FCC Drops ‘App’ Plan to Open Set-Top Boxes

–  Joe Rosenbaum

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), under its new Chairman Ajit Pai, removed from its list of items for consideration, a proposal originally put forth by prior Chairman Tom Wheeler that would have allowed consumers to access pay-TV content on third-party devices.  Previous Chairman Wheeler’s original proposal took an “apps” based approach, but also included a licensing scheme that would require implementation of a standardized license for placing apps on such platforms or devices.

Critics, however, noted this particular proposal would actually have the opposite effect and more restrictively limit the choices available to consumers.  The original proposal also put the FCC in the position of acting as supervisory authority in order to ensure, in each case, that such a license wouldn’t harm competition.  Critics immediately raised concerns over the need for such intrusion by the FCC at all (some raised questions regarding the authority of the FCC to require or supervise such a licensing scheme), with many preferring to simply get rid of restrictions and limitations on access devices altogether.

While the FCC has removed the proposal from its list of items being considered for a vote, it remains on the Commission’s circulation list. Thus, the FCC’s action removes the proposal from immediate consideration, but doesn’t close the file officially – something over which industry groups remain concerned.   Their concerns continue to relate to the uncertainty of having a proposal still open for consideration, which, if resurrected, could pose problems for many in the industry, including distributors and content creators whose existing contracts might be in violation of such a new FCC requirement or policy.  Stay tuned.

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!

Advertising Internet Speeds: Can You Handle the Truth?

In The Wall Street Journal online, Carl Bialik, The Numbers Guy writer and blogger, analyzes the numbers behind advertised versus actual broadband Internet download speeds, and government efforts to measure what the consumer receives compared with what is promised by the ISPs.

In his posting entitled, "How Speedy Are High-Speed Internet Lines?", Mr. Bialik examines the issue of whether statistics derived from a report commissioned by the Federal Communications Commission (www.fcc.gov) are used in a way that is meaningful to consumers when evaluating the offerings of Internet service providers.

Notably, Mr. Bialik’s article also compares the approach taken by the UK’s Office of Communications (Ofcom) in measuring the speeds offered on the other side of the pond, which maintains the panel of tested carriers in secret to prevent any "gaming" of the test process and system.

Joseph I. ("Joe") Rosenbaum is quoted in the posting in connection with some of the legal issues that arise when statistics and factual information contained in government or other reports are used in advertising. Truth (facts) may not, as in the case of defamation, be an absolute defense.

The government may feel that consumers can’t handle the truth. Or at least the truth, depending on the context and the manner in which it is used in advertising. When, for example, can statements that are literally true become false or misleading? As has been previously noted in Legal Bytes, using old facts can be deceptive and misleading when facts are outdated and new facts are available, or when the old facts clearly don’t apply.

In some cases, even current facts can be misleading. If I advertise that an article will be posted on Legal Bytes once a month and I post two, can I claim that Legal Bytes beats its own advertised promise to consumers by double? If you and I enter a race and I win, can you advertise that I came in next to last and you came in second? Is that true? Yes. Is it misleading? Yes. I’ve omitted facts that are material to the information quoted and that are material to the context for you to evaluate.
The truth, after all, is not always that simple and I am grateful for that. As in the words of William Jennings Bryan: "If it weren’t for lawyers, we wouldn’t need them."

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.

Will Net Neutrality Compromise Net Profits?

Earlier today, Julius Genachowski, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), telegraphed the Commission’s plans to open a formal rule-making process on the issue of “net neutrality.” It’s likely the specifics regarding hearings and a timetable for any proposed rulemaking procedures will be on the agenda for the FCC’s October meeting.

While many of the major carriers – including wireless carriers who have typically been out of the fray when it comes to the Web – have argued against both the need and the wisdom of competitive regulation amongst carriers, open Internet advocates, many of whom were ardent campaign contributors and supporters of President Obama, have been aggressively pushing for regulation. Companies such as Amazon.com and Google, have long argued for rules that would prohibit carriers from denying their right to give consumers complete freedom of choice when it comes to both the content they receive and the devices they use to receive it. While not necessarily quibbling with what appears, on its face, to be a reasonable and market driven approach, opponents point out that the government stay away from intervening in yet another major marketplace – this time one, they argue, that isn’t broken. Further, and perhaps more significantly, companies such as ATT and Verizon, now joined by ATT Wireless, Verizon Wireless, Sprint (Sprint Nextel) and T-Mobile (Deutsche Telekom) argue that forcing carriers to open up their networks without corresponding economic counterbalances in place will force them to either raise consumer prices to keep up with virtually unrestricted broadband demand, but may require them to limit availability and accessibility for capacity and technological reasons. Wireless carriers may have special reasons to be concerned given current pricing models and the technological limits of current bandwidth capacity. That said, the major cable television, fiber optic and DSL-based Internet providers have long had to cope with government regulation and requirements.

