Lessons from Aereo: Laws, Litigation and Loopholes

In a case with far-reaching implications for the television business, for cloud computing and for new technologies, the U.S. Supreme Court found that Aereo’s online video service infringed copyrights held by television producers, broadcasters, marketers and distributors in broadcast television programming.  In a 6-3 decision, the Court decided in American Broadcasting Cos., Inc. et al. v. Aereo, Inc., FKA Bamboom Labs, Inc. that Aereo “publicly performs” a copyrighted work within the meaning of the Transmit Clause of the U.S. Copyright Act and thereby infringed exclusive rights of the copyright holders because Aereo did not license the content.  

Aereo’s service allows subscribers, for a monthly fee, “to watch television programs over the Internet at about the same time as the programs are broadcast over the air.” According to Aereo, the system consists of thousands of small antennas in centralized location that receive over-the-air broadcast programming. The company uses special equipment to allow subscribers to stream the programming. The petitioners in this case were copyright holders who sought a preliminary injunction against Aereo, alleging copyright infringement. The Court did not rule on other claims of copyright infringement raised in the lower courts.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, wrote that Congress amended the Copyright Act in 1976 in part to overrule two U.S. Supreme Court decisions (Fortnightly Corp. v. United Artists Television, Inc. and Teleprompter Corp. v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc.) that held that cable systems’ retransmissions of over-the-air broadcasts were not public performances under the Copyright Act. He concluded that

having considered the details of Aereo’s practices, we find them highly similar to those of the CATV systems in Fortnightly and Teleprompter. And those are activities that the 1976 amendments sought to bring within the scope of the Copyright Act. Insofar as there are differ­ences, those differences concern not the nature of the service that Aereo provides so much as the technological manner in which it provides the service. We conclude that those differences are not adequate to place Aereo’s activi­ties outside the scope of the Act.

The majority found, in essence, that Aereo’s system was the modern equivalent of these early CATV, or community antenna television, systems, which used centralized antennas on hilltops or other sites to receive off-air broadcast signals and retransmit those signals via coaxial cable to subscriber homes.  Justice Antonin Scalia, writing the dissent, rejected the majority’s conclusion about Aereo’s resemblance to cable TV services, finding that sufficient technological distinctions existed for purposes of the public performance right and that the majority’s ruling was an “ad hoc rule for cable system lookalikes.” He also argued that Aereo could not be held directly liable for copyright infringement on public performance grounds because “it does not make the choice of content” and therefore does not “perform.” That said, the dissent makes clear that other legal grounds for potential copyright liability were not before the Court, stating that the Networks’ “request for a preliminary injunction – the only issue before this Court – is based exclusively on the direct-liability portion of the public-performance claim (and further limited to Aereo’s ‘watch’ function, as opposed to its ‘record’ function).”

The majority described its decision as a “limited holding” and that Congress “did not intend to discourage or to control the emergence or use of different kinds of technologies.” Justice Breyer wrote:

We cannot now answer more precisely how the Transmit Clause or other provisions of the Copyright Act will apply to technologies not before us. We agree with the Solicitor General that '[q]uestions involving cloud computing,[remote storage] DVRs, and other novel issues not before the Court, as to which ‘Congress has not plainly marked [the] course,’ should await a case in which they are squarely presented.” … And we note that, to the extent commercial actors or other interested entities may be concerned with the relationship between the development and use of such technologies and the Copyright Act, they are of course free to seek action from Congress…

The majority did not address the legal effect of Cartoon Network LP, LLLP v. CCS Holdings, Inc., a 2008 decision by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Second Circuit. In ruling for Aereo in 2013, a three-judge panel of the same Court cited the Cartoon Network case for the proposition that Aereo’s transmissions were not “to the public” for purposes of the Transmit Clause.  Cartoon Network involved whether transmissions using remote storage DVR services were public performances for purposes of the Copyright Act. While the precise legal issue in Aereo involved near-real-time streaming rather than content storage, the omission is noteworthy because Aereo reportedly relied on the Cartoon Network precedent in designing its system. 

Some Implications of the Court's Decision

There is much ambiguity in the Court’s decision, and its application to new technologies will be a source of much analysis and debate. Even if Aereo had prevailed on the public performance claim at the preliminary injunction stage, other theories of copyright liability would have been considered in further proceedings on remand. In addition, the Court’s decision on public performance grounds meant that the Court did not need to determine whether Aereo would have qualified as a “cable system” that was eligible to obtain statutory copyright licenses for the broadcast programming. Similarly, the Court did not look beyond copyright law to communications law and the rules for broadcast retransmission consent. Moreover, the “record” function was not at issue in the case, so the decision’s application to cloud storage services is undetermined at the U.S. Supreme Court. In short, Aereo represents only a portion of the larger legal picture.

I’ve said before that disruption does not occur in a vacuum. The multi-billion-dollar marketplace for video programming services is shaped heavily by regulatory forces. Franchising, copyright, retransmission consent and other legal issues play a role in defining the industry’s buyers and sellers, as well as the terms and conditions of the availability of programming. New providers must manage a variety of legal and regulatory risks to enter and to succeed in this marketplace.

Aereo’s legal approach challenged the existing business model in an effort to bypass licensing negotiations to determine compensation for copyright holders. Chief Justice John Roberts told Aereo’s counsel at oral argument that “your technological model is based solely on circumventing legal prohibitions that you don’t want to comply with, which is fine.” The majority’s reasoning ties Aereo’s practices to precedent from decades ago, despite the technological differences between today's cloud/DVR/Internet services and the community antennas of that era.  Justice Scalia in dissent stated that “I share the Court’s evident feeling that what Aereo is doing (or enabling to be done) to the Networks’ copyrighted programming ought not to be allowed. But perhaps we need not distort the Copyright Act to forbid it.” A major point of contention between the majority and the dissent is whether the case showed that Copyright Act had a “loophole” that should be addressed by the Court or by Congress.

It is noteworthy that the result in Aereo turned less on nuanced technological distinctions and more on broader legal policy:

In other cases involving different kinds of service or technology providers, a user’s involvement in the opera­tion of the provider’s equipment and selection of the con­tent transmitted may well bear on whether the provider performs within the meaning of the [Copyright] Act. But the many similarities between Aereo and cable companies, consid­ered in light of Congress’ basic purposes in amending the Copyright Act, convince us that this difference is not critical here.

This language also illustrates the challenges in applying to new technologies the longstanding legal principle of stare decisis, which means judicial adherence to settled precedent from prior decisions.  The majority endeavored to use legislative history and “Congress’ basic purposes in amending the Copyright Act” to fit Aereo’s business practices into legal precedent. Whether made by lawmakers, judges or regulators, legal rules have a difficult time keeping up with technological change. Rules that are too specifically tailored run the risk of being rendered obsolete, while broader rules can be more vague and difficult to apply as a matter of stare decisis.

The majority stressed that its holding was “narrow” in terms of the intended impact on new technologies. For now, expect the ruling to result in more payments to producers, broadcasters and copyright holders when program distributors seek to license retransmissions of broadcast programming. In any case, as new providers seek to become video programming distributors and existing providers evaluate their options, Aereo will be an important legal touchstone for assessing new business models and technologies for the delivery of broadcast programming.

A Role for WISPs in FirstNet

In recent months, WISPs have been sharing their ideas and concerns about FirstNet and its effect on the WISP industry.  As you may know, Congress gave FirstNet $2 billion dollars and an IOU for $5 billion more to establish a nationwide wireless LTE first-responders’ network. The FCC gave FirstNet 20 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum to use for free. Only in America can a company be so well funded without a management team, business or technical plan. But that is all changing, very fast.


A Role for WISPs in FirstNet


FirstNet turned out to be a big topic of conversation during the recent WISPAmerica conference in Covington, KY. FirstNet board member Ed Reynolds, a former wireless executive widely credited with successfully merging AT&T with BellSouth, spoke to WISPs about FirstNet. He saw that WISPs are in a good position to help stand up this new network, particularly in rural areas where the big carriers have not already built LTE networks.


This much is clear: WISPs have an opportunity to work with FirstNet. Existing wireless, tower, and backhaul infrastructure can be leveraged in return for financial consideration and, potentially, to access 700 MHz spectrum for commercial use in return for building the LTE first-responders network.


Technical parameters are being developed.


WISPs most often ask us about the technical parameters and capabilities of the proposed network. Technical specifications remain to be determined, and because so much remains to be decided, this is not an opportunity that every WISP can get their arms around. At this early stage, some of the unanswered questions are set to be resolved in this FCC Notice of Proposed Rulemaking:



The FCC is considering initial rules to implement a statutory framework for deploying and operating the nationwide public safety broadband network. The main topic areas in the NPRM include 1) technical service rules, such as power limits, emission limits, field strength limits and interference coordination, 2) comment on the FCC’s exercise of the FCC’s statutory responsibilities relative to the oversight of FirstNet and 3) addressing how to treat different classes of incumbents in the FirstNet spectrum, which will use both the existing broadband public safety spectrum (763-769/793-799 MHz) and the D Block spectrum (758-763/788-793 MHz).


