotions, the message (content), we can help you keep abreast of Lusskin and its brethren as they seek to carve out a place under TCPA regulation. If you need help, contact Judith L. Harris, or me, Joe Rosenbaum, or any of the Rimon attorneys with whom you regularly work.

Comcast v. FCC Fallout

This post was written by  Judith L. Harris and Amy Mushahwar.

The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has just voted to open a formal proceeding regarding how best to respond to the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Comcast v. FCC (see our previous blog post, FCC Caught by (not in) the Web). In the Comcast case, the court reversed an FCC decision finding that Comcast had violated the Commission’s non-discrimination principles by interfering with traffic from broadband subscribers using an online peer-to-peer file-sharing technology from BitTorrent. The appellate court ruled the Commission, under the FCC’s previous (Republican) Chairman Kevin Martin, had improperly stretched its ancillary jurisdiction pursuant to Title I of the Communications Act to enforce one of its net neutrality principles against an Internet services provider. Earlier, the Commission had classified Internet access as an information service, only subject to light-touch Title I regulation, rather than as a telecommunications service, subject to more extensive Title II regulation, traditionally applied to common carriers.

At stake, in the minds of many, is nothing less than the future of the Internet: whether it is to be free and open and, assuming so, who is best positioned to determine what that means. In the eyes of some, especially the large Internet service providers such as Comcast, Verizon Wireless and AT&T, a free and open Internet equates to a complete government hands-off approach. Investment and innovation has flourished under the prior deregulatory steps, they argue. Others, especially edge players, including content and application providers such as Google, Amazon.com and Apple, focus on increasing Internet facilities consolidation and vertical integration in the industry. They see the need for a “cop on the beat” and explicit (e.g., net neutrality) rules to insure that those who control the “pipes” don’t interfere with consumer choice and play favorites when it comes to content.

In the two months that have ensued since the Comcast decision, handed down only two weeks after the FCC’s release of the Congressionally mandated National Broadband Plan, the debate has raged as to whether, and if so, how, the FCC should proceed to exercise oversight over the activities of Internet service providers. Not surprisingly, the question of increasing significance is where the FCC might turn for the power it needs to implement many of the recommendations contained in the National Broadband Plan. Everyone, it seems, has weighed in, from all branches of government (the White House, Congress and all the Commissioners at the FCC), to all of the private stakeholders, trade associations, coalitions that have come into existence to lobby the issue, media, academics, and Wall Street analysts (witnessing the recent volatility of ISP stocks).

Yesterday’s action by the FCC finally gets the ball really rolling. While Congress has threatened legislation (in both directions) and a court challenge is inevitable no matter where the Commission ends up, the FCC’s 3-2 decision opening this new proceeding is a necessary first step in breaking the current logjam.

The Notice of this new action is worded in neutral terms and presents three alternative solutions to the Commission’s current dilemma. The Notice also seeks other ideas from the public. However, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has made no secret of the course he prefers. In the aftermath of the Comcast ruling, he outlined what he dubbed a “third way,” (the third option, obviously not accidentally, in yesterday’s Notice). His approach, he believes, represents a middle road between continuing to limp along regulating ISPs under Title I, despite the limited power that would afford the FCC to implement some aspects of the National Broadband Plan, and simply reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II, with the potential that would introduce for heavy-handed regulation – such things as oversight of rates and the imposition of interconnection and unbundling obligations. This “third way” envisioned by Chairman Genowchowski, WOULD involve Title II reclassification, but would also include explicit forbearance from use of those powers most feared by telcos and cable companies.

One thing is clear: it’s going to be a long, hot summer in Washington. The Chairman is determined to keep the proceeding moving (perhaps in part to encourage industry and public/private working groups that have already sprouted to come up with a negotiated solution). Comments from the public are due July 15, 2010, less than 30 days from now, with reply comments due August 12, 2010. An Order by the Commission is expected before year-end (and the start of a new Congress), with a decision possible as early as October. The effect of the outcome of the midterm elections and, before then, the tremendous amounts of money the upcoming election will infuse into the system from all of the stakeholders, create wildcards. The stakes are high; the decisions are likely to affect the shape of the Internet for a very long time.

Whether you want more information or need help filing comments with the FCC, look no further than our own Judith L. Harris and Amy Mushahwar in our D.C. office – authorities in the area. Of course, you can always call me, Joseph I. Rosenbaum, or any Rimon attorney with whom you regularly work.

FCC Caught by (not in) the Web

This post was written by Judith L. Harris.

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit handed down a unanimous decision in the case of Comcast v. the FCC, holding, in effect, that the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) could not use its ancillary jurisdiction under Title I of the Communications Act to exercise broad oversight over the activities of Internet service providers (“ISPs”). The case involved a 2008 decision under prior FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, seeking to enforce 2005 “net neutrality” principles by banning Comcast’s blocking or slowing of traffic from broadband subscribers using BitTorrent, an online peer-to-peer file-sharing technology. You can download and/or read the entire case here Comcast v. FCC.