Back in the days following the breakup of AT&T’s telephone monopoly (anyone remember Judge Green and his landmark 1983 rulings?), the regional and local companies spawned by carving up the nations’ previously regulated monopoly – the so-called ‘Baby Bells’ – worried about long-distance carriers (including the remaining long distance carrier, AT&T) making deals for preferential treatment over interconnections. Thus the principle of equal (“neutral”) treatment for interconnectivity arose. When cable companies started offering Internet service – previously the domain of phone-line intensive telephone companies (remember dial-up?) – they tried to convince everyone that neutrality didn’t apply to them. They carried information, and weren’t, after all, common carriers.

OK. Fast forward to the market response. Phone companies decided to get into the content business! Cable companies are offering Internet and VOIP services, telephone companies are offering entertainment, programming and information services, wireless phone services stream video content and provide messaging of news, sports scores and applications galore (oh, they do still carry voice traffic when you need to make a call).

So back to 2009 and the future. According to Commissioner Genachowski: “This is not about government regulation of the Internet,” adding that “We will do as much as we need to do, and no more, to ensure that the Internet remains an unfettered platform for competition, creativity, and entrepreneurial activity.” That said, his proposal would add a fifth principle to the FCC’s existing four that relate to the Internet. To wit, that carriers will not be permitted to be selective about the content they carry (subject, of course, to their continued ability to block illegal content) and will be required to be transparent about how they are managing the carriage of content across their networks. Violations and allegations of discriminatory practices would still be reviewed by the FCC as and when the facts of each specific case arise. You can read or download the complete statement of Commissioner Genachowski’s prepared statement today, entitled “Preserving a Free and Open Internet: A Platform for Innovation, Opportunity, and Prosperity,” right here.

Clearly if you are a small Internet application provider or software developer that has traditionally had to pay for access through a carrier, open, non-discriminatory access would prove a major boon. Then again, Internet carriers – wired and wireless – have invested huge amounts of capital in building their own proprietary networks. Since there is no evidence that there is a lack of competition, why should the government tell any of them what they should or should not carry on their networks? Indeed, since the early 1990s, when the Web evolved from a glimmer in the eye of Tim Berners-Lee, to a reality, there have been so few real complaints (and so few complaints from consumers, even as competitors bash each other about), why fix something that doesn’t appear to be or have been broken for almost two decades?

Confused as to how the FCC proceedings might or might not affect your business? Thinking about participating in the dialog or submitting comments to the FCC? Let Rimon help you. To stay informed, keep your mouse tuned to Legal Bytes, and if you need to know more, please feel free to call me or the Rimon attorney with whom you regularly work.

FCC Issues Parental Controls’ Inquiry for Video and Audio

On March 3, 2009, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) released a Notice of Inquiry to implement the Child Safe Viewing Act of 2007 (“CSVA”), which directs the FCC to examine advanced parental control technologies that would be compatible with various communications devices and platforms.

Click here to read the full alert, written by Amy S. Mushahwar, Judith L. Harris, and John P. Feldman.

Brands & Entertainment

Those name brands appearing in hit shows. Those logos on the motion picture screen. The characters at the breakfast table with a favorite cereal. The star driving around in a particular automobile. The airline shown flying the lead character off to an exotic destination. Reality? Coincidence? Hardly. They are the result of contracts between the entertainment company or producers and the advertisers, and they represent a growing and important trend in marketing to consumers, along with the Internet, as reaching market segments through traditional radio and television advertising becomes increasingly difficult in our on-demand, fast-forward world.

In some cases, such “branded” entertainment is subtle—inserting itself into a scene or a sequence quite seamlessly and, not necessarily inconsistent with, reality. In other cases—“Harold and Khumar Go to White Castle”—yes, this really was the name of a movie, as was “Akeelah and the Bee,” which Starbucks helped finance and promote. In case you didn’t know, the FCC (and the FTC) regulate advertising on television—the FCC’s regulations concerning disclosure arose primarily from the quiz show scandals in the 1950s. When does creative control over programming yield to paid sponsorship and financing dollars or Euros (or British Pound Sterling). At what point does a program or movie become an infomercial or advercast? Are there vulnerable groups (e.g., children) that might not distinguish so readily between advertising and programming and at what point is that deceptive? What does SAG say about their actors being de facto appearing to endorse a product or brand inserted into their scenes and programs? If an actress is under contract with a cosmetic brand exclusively and a movie scene requires her to use a different brand—actionable? When the trailer with that clip airs on broadcast television—problem? Witness the following quote from Jonathan Adelstein, FCC Commissioner: “Now, products have even seeped into plot lines. Soap operas have woven cosmetic lines into their tales of who-did-what-with-who, while “The Apprentice” sounds more and more like an hour-long infomercial for the latest corporate sponsors.”

Trademark issues, endorsement and competitive/ambush marketing issues, free speech, freedom of expression, adequacy of disclosures, misleading or deceptive advertising—the list of potential issues is growing as the balance between creative control and commercial reality infect the entertainment industry. At one extreme is the traditional product placement in which an advertiser pays a fee for the hopes that the scene with its product doesn’t get cut and wind up on the editing room floor. At the other extreme is a placement fee and promotional campaign that is so integrally tied with the plot and the program that the two are indistinguishable—think “The Apprentice” or “Home Makeover.”