Interested WISPs are taking action.

 With the support of  WISPA’s Emergency Communications Action Team (WECAT), and as its counsel, we have organized a group of motivated WISPs seeking to impose rural construction milestones on FirstNet (to encourage partnering with WISPs to help ensure that this spectrum is utilized).  The FCC notice is here:


Our hope is that this group of WISPs will pave the way for broader participation by WISPs in FirstNet. In the meantime, we are working to raise awareness of the many contributions WISPs can make to the success of FirstNet.

Regional workshops and state-level coordination

For now, FirstNet is holding six regional consultation workshops in May and June of 2013.  These meetings represent the formal kick-off of FirstNet’s consultation and engagement with state, regional, tribal, and local jurisdictions and public safety entities.  During these meetings, FirstNet is providing a project update and is gathering input from attendees about their state’s specific, and often unique, requirements and priorities. What FirstNet members learn in each regional workshop will help FirstNet design the network and conduct an effective vendor RFI/RFP process. This will in turn drive the timeline for delivering the state-level build-out plans needed so each state can evaluate its participation in FirstNet.

States have the right to opt-out of participating in FirstNet. WISPs are well advised to stay connected to learn who each State appoints to coordinate with FirstNet, and to introduce yourself and your company’s capabilities. WECAT has been working successfully to raise awareness of WISPs generally within FirstNet and at NTIA. Our progress was clear when FirstNet agreed to send Ed Reynolds to WISPAmerica.

A copy of the presentation of FirstNet Board members from the first regional workshop is posted on FirstNet’s page on the NTIA website (http://www.ntia.doc.gov/category/firstnet). The NTIA website is one of the best sources for information about FirstNet and to find requests for proposals from FirstNet.

Controversy in the Capitol


Of course, FirstNet is not without drama. What would life be like in Washington, DC without drama?


Sheriff Fitzgerald of Store County, Iowa, a FirstNet Board member, dropped a bombshell at the last Board meeting when he accused other Board members of improper conduct in awarding consulting agreements and in failing to share information and to conduct open meetings. Some in the public safety community say that the Board is dominated by large wireless companies that wish to commercialize the spectrum, a feeling some WISPs have conveyed to me.


It doesn’t help dispel this perception that its new CEO, Bill D’Agostino, Jr., just left Verizon to join FirstNet.  I have said before that there will be Congressional hearings long before there is a network and for now, lawyers are left to look into the charges. We haven’t heard the last on this issue.


Nor have we heard the last about FirstNet. Despite the skepticism I share with many about FirstNet and about the role of government in standing up a wireless network, there are opportunities to work with FirstNet to do good in your communities, to monetize the spectrum and leverage the build-out in ways that cannot be ignored.

The TV Industry Isn't "Starting to Collapse." Here's Why.

Disruption does not occur in a vacuum. Recently Henry Blodget and Dan Frommer considered whether technological disruption may lead to the "collapse" of the television industry given the recent track record of the newspaper industry. The debate centers on TV viewers’ changing habits, and the Internet, new video providers (e.g., Hulu, Netflix and iTunes) and non-TV displays (e.g., smartphones and tablets) factor heavily into this debate. Technology has enhanced time-shifting, and viewers watch much less programming live (or nearly live) or via a traditional TV.  Some viewers replace linear program streams with on-demand viewing. Reasonable minds can differ on the ramifications of these changes. What this debate lacks, however, is a thorough assessment of the role that the legal systems play in this heavily regulated space – systems that, for better and for worse, can limit and delay industry-wide disruptions. 

Video programming markets exist within an expansive, multilayered regulatory structure that shapes the options available to viewers. The structure affects access to programming, access to distribution facilities, the terms and conditions of programming rights and other aspects of production and distribution. While Blodget sees vulnerability in the network model amid alternative means for production, acquisition and distribution, Frommer argues that changes in the TV industry will “happen a lot slower than you think” due to factors such as network bundling contracts and carryovers of cable bundling to the Internet. Program suppliers (whether network or syndicated), broadcasters, cable operators, Internet-based video service providers and others compete in this marketplace, but Federal policy also plays a significant role.

Blodget and Frommer focus on the rise and viability of new à la carte competitors to traditional broadcast, cable and satellite providers. These outlets provide a variety of programming, but such providers have differing levels of bargaining power and must compete to negotiate for programming rights. These providers lack certain regulatory benefits available to cable and satellite companies. Federal law assigns certain rights (and certain burdens) to "multichannel video programming distributors," or MVPDs. To date, the Federal Communications Commission has declined to extend this definition to a category of providers that it calls “Online Video Distributors” (OVDs) which include providers such as Netflix, Hulu and others. In a pending proceeding, the FCC has sought public comment on the definition of “MVPD” due to the wide-ranging policy implications.

An MVPD classification gives a provider certain regulatory benefits with respect to access to programming. For example: 

  • Under federal program access rules, among other things, cable-affiliated programmers must make their programming available to MVPDs on nondiscriminatory rates, terms and conditions. Classification issues, however, will impact the universe of parties in the marketplace. An “over-the-top” video provider, Sky Angel, filed a program access complaint against Discovery Communications and Animal Planet in a dispute over a terminated affiliation agreement. Although the complaint remains pending, in its initial ruling, the FCC's Media Bureau found that Sky Angel was not an MVPD because it did not provide subscribers with a transmission path. Extension of MVPD status to such providers would represent a dramatic change in the regulatory regime.
  • Federal law provides, with limited exceptions, that no MVPD may retransmit the signal of a broadcast station without the station’s express authority.  Every three years, commercial broadcasters must contact their local MVPDs and must elect whether to have their broadcast signals carried by those operators in accordance with a retransmission consent agreement or to invoke statutory rights of mandatory carriage. In addition, FCC rules require MVPDs to honor broadcasters’ exclusivity rights with respect to certain network, syndicated and/or sports programming. At present, only MVPDs are eligible to seek relief from the FCC to resolve disputes with broadcasters over these rights. Again, definitions matter.

Even non-MVPDs have benefitted from FCC actions to stimulate access to programming by OVDs.  The FCC's approval of Comcast/NBCU joint venture involved several conditions designed to facilitate access by OVDs to programming owned by the joint venture. While the FCC may lack explicit statutory authority to mandate such access, if FCC approval is required for a specific transaction, the agency sometimes requires the transacting parties to adhere to behavioral, structural or other conditions to get such approval. The Commission’s actions in the context of Comcast/NBCU and the Sky Angel case are introductory steps, potentially toward addressing more significant changes down the road.

Of course, access to programming also requires consideration of the benefits and burdens of copyright laws. The Copyright Act grants copyright holders limited bundles of rights to their works, such as rights to perform their copyrighted works in public (which includes broadcast programming and retransmission of such programming on MVPD networks), rights to preclude others from making public performances of these works and rights to reproduction of those works. Qualifying MVPDs can obtain compulsory or statutory licenses to retransmit certain video programming without having to negotiate with many individual copyright holders whose programs are included in the video stream. Copyright law issues are front and center in a legal challenge brought by broadcasters against the launch of Aereo’s subscription-only Internet service. Aereo plans to offer subscribers specific bundles of broadcast network programming for a fee. The networks assert that Aereo’s service constitutes copyright infringement and argue that while other providers pay fees to license the content, Aereo does not. Once again, legal definitions and regulatory uncertainty over emerging technologies affect access to programming.

Notice that I’ve focused only on certain regulations involving access to programming. A much longer blog post would deal with other important regulatory structures: for example, media ownership, access to network facilities, local video franchising, equipment regulation and the regulator’s role in dispute resolution.  More regulation translates into regulatory uncertainty (for example, over definitional issues), higher transaction costs, more litigation and more intensive lobbying. The lesson here is that the government regulates the video programming industry much more heavily than the newspaper industry, so it’s difficult to translate the problems facing the latter into predictions about the viability of the former.

So between Henry Blodget and Dan Frommer, who’s right about whether the TV business is “starting to collapse”? I see that as a false choice given the unpredictability of this rapidly changing marketplace. The pace of change on the Internet can be dramatic, but where regulation and litigation are involved, the pace can turn glacial. Thanks in part to the legal system, I don’t expect the “TV business” to “collapse” but rather to continue to evolve incrementally, with competition, new and disruptive technologies and government action serving as major drivers.

FCC Adopts USF Reforms, Seeks to Boost Broadband Deployment

Earlier today, the FCC voted to adopt rules to reform the Universal Service Fund and Intercarrier Compensation systems and to create a "Connect America Fund" designed to extend broadband infrastructure to unserved areas.  In the video below, I discuss today's vote and what it means for broadband deployment.

