FTC Warns AT&T Court Victory On Throttling Could Screw Consumers For Decades
from the not-so-free-markets dept
AT&T stopped selling unlimited wireless data plans back in 2011, and instead started pushing more expensive capped and metered plans. Existing unlimited users at the time were “grandfathered,” but AT&T went out of its way to make life as unpleasant as possible for these users, ranging from blocking them from using Facetime unless they subscribed to metered plans, to throttling these “unlimited” users after only consuming a few gigabytes of data. Ultimately AT&T faced a $100 million fine by the FCC (currently being contested by AT&T), and a 2014 lawsuit by the FTC for misleading consumers and dramatically changing the terms of service while users were under contract.
But AT&T being AT&T, its lawyers got right to work contesting the FTC lawsuit, arguing that the very Title II common carrier FCC classification it had been fighting tooth and nail against exempted it from the FTC’s jurisdiction. As it turned out, AT&T didn’t need to engage in this Schrodinger-esque legal tap dance at all, with a court ruling back in August that the FTC never truly had authority over AT&T in the first place:
“The common carrier exemption in section 5 of the FTC Act carves out a group of entities based on their status as common carriers. Those entities are not covered by section 5 even as to non-common carrier activities. Because AT&T was a common carrier, it cannot be liable for the violations alleged by the FTC. The district court?s denial of AT&T?s motion to dismiss is reversed, and the case is remanded for entry of an order of dismissal.”
The FTC isn’t particularly pleased with this ruling, and this week it filed a petition for a rehearing in which it stated that the ruling could potentially let any company dodge FTC authority — just as long as some component of its business has common carrier status. This could, the FTC warns, result in companies buying select companies they may not even want just to avoid regulatory scrutiny:
“The panel?s ruling creates an enforcement gap that would leave no federal agency able to protect millions of consumers across the country from unfair or deceptive practices or obtain redress on their behalf. Many companies provide both common-carrier and non-common-carrier services?not just telephone companies like AT&T, but also cable companies like Comcast, technology companies like Google, and energy companies like ExxonMobil (which operate common carrier oil pipelines). Companies that are not common carriers today may gain that status by offering new services or through corporate acquisitions. For example, AOL and Yahoo, which are not common carriers, are (or soon will be) owned by Verizon. The panel?s ruling calls into question the FTC?s ability to protect consumers from unlawful practices by such companies in any of their lines of business.”
And again, while light touch regulation may work in healthy markets, that’s simply not the case in telecom, where AT&T all but owns state legislatures and the lion’s share of Congress, and the lack of last-mile competition leaves regulators as the last defense for frustrated consumers stuck in monopoly or duopoly markets. The FTC continues to warn that this new enforcement gap, if allowed to become precedent, could have a notable impact on user privacy:
“The FTC is the nation?s primary protector of consumer data privacy, but under the panel?s ruling it could be powerless against any company that provides a common-carrier service. Consumers would have no protection from breach or misuse of their personal information or practices like false advertising or improper billing.”
And that’s kind of a big deal for an industry in which misleading billing and sneaky fees are already a huge problem. And while the FCC is considering some basic new privacy rules for broadband subscribers, the collective lobbying power of the telecom, advertising, and content industries (Google is also quitely opposing the FCC’s new rules), there’s not a great chance that they ever see the light of day while retaining any teeth. No regulatory oversight is a problem in a sector where ISPs are flirting with charging users more just to protect their own privacy.
The FTC argues that the appeals court panel ruling conflicts with prior decisions of the 9th Circuit and other appeal courts. But should these efforts fail, one of the least ethical companies in telecom in one of the least naturally competitive industries in America could suddenly face less regulatory oversight than ever before. And while those that falsely believe telecom is a free market and all regulation is inherently bad may applaud that outcome, the resulting regulatory capture AT&T would enjoy would be almost total, resulting in higher prices, worse service, and potentially more anti-consumer behavior than ever before.