 At first blush, the ruling appears to be a total victory for Comcast but,as no one knows better than Comcast itself, nothing in the Nation’s capital is ever that cut and dried. Thus, Comcast was wise to respond in a conciliatory fashion: “We are gratified by the court’s decision today to vacate the previous FCC order. Comcast remains committed to the FCC’s existing open internet principles, and we will continue to work constructively with this FCC as it determines how best to increase broadband adoption and preserve an open and vibrant internet.” .

After all, Comcast is awaiting the FCC’s judgment on Comcast’s $30 billion merger with NBC Universal. The Commission (along with the Department of Justice) has the power to sideline the deal altogether or to impose conditions that, depending on their severity, could place significant constraints on the business plan of the wanna-be merger partners. Stated another way: Comcast knows that its time for customer golf. Moreover, and possibly even more significant, the only options now available to a highly motivated FCC appear to be far more draconian to the ISP community than the relatively innocuous exercise of power that Comcast successfully challenged in court. The old adage “be careful what you wish for” comes to mind.

Not that any of this leaves the FCC smiling. From their perspective, the court’s ruling could cast a long shadow over the FCC’s ability to proceed with its pending rulemaking designed to codify even bolder net neutrality policies across all broadband platforms, including wireless. Moreover, the issue of the reach of the FCC’s jurisdiction over Internet services could constrain the FCC’s ability to deliver on President Obama’s promise of universal broadband access at high speeds and reasonable prices, and the FCC’s marquee project: implementation of the National Broadband Plan. That plan was released to Congress by the Agency just a few weeks ago (March 16), amid much fanfare and after a year’s worth of intensive effort involving no less than 36 public workshops, nine field hearings, and 31 public notices that produced 75,000 pages of public comment!

But, soldiers march forward. Only two days after the court’s decision, the FCC announced its “Broadband Action Agenda,” explaining the purpose and timing of more than 60 rulemakings and other proceedings recommended for action by the FCC in the plan, and quoting FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski defiantly proclaiming: “We are putting the National Broadband Plan into action,” immediately adding, “The court decision earlier this week does not change our broadband policy goals, or the ultimate authority of the FCC to act to achieve those goals.” Well, maybe not.

The ISPs will undoubtedly act with all deliberate speed to nail down the Comcast victory by vigorously lobbying Capitol Hill to oppose any effort by the FCC (and potentially other providers such as Google and Amazon.com, and tech companies such as Apple), to entreat Congress to mandate network neutrality or to enact legislation giving the FCC clear authority to regulate broadband. From the ISP perspective, even worse could be an effort by the FCC to unilaterally reclassify broadband transmission as a Title II telecommunications service, empowering the FCC (at least until the next court challenge) to regulate with impunity. This latter action, often referred to around town as the “nuclear option,” would only require an affirmative vote by three of the five Commissioners, a low hurdle given the unrestrained, unambivalent public reactions of all three of the Democratic Commissioners (including the Chairman) in the immediate aftermath of the court’s pronouncement.

This week (on April 14), Chairman Genachowski is scheduled to be the only witness at a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee. That hearing was originally planned to focus exclusively on the National Broadband Plan. But now, in addition to examining the FCC’s substantive proposals, the hearing will likely focus on its power, in light of the Comcast decision, to move forward with its implementation plans. With lobbyists swarming the halls of power, expect fireworks. Hopefully, all-out war won’t be the only avenue considered. The public and private stakeholders would do well to take a deep breath and earnestly consider an immediate, good-faith attempt at serious industry self-regulation, with agreed-upon standards of conduct and meaningful enforcement mechanisms.

Time’s a-wasting. As the FCC moves to implement the administration’s broadband agenda, over at the Federal Trade Commission, net neutrality and open Internet advocates are undoubtedly pondering how best they can use their own powers to protect consumers from potentially abusive trade practices by vertically integrated ISPs with enormous market power in a world where the FCC might, in the end, have limited enforcement tools. Who knows, the FTC and the Antitrust Division might decide that its time to burnish tried and true antitrust laws as a way of curtailing any anti-competitive conduct. Comcast, to be sure, is ahead at half time but, as  they well know, there is still much more of the game to be played.

Whether you want to stay in touch and in tune with developments, you wonder how “net neutrality” and these skirmishes might affect your business; or if you need legal advice and representation, you need look no farther than our very own Judith L. Harris – she’s the authority, and she graciously contributed this timely and insightful post. Of course, you can always call me, Joseph I. Rosenbaum, or any Rimon attorney with whom you regularly work.