Of Databases and Legislation: TV White Spaces on Trial

This week, the Federal Communications Commission took another important step toward bringing fixed wireless broadband service to rural Americans by announcing the first TV white space database trial.  For a 45-day period beginning September 19, Spectrum Bridge, Inc. (a Rini Coran, PC client) will make publicly available its database, which identifies available TV channels for unlicensed broadband operations.  Separately, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski issued a supporting statement trumpeting the benefits of white spaces.  This is welcome news in the face of an U.S. white space ecosystem that is threatened by pending Congressional legislation.

In the trial, participants will have access to elements of the database that are designed to protect TV stations, cable headends and broadcast auxiliary stations and registered wireless microphones.  Once the trial concludes – and the FCC can extend the trial beyond the November 2 end date – Spectrum Bridge is required to give the FCC a report that notes any problems and changes to the channel availability calculator. 

Chairman Genachowski took the rather unusual step of issuing a News Release announcing the Spectrum Bridge trial, stating that “[u]nleashing white spaces spectrum will enable a new wave of wireless innovation.  It has the potential to exceed billions of dollars in economic benefit from wi-fi, the last significant release of unlicensed spectrum, and drive private investment and job creation.”  The Wireless Innovation Alliance (WIA) and Public Knowledge were quick to hail the FCC’s initiation of the first database trial.

Meanwhile, at the Super WiFi Summit in Austin this week, attendees got a full slate of information about white space technology, databases and legislation.  On the latter point, Michael Calabrese of New America Foundation reiterated many of the points made in his recent House testimony and discussed the potential for spectrum reform legislation to sharply reduce, if not eliminate, the amount of white space available in many markets.  He detailed WIA‘s efforts to ensure that unlicensed white space is preserved and that Congress does not mandate auctions for future unlicensed bands.  I provided insight into the perspective of wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) that could be harmed by the proposed legislation and noted the “boots on the ground” efforts of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) to better educate Congress on the consumer benefits of unlicensed spectrum.  To that end, and as just one example, WISPA member Brian Webster created a map using data from the NTIA’s mapping program showing the census blocks in Illinois that are uniquely served by WISPs in both licensed and unlicensed spectrum (not including coverage offered by the cellular technologies or satellite internet).  From the map below, one can see the obvious benefits that WISPs, and only WISPs, provide to consumers.  As Congress pushes forward to consider legislation in the next few weeks, these will be important messages to convey.

(click map below to enlarge)

Fixed wireless unique served areas.png

FCC Seeks to Improve Compliance with its Broadband Data Collection Rules

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” (Sherlock Holmes, “A Scandal in Bohemia”) 

Broadband deployment data are critical to spectrum and broadband policy, both in Congress and at the Federal Communications Commission. Incomplete or incorrect data about infrastructure can hinder FCC initiatives, such as efforts to promote competition, to implement the National Broadband Map or proposals to direct Universal Service funding to underserved areas. Nevertheless, the FCC has determined that many service providers have not complied with mandatory reporting requirements designed to drive the FCC’s data collection, even as an open FCC proceeding considers possible reforms to the program. 

To encourage participation and to improve compliance, earlier today, the FCC hosted a webinar to review the basics of the rules and procedures for filing FCC Form 477 – the FCC’s primary data collection tool for broadband, voice and other services. The filing requirement applies to several categories of service providers, including facilities-based providers of broadband connections to end users, providers of wired or fixed wireless local exchange telephone service, providers of Interconnected VoIP and facilities-based providers of mobile telephony. As a result, the rules apply to companies such as telcos (fixed or mobile), cable operators, satellite companies, Wireless ISPs, managed ISPs, and VoIP providers (including “over-the-top” providers). The filing deadlines for Form 477 occur twice per year: March 1st (providers must file data as of December 31 of the previous year) and September 1st (providers must file data as of June 30 of the same year). 

In the webinar, Wireline Competition Bureau Chief Sharon Gillett emphasized two points for service providers. First, the requirement to file Form 477 is mandatory, and providers are expected to comply. Second, data submitted in Form 477 are afforded confidential treatment, meaning that no provider-specific information is shared with outside parties.  

The Bureau’s chief data officer Steve Rosenberg described how data collection or Form 477 submission problems often fall into three categories: 

  • Nonfilers: According to Rosenberg, several hundred providers don’t file with the FCC, so their data aren’t counted.
  • Improper certifications: Rosenberg indicated that sometimes outside consultants gather and submit the data, but he said that such certifications may make data more difficult to correct and may raise questions of reliability of the data.
  • Repeated mistakes: Rosenberg pointed out that some filers simply file incorrect data, for example, by putting too many subscribers into one census block in a county or build upon incorrect data from prior filings, even after working with FCC staff to correct prior filings. 

Yes, the Form 477 instructions are a bit dense, and gathering data at a granular level can be time-consuming for many providers. The key takeaway from the FCC’s webinar is that the FCC is prioritizing education and compliance efforts for broadband data collection – a move that is often a precursor to stepped-up enforcement efforts.

FCC Provides Guidance on Net Neutrality Compliance Ahead of Federal Register Publication

Late last week, the Federal Communications Commission’s Enforcement Bureau and General Counsel’s office jointly released a Public Notice offering “initial guidance” on how Internet Service Providers can comply with the transparency and disclosure rules that the FCC adopted in its Open Internet Order last December.  These are among the same “net neutrality” rules that Verizon and MetroPCS filed lawsuits to stop last December – lawsuits that U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit dismissed as “premature” because the rules had not been published in the Federal Register. We expect that the clarifications and explanations in the new “initial guidance” will be contained in the Federal Register publication of the Open Internet Order, which will trigger a new round of judicial review.  In this sense, the timing of the guidance can be viewed as a pre-emptive effort to possibly eliminate or narrow the lawsuits that will eventually be filed following Federal Register publication.

In another sense, the Public Notice actually provides some clarity to ISPs on how to comply with the disclosure rules.  The FCC once again stated that the guidance is illustrative and that broadband providers can implement other approaches that will comply.  Here are the five areas where the FCC provided clarification: 

  • Point-of-Sale Disclosures – The Open Internet Order requires ISPs to disclose network management practices, performance characteristics and commercial terms “at the point of sale.”  The Order further stated that, to meet this requirement, a provider must prominently display links to disclosures on a public website.  The FCC clarified that providers do not need to create or distribute hard copies of disclosure materials or to train sales employees to make such disclosures. Providers instead may direct prospective customers to the web page (not just the ISP’s home page) orally and/or prominently in writing.  In retail offices, broadband providers should have available devices that consumers can use to access the disclosures.
  • Service Description – The Open Internet Order requires broadband providers to disclose accurate network performance information.  For fixed broadband, the 13 large ISPs that are participating in the FCC’s SamKnows speed test can use the results as a sufficient representation of what their customers can expect.  Those ISPs that are not participating in the project can use the methodology to measure actual performance.  The FCC plans to release the methodology and the results before the rules become effective.  Alternatively, ISPs may disclose actual performance based on internal testing, consumer speed tests or other reliable third-party sources.  For mobile broadband, the FCC is collecting data on broadband performance and, when that information has been analyzed, the FCC plans to provide further guidance.  Until that time, mobile broadband providers may disclose the results of their own or third-party testing.  For all broadband providers, the Public Notice encourages disclosure of the source and methodology used to evaluate performance, and expects disclosure to be modified if actual performance materially differs from the disclosure. Expect the standards of disclosure to evolve based on comments filed in the FCC's separate "Need for Speed" proceeding, where the FCC has sought comment on the types of broadband speed and performance information that would be of most use to consumers.
  • Extent of Required Disclosures – The Commission stated in the Open Internet Order that its list of potential disclosure topics “is not necessarily exhaustive.”  Obviously, this statement aroused anxiety in ISPs who were concerned that potential findings of non-compliance for disclosures the FCC didn’t even mention.  Given this vagueness – and the potential legal pitfalls that could ensue – the Public Notice “clarified” that certain information contained in the Order will suffice for compliance “at this time,” though the FCC can determine in the future that that different disclosures are appropriate “at that time.”  The compliance disclosure topics are in paragraphs 56 (for all broadband providers) and 98 (for mobile broadband providers) of the Order and are summarized in this presentation.
  • Content, Applications, Service and Device Providers – The Open Internet Order requires disclosure to content, application, service and device providers.  Given the uncertainty over what broadband providers must disclose to these edge providers, the Public Notice clarified that the disclosures sufficient to enable consumers to make informed choices will generally satisfy the disclosure obligations to edge providers.  Thus, the FCC anticipates that broadband providers should only need to have one set of disclosures, and “technologically sophisticated” edge providers should be able to rely on a disclosure statement that the broadband ISP provides to consumers.
  • Security Measures – In response to claims that disclosure of numerous and constantly evolving security techniques would be unduly burdensome on broadband providers, the Public Notice reiterated the “touchstone” of its transparency rules – disclosure of information sufficient for consumers to make informed choices.  As examples, the FCC expects broadband providers to disclose if security measures intended to spread of viruses, malware, spam and other threats also prevent end users from running mail or web servers.  The FCC does not expect ISPs to disclose internal security measures that do not affect consumer choice, such as routing security practices.