The deals are becoming more complex, and more fraught with potential legal and regulatory issues, and the stakes are higher. Need help? Contact Doug Wood or me—we would be happy to help.

The Medium May Be the Message, but Content is Still King — Sex, Lies and Videotape

The Mobile Marketing Association has promulgated guidelines, now adopted by many leading wireless carriers and programming networks, to deal with the growing use of email, SMS (text messaging) and similar mechanisms in advertising and marketing. As you will recall, legal and regulatory actions have arisen based on the fact that some companies’ marketing practices fail to adequately disclose the charges, whether subscription or imposed by the wireless carriers, that apply to some of their services and, in some cases, to the advertisements and marketing messages themselves.

Wireless carriers are beginning to adopt content guidelines for what they will or will not transmit from content partners—regulating such things as sexually explicit, graphic violence, profanity, hate speech and other topics, words and images—in some cases including lengthy lists of “forbidden words.” CTIA, the wireless industry trade association, issued fairly broad content guidelines last November, but left the specific implementation to the individual carriers. Some carriers have carried this implementation to a level of detail that covers everything from games, music, images and video, and in some cases even governs the file names of anything downloaded or transmitted.

Wait until you wake up to the issues raised by transmission and posting of “user generated content.” As you may know, in addition to the FTC regulating advertising and certain content in the U.S., and on top of state laws, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) having authority to regulate indecent content on television and radio and the mobile phone as a media and entertainment device is no longer fiction, but fact in many cases. Did you know that our Advertising, Technology & Media Law group has significant experience in all these areas (Judith Harris for FCC and communications; Doug Wood for advertising and marketing; and, of course, any of us or me, if you simply can’t figure out where your need fits).

Product Placement–Time-Shifting Causes Ad Shifting

Product placement is an advertising activity which has grown for decades in the motion picture industry, going virtually unnoticed by legislators. When television began aggressively using product placement for advertising, concerns (and regulation) began increasing. Unlike motion pictures, television is legally required to distinguish between advertising and programming.

First, “infomercials” that looked and felt like programming were targeted by regulators, because they believed the infomercials were deceiving. After a number of cases, the industry developed and implemented disclosures to allay fears of regulators at the FCC and the FTC. Enter reality TV. Suddenly programs were using affiliations with sponsors as part of the content or story line, prompting fresh concerns. As cable television, pay-per-view and video-on-demand services, time-shifting and digital recording devices, and fast-forward buttons have become commonplace, advertisers have struggled to capture viewers’ attention with product placement. In 2004, product placement advertising rose to about $4.25 billion.

Why the fuss? Because product placement is advertising, subject to the same laws and regulations that govern commercials. On television, both the FTC and the FCC can regulate advertising, mandate disclosures and determine if something is deceptive or misleading. Where the line between harmless product placement and deceptive practices is drawn is increasingly blurred.

Whether a product placement is deceptive or misleading—sufficient to make it actionable under Section 5 of the FTC Act—depends on whether there is some representation or omission likely to mislead the consumer. The depiction of the product must be viewed from the perspective of a reasonable consumer in the situation and the representation or omission must be “material.” In other words, if the consumer knew or was told the truth, the consumer’s behavior would likely be affected in connection with the product.

The FCC also regulates deceptive product placements: viewers may not realize they are advertisements, hence the FCC requires disclosure. Failure to properly disclose the commercial nature of a product placement could amount to “payola” and would be illegal. Again, where the line is drawn between harmless inclusion of products in programming versus commercialization which misleads consumers is hardly clear.

The FTC and FCC regulations puts advertisers between a rock and a hard place. The FCC requires disclosure for a paid placement—which makes the product placement commercial speech. If it is commercial speech, is the placement then also subject to FTC disclosure rules? What if the advertiser has no control over the creative content and no approval over scripts or editing or even the extent of the product placement itself? Under those circumstances, how could the advertiser be responsible for the depiction of its product; the director, producer, actors, even the editorial staff, have ultimate creative control of what shows up on the screen. The advertiser could pay a substantial sum of money to watch its product wind up on the cutting room floor in post-production. Ouch.

Continue reading “Product Placement–Time-Shifting Causes Ad Shifting”

Broadband Cable Internet Providers Don’t Have to Play by Common Carrier Rules

We were so busy last month telling you about Grokster, we didn’t even get a chance to mention the Supreme Court also ruled providers of cable modem services are not subject to the common carrier regulations that apply to telecommunications services—most significantly the requirement they allow competitors to connect or interconnect with their networks and provide competitive choice and equal access to consumers. Technically, the decision held that the FCC didn’t exceed its authority and has the discretion to interpret the scope of its regulation and rulemaking authority when it declined to force cable broadband providers to provide competitive access similar to that accorded the telecommunications’ common carriers. The FCC had characterized cable modem services as “information services” and thus not telecommunications services, which are subject to the common carrier (and consequently, competitive) regulations.