Left unaddressed was the uncertainty surrounding enforcement of the Open Internet rules.  As we wrote in our earlier blog post, the FCC’s failure to articulate timing of decisions on complaints and remedies for non-compliance made it difficult for broadband providers to assess the risk associated with the complaint process.  At least with the guidance offered in the Public Notice, broadband providers have a little more clarity that will, hopefully, spur disclosures that are not put to the enforcement test.

FCC's Outage Reporting NPRM: Comment and Reply Comment Deadlines Set

The Federal Register reports the publication of deadlines for the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking to extend outage reporting requirements to interconnected VoIP and broadband Internet service providers. Comments are due August 8 and Reply Comments are due October 7. My earlier blog post about the proposed rules is here.

FCC Storms Ahead, Seeks to Expand Outage Reporting Rules to VoIP and Broadband Providers

            As a follow-on to an earlier comment cycle, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) proposing to extend its Part 4 outage reporting requirements to interconnected VoIP providers and broadband Internet providers.  There was little support in last year’s record to further burden network operators with new reporting obligations and the FCC’s authority to require VoIP and broadband providers has been questioned by one Commissioner. Nevertheless, the FCC cites the need to ensure public safety and 9-1-1 communications as the basis for extending its rules.  Comments likely will be due later this summer – 60 days from Federal Register publication of the NPRM – with Reply Comments due 60 days thereafter.  It is perhaps no accident that the FCC initiated this proceeding during an active tornado season and at the outset of hurricane season

            In 1992, the FCC adopted rules requiring circuit-switched wireline providers to file reports of outages.  In 2004, this requirement was extended to providers of paging communications over wireless, cable and satellite communications.  And since 2005, the FCC has required interconnected VoIP providers to provide 9-1-1 emergency calling capabilities to their customers.  The FCC now seeks to make the outage rules applicable to interconnected VoIP providers and broadband ISPs, who would be required to make “presumptively confidential” reports to the FCC as a means to “help providers recover or prevent future outages, and ensure to the extent possible that broadband networks are prepared for natural and man-made disasters.”  The FCC states that its existing reporting obligations provided numerous benefits in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  The FCC also noted that almost 30 percent of voice calls are made using VoIP service.

            The FCC proposed the actual language of its proposed rules – something that was almost never done in previous administrations but is becoming more common under Chairman Julius Genachowski.  The FCC has requested comment on the following proposal, which adopts certain “triggers” for the reporting requirement: 

Interconnected VoIP Providers

Broadband Internet Access Service Providers

Would be required to electronically notify the FCC within 120 minutes of discovering that they have experienced on any facilities that they own, operate, lease, or otherwise utilize, an outage of at least 30 minutes duration: 

(1) Of a Call Agent, Session Border Controller, Signaling Gateway, Call Session Control Function, or Home Subscriber Server: 

(2) That potentially affects at least 900,000 user minutes of interconnected VoIP service and results in (i) complete loss of service; or (ii) an average packet loss of 1 percent or greater; or (iii) average round-trip latency of 100 ms or greater; or (iv) average jitter of 4 ms or greater, with all packet loss, latency, and jitter measurements taken in each of at least 6 consecutive 5 minute intervals from source to destination host; 

(3) That potentially affects any special offices and facilities; or 

(4) That potentially affects a 9-1-1 special facility, in which case they also shall notify, as soon as possible by telephone or other electronic means, any official who has been designated by the management of the affected 9-1-1 facility as the provider’s contact person for communications outages at that facility, and the provider shall convey to that person all available information that may be useful to the management of the affected facility in mitigating the effects of the outage on efforts to communicate with that facility.

Would be required to electronically notify the FCC within 120 minutes of discovering that they have experienced, on any facilities that they own, operate, lease, or otherwise utilize, an outage of at least 30 minutes duration: 

(1) Of a ISP-operated Domain Name System server, Dynamic Host Control Protocol server, or Home Subscriber Server; 

(2) That potentially affects at least 900,000 user minutes and results in (i) complete loss of service; or (ii) an average packet loss of 1 percent or greater, or (iii) average round-trip latency of 100 ms or greater, or (iv) average jitter of 4 ms or greater, with all packet loss, latency, and jitter measurements taken in each of at least 6 consecutive 5 minute intervals from source to destination host; 

(3) That potentially affects any special offices and facilities; or 

(4) That potentially affects a 9-1-1 special facility, in which case they also shall notify, as soon as possible by telephone or other electronic means, any official who has been designated by the management of the affected 9-1-1 facility as the provider’s contact person for communications outages at that facility, and the provider shall convey to that person all available information that may be useful to the management of the affected facility in mitigating the effects of the outage on efforts to communicate with that facility. 

Similar rules would apply to broadband backbone ISPs.


            For broadband providers to non-mobile users, the number of IP addresses affected would be used to calculate “user minutes.”  For broadband access providers to mobile users, the number of potentially affected users should be determined by multiplying the maximum number of simultaneous users by a concentration ratio of 8.

            Among other things, the FCC asks throughout the NPRM for comment on the burdens and costs associated with the extended reporting requirements.  The FCC specifically asks whether the burdens would be greater on smaller VoIP providers and broadband ISPs, and asks for alternatives (though according to the Initial Regulatory Flexibility Analysis, the FCC considered but did not propose waivers for smaller entities).  

            Importantly, the FCC proposes to treat data collected through the reporting process as “presumptively confidential,” just as it treats existing outage information.  The FCC also asks for comment on whether it should be allowed to share information with other Federal agencies on a presumptively confidential basis. 

            Curiously, the FCC waited until the end of the NPRM to request comment on whether it has the legal authority to impose the new requirements.  The NPRM concludes that the FCC has “ancillary authority” to adopt the rules because it has general jurisdiction covering the regulated subject and the regulations are “reasonably ancillary” to the FCC’s performance of its statutory responsibilities.  For VoIP providers, the FCC finds that collecting outage information is “reasonably ancillary” to ensuring that VoIP providers are able to satisfy their 9-1-1 obligations and to enable the FCC to improve the reliability of 9-1-1 services.  For broadband ISPs, the FCC relies on the same authority, but to get around the fact that broadband providers do not have 9-1-1 obligations, the FCC states that they are subject to outage reporting because interconnected VoIP services ride on broadband networks.  As noted above, Commissioner Robert McDowell – who has a reputation for doubting the FCC’s “ancillary authority” – has questioned whether the FCC can impose these requirements. 

            The record from last year’s preview was predictable, with public safety advocates supporting extension of outage reporting requirements and private industry telling the FCC that the rules should not be extended.  There’s little doubt that the record this time around will be similar.  But at least we have specific language of proposed rules to consider.

Regulatory Buzzsaw? Google Settles With FTC over Privacy Charges Related to Google Buzz

Earlier today, the Federal Trade Commission announced that Google agreed to settle charges that parts of its Google Buzz social network violated federal law.  Specifically, in a draft complaint, the FTC alleged that Google’s practices were deceptive and in violation of Google’s announced privacy policies. While Google entered into a settlement agreement to address this potential regulatory buzzsaw, other service providers and web companies should consider taking a fresh look at their privacy practices and policies, using the proposed settlement as their lens. 

The proposed settlement, which remains subject to final FTC approval, stems from Google’s highly publicized efforts in 2010 to use its Gmail webmail service as a springboard for launching Google Buzz. According to the FTC complaint, Google provided Gmail users with a message announcing the service and two options: “Sweet! Check out Buzz” and “Nah, go to my inbox.”  The FTC alleged that, among other things, the opt-out was not fully effective, that the opt-in did not fully disclose that some of the user’s information would be made public by default and that the company’s “Turn Off Buzz” option did not fully remove the user from the Buzz network. The FTC also charged that Google misrepresented its compliance with the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor Framework relating to transfer of data to the United States from the European Union.  In a blog post today, Google apologized for “the mistakes we made with Buzz,” and stated that it reached agreement with the FTC “to address their concerns.”  

Under the proposed settlement, Google does not admit any legal violation with respect to the draft FTC complaint and does not have to pay heavy financial penalties to the U.S government. However, Google does agree to a set of new, extensive regulatory obligations, including: 

  • No misrepresentation. Google agrees not to misrepresent “in any manner, expressly or by implication” the extent to which Google maintains and protects privacy and confidentiality of “covered information,” including the purposes for which such information is collected and used and the extent to which consumers may exercise control over collection, use or disclosure of such information. “Covered information” here includes first and last name; home or other physical address; email address or other online contact information (such as a user identifier or screen name); persistent identifier (such as IP address); telephone number (home and mobile); list of contacts; and physical location.
  • New disclosure and opt-out requirements. These conditions would apply in each instance of new or additional sharing of a Google user’s specified information with any third party as a result of a change from stated policies at the time of collection or as a result of any change, addition or enhancement to Google’s products or services. These requirements include clear and prominent disclosure that the information will be disclosed to one or more third parties, the identity or specific categories of such third parties and the purposes for the sharing.
  • Comprehensive privacy program. Google must implement a new program to address privacy risks associated with new and existing products and to protect the privacy and confidentiality of covered information. Google also must disseminate the order now and in the future to principals, officers, directors, managers and other personnel with relevant supervisory responsibilities.
  • Assessments. Google will be subject to initial and biennial assessments by an independent professional of the company’s privacy controls and privacy protections.  These requirements will apply for 20 years
  • New recordkeeping requirements will apply, such as records regarding the company’s “widely disseminated statements” regarding maintenance and protection of covered information, any relevant customer complaints, documents that “contradict, qualify, or call into question” Google’s compliance with the order and all materials replied upon to prepare the assessments mentioned above. Some records must be retained for as long as five years.
  • Notification. Google must notify the FTC about major corporate changes (e.g., mergers, dissolution, bankruptcy) that may affect its compliance obligations. 

The FTC’s announcement is full of lessons for service providers and website operators.  

  • First, the settlement sets a baseline for future FTC privacy enforcement and some “best practices” considerations for privacy policies. The settlement does not include any financial penalty, and given Google’s vast resources, this fact suggests that the FTC sought to make a broader policy statement rather than simply seeking financial penalties. That said, the FTC could seek civil penalties for violations of the order. 
  • Second, the presence of the opt-in condition, if broadly applied, could have a dramatic effect on Google’s business practices and innovation. It remains to be seen whether the condition will slow down deployment of new services, even those that may be closely related to existing services.
  • Third, the definition of “covered information” provides the latest insight over what the FTC likely considers to be personally identifiable information that must be protected.
  • Fourth, the complaint teaches a litany of lessons in terms of ensuring that companies take precautions to ensure that their privacy practices are consistent with their published privacy policies.  

The FTC is accepting public comment on the proposed consent order through May 2, 2011. While the full Commission must still approve the order for it to become final, the FTC today sent a clear message about its enforcement priorities for privacy.

Comcast-NBCU: FCC Conditions Deal to Promote Online Video Services; Questions Remain

Perhaps video never “killed the radio star,” but what should we expect for online video now that the joint venture between Comcast Corporation and NBC Universal, Inc. (“Comcast-NBCU”) has become a reality? This new entity may be the product of two “old media” powerhouses, but new-media concerns about online video distribution represent a major theme in regulatory approvals of the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice. These new regulatory ground rules will help shape the online video marketplace – a marketplace that so far is vaguely defined and in a state of transformation.

As we’ve previously described, the FCC often uses its merger-review authority to help advance objectives that may ordinarily exceed the agency’s reach. In light of the continuing legal battles over the scope of the FCC’s legal authority to regulate the Internet, it is noteworthy that Comcast and NBCU, in an effort to obtain FCC approval, agreed to some enforceable commitments and conditions to govern the new entity’s participation in the online video marketplace. While these conditions are specific to the transaction, they will affect how Comcast-NBCU will negotiate with third parties who want access to Comcast-NBCU content.

A key question: what “marketplace”? In conditioning its approval, the FCC expressed concern that Comcast-NBCU would have the “incentive and ability” to discriminate against two FCC-defined categories of online video distributors: 

  • Multichannel video programming distributors (or “MVPDs”) such as cable operators, satellite providers or other providers of such multichannel programming; and
  • Non-MVPD distributors of online video programming, such as standalone “over-the-top providers” like Hulu (in which NBCU has an ownership stake), Netflix, GoogleTV and iTunes.  

In general, these categories contrast MVPDs (as providers combinations of linear program streams such as cable or broadcast channels of programming) with more “over-the-top” video services (such as on-demand and pay-per-view services). To complicate matters further, in a footnote, the FCC left open the possibility that certain types of OVDs also could be deemed MVPDs. The FCC determined that “regardless of whether online video is a complement or substitute to MVPD service today, it is potentially a substitute product” and sought to implement conditions to address these “nascent” online video services. The FCC’s decision has consequences for online video and in other contexts. For example, just yesterday DirecTV asked the FCC to clarify which entities constitute MVPDs for purposes of regulations involving set-top boxes. 

With respect to the marketplace for online video, Cardozo Law School professor Susan Crawford's blog post on Comcast-NBCU provides an interesting analysis of the FCC’s decision to apply conditions to protect OVDs. She asserts that the FCC has “created a market” by designating OVDs as a category entitled to protection. In my view, the “OVD” designation is more like a class of service providers than a market, because the FCC declined to identify current potential substitutes for the provision of these services and implicitly raised the question of whether some OVDs compete in a separate market for the provision of multichannel programming service. For these reasons, and in light of the definitional ambiguities surrounding the “MVPD” designation, the “marketplace” for OVD services, however defined, is an evolving concept. 

Acronym soup notwithstanding, the FCC sought to address Comcast-NBCU’s purported incentives to discriminate against rival OVDs (whether MVPD or not). For example, the FCC expressed concerns that Comcast-NBCU would raises prices for rivals to access its affiliated programming or would refuse to provide this programming in a timely manner or in the same quality. The FCC found that its program-access rules – i.e., rules designed to prevent vertically integrated program suppliers from improperly favoring affiliated cable operators – would not provide sufficient protection because strategies of uniform price increases would not discriminate among service providers. Instead, the FCC required Comcast-NBCU to provide affiliated programming to rival MVPDs at fair market value and on nondiscriminatory prices, terms and conditions.   

For OVDs seeking access to Comcast-NBCU programming, the FCC provides the following rights. 

  • An OVD may decide to become an MVPD and, like other MVPDs, would be entitled to access Comcast-NBCU-affiliated content for online display at fair market value and on nondiscriminatory prices, terms and conditions.  
  • An OVD may request that Comcast-NBCU offer its video programming to the OVD on the same terms and conditions that would be available to an MVPD, provided that the OVD is willing to pay the economic equivalent of the price, terms and conditions on which Comcast-NBCU provides video programming to MVPDs. If the OVD qualifies, Comcast-NBCU must provide “materially” the same programming that it offers to other “similarly situated” MVPDs; however, if the other MVPD is obligated to make the programming available through a linear stream, the OVD’s obligation must be “materially similar.” 
  • An OVD will be entitled to access to “comparable programming” available on economically equivalent prices, terms and conditions if the OVD enters into an arrangement to distribute programming from one or more of Comcast-NBCU’s non-affiliated “peers.” Who are these peers? They include certain broadcast networks, cable programmers, production studios and film studios whose names you’ve heard before (e.g., they are affiliated with Disney, Time Warner, News Corporation, Viacom, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox or Sony Pictures) or otherwise must be one of a handful of the largest players in their industry. Unlike the second option, this programming need not be provided in linear streams.

So what’s the upshot? Comcast describes these procedures as a “focused mechanism for online video providers to obtain access to certain NBC Universal content [that is] carefully crafted to be fair to all players.” That said, these conditions clearly serve as a filtering function to help ensure that Comcast-NBCU only has to share programming with companies that demonstrate certain “bona fides.” OVDs may opt to enforce these conditions via arbitration, but the legal text is replete withdense interpretive issues. Moreover: 

  • If the OVD opts to become an MVPD, that is an expensive proposition. The OVD must consider the costs of deploying networks, negotiating carriage and programming rights, and obtaining local franchises, as well as the prospects of being deemed another cable company.
  • If the OVD decides to compete on an equal footing with an MVPD, that too is an expensive proposition. The MVPD must consider the costs of economically equivalent programming and the likely requirement that the programming would have to be provided as a linear stream offered on an “all or nothing” basis – i.e., akin to real-time distribution of a program channel as opposed to on-demand programming.
  • If the MVPD enters into an agreement with a Comcast-NBCU “peer” for comparable programming, that is – you guessed it – an expensive proposition. This trigger requires an agreement with one of the largest industry players, who no doubt would have to be presented with a compelling business case to sign an agreement with an unaffiliated distribution partner because many of these participants already have extensive distribution channels.  

In addition, Comcast provides some online programming on an “authenticated” basis to only those individuals who subscribe to Comcast MVPD service. Comcast will continue to be allowed to do so, subject to these sets of conditions. Comcast-NBCU also will not be allowed to put certain online programming behind a paywall for as long as at least one of the other major broadcast networks provides a similar service. 

The FCC has tried in other ways to implement enforceable “fair play” conditions on Comcast-NBCU. Comcast-NBCU may not enter into agreements to hamper online distribution of its or another’s video programming. Comcast-NBCU also must continue to offer standalone broadband Internet access services, at reasonable prices and of sufficient bandwidth that customers can access online video services without being required to purchase a Comcast-NBCU subscription for cable television services. The company may not disadvantage rival online video distribution services through its broadband services and/or set-top boxes. Finally, Comcast-NBCU has agreed to abide by the FCC’s “Open Internet” rules (a.k.a "Net Neutrality"), and it appears that this commitment would remain even if those rules are successfully stricken or modified by judicial appeal

As for Hulu, as a result of the FCC’s approval, neither Comcast nor NBCU will be permitted to exercise any rights to influence Hulu’s conduct or operation, but the companies may retain a purely economic interest. Recent media reports indicate that Hulu is considering an MVPD-style approach to online video distribution. Just yesterday Hulu CEO Jason Kilar posted his thoughts about the future of TV and argued that consumers, advertisers and content owners will play a more important role than distributors in the future of online video – an interesting take in light of the FCC’s actions to limit Comcast-NBCU’s oversight. 

In the end, the FCC’s “transaction-specific” conditions will have major implications for the “over the top” providers who had no part in the transaction. Time will tell how the FCC’s actions, and the reactions of Comcast-NBCU and the competition, will influence the evolution of online video services. In light of this unprecedented vertical combination, all eyes will be on the industry to spot the next players in line with plans to create a similar combination of content and distribution.

FCC Brings "Super Wi-Fi" Closer to Reality in TV White Spaces

While many of us in the Washington, DC area were dealing with white spaces of a different kind, the Federal Communications Commission was taking two important actions to bring closer to reality the use of TV white spaces for wireless broadband service. First, four months after releasing its new rules, the FCC finally adopted an order "conditionally selecting" nine companies to be administrators for the geolocation database that will be used to identify available and unused TV channels. Second, the FCC granted an experimental license to Rini Coran, PC client Carlson Wireless Technologies Inc. (CWT) to deploy a broadband network on white space channels within the Yurok Reservation along the scenic Klamath River in Northern California.

In the database order, the FCC approved these companies to act as database administrators:

All of these companies had submitted requests to be selected for the administrator role. Each entity will have until February 28, 2011 to amend its proposal to comply with the new rules adopted in September. The selected companies also will need to attend mandatory workshops -- the first of which will be March 10, 2011 -- and to work closely with the FCC "to ensure competency, consistency and compliance" with the rules. Each administrator must trial its database for at least 45 days before it can make its database available for actual use by TV bands devices. The administrators will be subject to a five-year term running from the date on which the FCC announces that a particular database is publicly available.

The FCC intends to exercise careful supervision over the databases. In addition to technical compliance, the administrators are subject to privacy and security rules and may not engage in discriminatory or anti-competitive behavior.

Under the experimental license granted to CWT, the Yurok Tribe will be the first Native American tribe in the nation to take advantage of white spaces. Notably, the FCC's National Broadband Plan identified white spaces as presenting a significant opportunity for provision of broadband service to Tribal lands. With this experimental license, CWT joins the white space ecosystem and signals plans to become a major player.

Not that anyone here in the Washington area is wishing for more snow, but if a large dose of the white stuff is what it takes to get the FCC to act on white spaces, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

FCC's New Net Neutrality Rules Face First Judicial Challenge

The wait is over, net neutrality watchers – the first legal challenge to the Federal Communications Commission’s new rules has been filed, so those who have waited with baited breath can feel free to exhale. 

Yesterday, Verizon and Verizon Wireless filed a notice of appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit seeking to strike the rules adopted in the FCC’s December 23, 2010 Report and Order (the R&O).  The fact that Verizon lobbed the first volley in this near-inevitable litigation is unsurprising, and Verizon’s efforts will have a ripple effect on how and where the appeal is heard. As we've blogged about before, these rules – transparency, no blocking and no unreasonable discrimination, as set forth in 194 pages – have stirred debate in DC among service providers, lawmakers, lawyers, lobbyists, policy influencers and the just plain interested.  The rules have not even taken effect – that will happen 60 days after the date of a Federal Register notice announcing that the Office of Management and Budget has approved the information collection requirements contained in certain of the new rules.  The text of the R&O itself has not yet been published in the Federal Register – and that’s where things get interesting.

Verizon’s filings make clear that Verizon believes that the D.C. Circuit would provide a receptive audience to Verizon’s concerns – one with exclusive jurisdiction to review the matter at this stage. Here’s where the Federal Register comes into play.  There are two permissible tracks for appellate review of final FCC decisions, and Verizon is attempting to rely upon the track that requires review by the D.C. Circuit and does not require that the FCC decision be published in the Federal Register. 

  • For Track #1, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has exclusive authority to review certain statutorily defined FCC decisions – generally dealing with FCC licensing matters.  Verizon claims that the R&O modifies Verizon’s licenses, thus triggering the exclusive jurisdiction of the D.C. Circuit.  Verizon’s argument relies on the FCC’s assertions in the R&O that it has authority to impose net neutrality rules because the FCC has statutory authority to change license terms and to propose new requirements on existing licenses, provided that it complies with statutory procedures.
  • Track #2 is available for review of all FCC decisions except those that are governed by Track #1.  In track #2, review of certain decisions can be obtained by any U.S. Court of Appeals in any judicial circuit once that decision is published in the Federal Register. As noted above, this triggering event has not yet happened with respect to the R&O. At least one court has found that a Track #2 appeal filed prior to Federal Register publication must be dismissed as incurably premature (the Council Tree case).  Under the Track #2 approach, if appeals are filed by multiple parties in multiple circuits, there is a process for consolidating appeals in one court.

When a single FCC document contains elements of both a rulemaking (i.e., establishing rules of general applicability) and an adjudication (i.e., resolving a specific dispute among parties before the FCC), things are more complicated.  Under FCC rules, the deadlines for the adjudicatory portions are calculated based on the release date of the FCC’s decision, while the deadlines for the rulemaking portions are calculated from the date of Federal Register publication.  Verizon has acknowledged that the R&O has elements of both a rulemaking and an adjudicatory decision and has stated an intention to file a separate appeal with the D.C. Circuit upon Federal Register publication.  Clearly, Verizon is trying to cover both bases with a “belt and suspenders” approach.

The receptive-audience hypothesis finds more support in Verizon’s unusual request to have the same three-judge panel that heard the Comcast case hear Verizon’s appeal.  In Comcast v. FCC, decided last April, the D.C. Circuit struck the FCC’s efforts to enforce certain of its net neutrality policies (prior to their codification last December) in a complaint against Comcast regarding alleged interference with peer-to-peer networking applications.  The Court found that the FCC failed to link its assertion of authority to any statutorily mandated responsibility and thus lacked authority to regulate an Internet Service Provider’s network management practices.  Verizon essentially is asking the D.C. Circuit to consider the R&O to be a response to the Comcast case and to have the same three-judge panel handle this appeal.

Will Verizon succeed in having the case heard in the D.C. Circuit?  We certainly can expect challenges to Verizon’s filings in addition to challenges to the R&O filed by other parties.  Public Knowledge quickly expressed its displeasure with Verizon’s efforts, and supporters of the FCC’s R&O undoubtedly will follow.  Expect arguments over whether the court lacks jurisdiction because it is incurably premature a la the Council Tree decision  Some may challenge whether the R&O actually amounts to a license modification because the R&O states that it does not take effect until some future date or because the R&O cites numerous statutory grounds for authority other than the bases cited by Verizon.  Expect appeals in other judicial districts, although these will have to develop some creative arguments to avoid dismissal on Council Tree grounds if Federal Register publication is not complete at the time.

Action at the FCC also will play a role.  The FCC handles the process of submitting the R&O for Federal Register publication.  If Federal Register publication happens in the near future, expect Verizon to make additional appellate filings with D.C. Circuit on that basis as well and to ask either for consolidation of its appeals or for the court to select the appropriate docket.  In addition, some parties may exercise their rights to seek reconsideration of the R&O by the FCC and/or may seek a stay at the D.C. Circuit pending such reconsideration.

The upshot here is that the FCC’s new net neutrality rules will be shaped by the appellate process, and Verizon’s filings represent simply the first attempt to leverage appellate procedures to influence the outcome of that process.    

TV White Spaces: Finishing Touches Near as FCC Reconsiders Rules that Preclude Rural Deployment

            Finishing the TV white spaces proceeding has proved to be a bit of a challenge for the Federal Communications Commission.  After more than two years from its adoption of initial rules, the FCC released the second TV white spaces order on September 23, 2010.  The rules recently took effect on January 5, 2011, raising hope that new services would soon follow.  Unfortunately, the FCC still needs to add a few coats of paint to its white spaces rules before we see wide-scale commercial broadband deployments, although the number of action items has dwindled.

      "[T]he rules effectively preclude fixed white space operations in large portions of the country."

     At the top of the list: a few rules are subject to reconsideration.  Most prominently, a consortium of trade associations, database administrator applicants and equipment manufacturers led by the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (“WISPA”), a Rini Coran, PC client, asked the FCC to relax its tower height and out-of-band emission rules for fixed white space devices.  In the September 2010 order, the FCC limited the maximum height of tower sites to 76 meters above average terrain (HAAT).  Together with the 30-meter tower height limit adopted in November 2008, the rules effectively preclude fixed white space operations in large portions of the country.  As shown in the maps provided by Comsearch at Appendices B and D in WISPA's FCC filing, the areas affected by the height restrictions are, not surprisingly, rural, hilly and mountainous areas of the country where white space spectrum could otherwise be used to provide much-needed broadband service – indeed, the intended targets of white space services.

            The petitioners asked the FCC to adopt a 250-meter HAAT limit while also increasing the keep-out zones for co-channel and adjacent-channel TV stations to ensure that there would be no increase in harmful interference to broadcasters.       

            The September order also tightened the spectral mask for adjacent channels, limiting the amount of usable spectrum and adding cost to equipment and deployment.  Led by Motorola, petitioners asked the FCC to relax the emission mask to reduce costs and promote spectral efficiency, while increasing the adjacent-channel keep-out zones to protect incumbent TV stations. 

             Also on the white spaces wish list: the FCC still has not released its long-awaited order designating geo-location database administrators and establishing final database governance rules.  Long anticipated since the release of the second TV white spaces order, the would-be administrators still have no marching orders.  No doubt, the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology has been pre-occupied with net neutrality and a spate of other important orders. The reality is that the FCC can only authorize experimental operations until the database administrators are selected and ready.  The good news is that OET is expected to issue its order any day now, so hopefully that roadblock soon will be in the rear-view mirror.

             Not far behind is the certification of TV white space equipment.  Because of the need for equipment to have geo-location capabilities that are linked to the databases, the FCC cannot certify equipment until the databases are established and certification procedures finalized.  No word on how long the certification process will take, but hopefully that can be measured in days and weeks and not months.

             Fortunately, the FCC only has a few issues to address in the reconsideration phase, so the proposed changes to the height and emission mask rules likely can be implemented soon.  Even so, once the database administration process is set and equipment is certified, white space deployments can begin right away in those parts of the country where the HAAT and mask issues are not impediments. 

Hidden in Plain View: The Threat Within the FCC's Enforcement of its Net Neutrality Rules

Now that the Sturm und Drang over the FCC’s new Net Neutrality Rules is in full throat, some lurking concerns warrant more attention – namely, concerns about the FCC’s enforcement of its new rules and the administration of its complaint process.  The FCC states that it seeks “prompt and effective” enforcement of its new rules, but eyebrows are arching regarding whether the current structure will effectively promote this goal. 

"The FCC states that it seeks 'prompt and effective' enforcement of its new rules, but eyebrows are arching regarding whether the current structure will effectively promote this goal."

First, some context.  Assume for the moment that you provide fixed or mobile broadband service and that the new rules survive unscathed after the administrative, judicial and legislative battles that are almost certainly on the way.  Someone believes that you have violated these rules – for example, your subscriber believes that you have failed to adequately disclose your network management practices, or an edge provider believes that you have blocked its lawful content (if you are a fixed provider) or an end user complains that you have unreasonably discriminated in transmitting their lawful network traffic over your network.  How can this aggrieved party seek legal relief, and what relief is available? 

The FCC has retained independent enforcement authority for the net neutrality rules, but as noted in Matthew Lasar’s overview at Ars Technica, the FCC's enforcement process is overwhelmingly complaint-driven.  The new rules give the aggrieved party two “backstop mechanisms” at the FCC in the event that the interested parties cannot resolve their dispute privately: a formal complaint process and an informal complaint process. 

  • The formal complaint process imposes procedural obligations on the complainant and launches an adjudicatory proceeding.  Formal complaints will be addressed through “accelerated docket” procedures.  Before filing a formal complaint, the complainant must notify the respondent in writing that the complainant intends to file the complaint.  The complaint must comply with FCC processes, and the complainant must pay a filing fee (which may be the FCC Enforcement Bureau’s version of “paid prioritization”).  The complainant must “plead fully and with specificity the basis of its claims and to provide facts, supported when possible by documentation or affidavit, sufficient to establish a prima facie case of an open Internet violation.”  The rules set forth a timetable for answers and replies, and the FCC will issue an order “determining the lawfulness of the challenged practice.” 
  • The informal complaint process, by contrast, is more akin to tossing “paper grenades.”  Anyone with a computer may submit informal complaints (for example, via the FCC’s website or to the agency’s Consumer and Government Affairs division) in an effort to draw the FCC’s attention to challenged practices and perhaps spark an investigation.  There are no “accelerated docket” procedures.  The FCC has stated that individual informal complaints will not typically result in written Commission orders, and the potential remedies and sanctions are unclear.

As Larry Downes describes in his essay regarding the costs of enforcement of net neutrality rules, allowing “any person” to launch net neutrality complaints triggers inefficiencies and transaction costs because the filer can shift enforcement costs to the FCC or to ISPs.  Its not hard to imagine a disgruntled group campaigning and recruiting others to file loosely worded complaints that tie up the resources of broadband providers as they respond to paper grenades launched via the FCC’s electronic transom.  What is hard is running a small business or getting financing while buried in paper when an FCC decision on a complaint – even in a frivolous case – may be months away. 

"Given the FCC's lack of resources (and authority?) to police the entire Internet and its long-standing enforcement track record, we should expect the process to remain complaint-driven..."

Given the FCC’s lack of resources (and authority?) to police the entire Internet and its long-standing enforcement track record, we should expect the process to remain complaint-driven; however, reliance on a formal complaint process alone would reduce the incentive for “any person” to file complaints in bad faith.  The FCC’s decision to make available the “informal” process in addition to the “formal” process may turn out to be costly for broadband providers.  Here’s why:  

  • While the FCC has stated that “any person” may file a complaint, the formal complaint process has more mechanisms in place to deter the filing of non bona fide complaints – for example, there’s a $200 filing fee, procedural requirements and an “abuse of process” sanction against parties who file “unlawful” frivolous pleadings.  These mechanisms should make it much harder for competitors, disgruntled employees or others who suffer no actual harm to game the process. 
  • The availability of informal processes may encourage the filing of “cookie cutter” complaints, where persons or groups may seek to launch a barrage of nearly identical complaints in an effort to get the FCC staff’s attention for political purposes. 
  • The FCC does not set forth any particular remedy for an informal complaint other than saying that the FCC would “take appropriate enforcement action, including the issuance of forfeitures” for any net neutrality violation. 
  • The FCC did not adopt any specific forfeiture amounts for violations, so the penalty would likely be set on a case-by-case basis. 

Also, if what is past is prologue, broadband providers should have concerns that the mere filing of an informal complaint, even a frivolous one, would have other consequences.  Consider the case of those broadcasters who have found that meritless indecency complaints have hindered their ability to conduct legitimate business.  The reason is the “enforcement hold” that the Enforcement Bureau imposes against broadcasters’ FCC applications (e.g., license renewals, approvals for transactions) when one or more complaints are filed against their broadcast station(s).  Under FCC policy, the presence of this “red flag” can force the broadcaster to become involved in potentially protracted negotiations to get FCC clearance for their proposed transaction or license renewal.  This pressure has resulted in some broadcasters giving up legal rights by entering into consent decrees (whereby the station pays a penalty to resolve the complaint but does not admit liability for the conduct) or tolling agreements (where the broadcaster agrees to forego its rights to challenge an FCC action that takes place outside of the statute of limitations; i.e., their “shot clock” for reaching a decision) with the FCC.  Essentially, licensees often face intense pressure to agree to “voluntary” concessions and to raise the white flag in an effort to get the FCC to drop their red one.

One way for broadband providers to minimize liability is to be sure that they are complying with the FCC’s transparency requirements.  Providers that make adequate disclosure of their network management practices, performance characteristics and commercial terms of service will enjoy greater latitude in negotiating with the FCC.  And, so long as those practices are followed, a complaining party will find its burden a bit more difficult to meet. 

Nevertheless, with the broadcast indecency lesson in mind, broadband providers should be concerned.  It is reasonable to expect significant litigation over the rules, just as the FCC’s indecency policies have been heavily litigated. The FCC may hold up informal complaints for a protracted period as the legal challenges continue – recall that there is no “accelerated docket” for informal complaints and even if there was, the FCC may claim authority to waive any its internal timetables for “good cause.”  Such a litigation tangle may result in stalled FCC enforcement and delays in application processing – delays that could apply differently to different categories of service providers because some are more dependent on FCC licensing than others. 

In short, enforcing the FCC’s net neutrality rules represents a regulatory thicket for broadband providers and others – one that is worth the effort to navigate around given the uncertainty and the legal challenges to come. 

Net Neutrality: FCC Declares Open Internet

It seems fitting that the Federal Communications Commission took advantage of yesterday’s winter solstice to shine new light on its plans to regulate the “Open Internet.”  By a 3-2 vote along party lines, the FCC adopted “net neutrality” rules that will govern how fixed and mobile broadband providers do business with their subscribers and others that use the Internet.  Only Chairman Julius Genachowski seemed happy about the rules, calling them a “strong and balanced” approach to Internet governance that avoided the extremes of his colleagues.

At first blush, the rules appear to strike a balance between two extremes – intrusive government micromanagement and toothless requirements that have little practical effect. There are, however, open issues that give rise to concern.

Once it became clear that net neutrality rules would be adopted and the government would be involving itself in Internet access, some fixed wireless broadband providers (WISPs) feared that their small, capacity-constrained networks would buckle under the strain of the same rules that would apply to Comcast, Verizon and other large ISPs operating on high-capacity wired platforms.  As a general matter, broadband providers will not be permitted to block consumers’ access to lawful content, applications and devices and cannot engage in “unreasonable discrimination.”  These rules are subject to “reasonable network management,” a key phrase for any ISP and small WISPs in particular.

As with any regulation, words matter.  And in this case, how the FCC defines “reasonable network management” is especially crucial.  Providers will be given “meaningful flexibility” to manage network issues such as congestion and security.  “Reasonable” is defined generally along the lines of what is appropriate and tailored to achieving a legitimate network management purpose, taking into account such factors as network architecture and technology.  Examples of legitimate network management purposes include ensuring network security and reducing the effects of network congestion.  In this regard, the rules may be interpreted to recognize the unique challenges that WISPs face in operating small businesses in small communities with small networks.      

Not only do words matter, but how the FCC will enforce its rules and applies its definitions will be important to watch.  Given the FCC’s decision to allow consumers to file informal complaints, broadband providers hopefully will not be required to respond to ongoing, time-consuming complaints that may force ISPs to be overly cautious in the way they manage legitimate network issues.  It would not be surprising to see consumer groups spearheading enforcement efforts that create uncertainty in network management.

This is not the last we will hear of net neutrality and the Open Internet. Some have raised serious questions about the legality of the new rules and about whether the FCC has sufficient authority to adopt them.  Republican Commissioners Robert McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker issued strenuous oppositions in line with their recent statements in the press.  Calling the FCC's failure to learn from the past as “regulatory hubris,” McDowell sharply criticized the majority's reliance on Section 706 of the Communications Act as a legal authority and essentially laid out an analytical roadmap to overturn the rules in court.  Baker also stated that unelected officials should not be making decisions with such far-reaching consequences.  Echoing concerns from House Republicans, McDowell and Baker accused the majority of acting where no competitive harm is present--a position set forth by AT&T. One Republican Senator has already introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill that would strip the FCC of funding for anything related to implementing and enforcing the net neutrality rules.

It will likely be a long time before the full impact of the FCC’s rules can be assessed.  In the meantime, Internet businesses of all kinds will need to account for the potential new costs and the regulatory burdens that may follow.

Court Recognizes Privacy Rights for Email Subscribers; Addresses the Role of Internet Service Providers

Just in time for the holiday season, a federal appeals court has presented Internet Service Providers (ISPs) with a “worry issue” that’s as welcome as a re-gifted fruitcake.  How should ISPs respond to law enforcement requests for copies of their subscribers’ email when the government doesn’t provide a search warrant?  While the issue isn’t new, thanks to the court’s recent decision, the ISP’s concerns have become more complicated.

In U.S. v. Warshak, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit found that an ISP subscriber had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his emails and thus was entitled to the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.  The case involved a complex federal criminal prosecution involving the principals of a company that distributed “an herbal supplement purported to enhance male sexual performance.”  The Appeals Court found that the government violated the defendant’s constitutional rights by compelling the ISP to turn over the defendant’s emails without first obtaining a search warrant supported by probable cause. 

The defendant sought to have the trial court exclude thousands of emails obtained by the government.  Warshak held that the defendant enjoyed a reasonable expectation of privacy in the emails due to his subjective expectations (because the emails contained sensitive material) and because the ISP served as an intermediary for the defendant’s messages, not as an intended recipient.  Prosecutors argued that government agents acted in reliance on a federal statute (the Stored Communications Act [“SCA”]) that permits disclosure of the contents of electronic communications in certain circumstances.  The Appeals Court found the SCA to be partially unconstitutional but declined to exclude the emails, finding that the government agents acted in good faith reliance on the SCA.

The case has several important takeaways for ISPs.  First, ISPs may need to take a fresh look at their potential liability to their subscribers if they provide the subscriber’s emails to the government.  Even if the ISP controls the emails and the service agreement provides it with limited rights of access, a court may find that a subscriber likely has a “reasonable expectation of privacy” and therefore Fourth Amendment protections.

Such an expectation does not exist in all cases – the Appeals Court noted that an ISP’s expressed intention to “audit, inspect, and monitor” emails may render the expectation of privacy unreasonable.  Accordingly, ISPs may wish to review their service agreements to determine what they are telling subscribers about the ISP’s inspection of emails, about how the ISP will respond to legal processes designed to access subscriber emails and what notices, if any, will be given to subscribers in these instances. 

Second, the ruling also impacts business issues.  Consumers demand private, secure communications and more generally, privacy concerns permeate many aspects of Internet services.  An enhanced expectation of privacy by consumers may translate into additional costs for service providers. 

Third, many federal and state laws address privacy in electronic communications, so the contours of this privacy right are a work in progress, particularly in light of technological changes.  For example, the SCA was enacted in 1986 -- years before email was widely used and available.  As a result, don’t expect the Warshak decision to be the last word.  While the ruling applies directly in states within the 6th Circuit (i.e., Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee), it can be deemed persuasive authority elsewhere, but other jurisdictions also may reach different conclusions.  The U.S. Supreme Court also may be expected to weigh in at some point given the importance of the issue.

"Do Not Track" Gains Momentum in Washington

As the Federal Trade Commission considers addressing Internet privacy through “Do Not Track” proposals, these efforts recall a line from Jack Lemmon’s 1960s film The Apartment: “that’s the way it crumbles … cookie-wise.” With the Internet economy’s heavy reliance on targeted advertising as a revenue generator, overregulation in this space could leave crumbs everywhere.

In this particular cautionary tale, the notion of personal space is more fluid than in The Apartment’s darkly comic fable about the repeated invasions of a clerk’s apartment by his bosses. In the Internet space, the innovation and functionality that consumers demand requires reasonable compromises as far as consumer data is concerned. Companies that engage in behavioral advertising and/or the collection, use and dissemination of online browsing data – often through the use of Internet “cookies” – work to generate revenues amid their users’ expectations of privacy. Advertising and tracking services deploy new and complex ways to follow users’ steps through the Internet, such as monitoring purchasing behavior and other activities. These efforts often benefit consumers as well -- content can be tailored to those users’ browsing habits and may provide a level of personalization through storing commonly used information, site preferences or other methods.

Nevertheless, despite efforts by many websites to craft privacy policies to address users’ concerns, some consumers are unaware of these tracking methods or of the data being collected. Some advocates support a “Do Not Track” approach to permit consumers to reject the collection and use of their data, and the FTC has weighed in with its support. In its December 1, 2010 report on Consumer Privacy, the FTC proposes a framework for enhancing consumer privacy on the Internet. Existing FTC regulation focuses on increasing notice to consumers about privacy practices, on promoting consumer choice for data practices and on consumer protection through FTC enforcement. The FTC’s new approach has several components: 1) Companies should adopt a “privacy by design” approach toward building privacy protections into their business practices; 2) Companies should provide simpler and more streamlined notice to consumers about data practices, and consumers should be afforded the opportunity to make informed and meaningful choices; and 3) Companies should make data practices more transparent to consumers.

Most significantly, the FTC supports the use of “Do Not Track” as part of the enhanced “notice” approach. “Do Not Track” would involve the use of a “persistent setting” on the consumer’s browser that would prevent tracking and targeted ads as the user browses or searches the Internet. In concept, the approach takes it cue from the wildly popular “Do Not Call” registry adopted by Congress several years ago. The impact of “Do Not Track” – and the potential unintended consequences – may be more significant. Early reports indicate that there are many technical challenges to implementation of a universal approach, and some useful website functionality may be disabled. More importantly, the potential for systemic blocking of targeted ads threatens the ad-based revenue model that dominates Internet commerce.

The FTC’s proposals are sure to draw much attention in the industry and among policymakers. As with “Do Not Call,” implementation and enforcement of “Do Not Track” likely requires some sort of federal legislation, and Congress has begun holding hearings on the matter in recent days. Expect “Do Not Track” to be a hot button issue in 2011, and keep an eye on the cookie jar.