AT&T Continues Fight To Gut FTC Authority Over Broadband Monopolies
from the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too dept
For years, massive broadband providers (and the lawmakers and think tankers paid to love them) have repeatedly stated that gutting net neutrality and FCC oversight of ISPs is no big deal because the FTC will rush in and protect consumers. When ISPs like Comcast convinced the Trump FCC to kill net neutrality, they repeatedly proclaimed that the FTC would step in and ensure that nothing bad would happen. When ISPs lobbied Congress to kill off some modest consumer privacy protections, again they proclaimed that this was no big deal because the FTC would ride in and keep consumers safe from monopoly bad behavior.
But while ISP lobbyists are claiming that neutering the FCC is a great idea because the FTC will fill the void, they consistently “forget” to mention that AT&T has been busy in court trying to gut FTC authority over ISPs entirely. You’d think that’s kind of important to mention, but large ISP mouthpieces are understandably busy these days, so perhaps it just got lost in the lobbyist paperwork shuffle.
AT&T’s legal gambit began when the FTC sued AT&T back in 2014 for lying to customers about the company’s throttling practices. You’ll recall that AT&T had been waging a not-so-subtle war on unlimited data users as it tried to drive them to more expensive, metered plans. Amusingly, AT&T lawyers tried to argue in court that the company’s “common carrier” status — the same status it has fought viciously against on the net neutrality front — exempted it from FTC authority almost entirely under Section 5 of the FTC Act. As we noted at the time, it was a very clever Schrodinger-esque tap dance.
At the time, the FTC issued a warning stating that should AT&T lawyers be successful, any company with a common carrier component (from Google to oil conglomerates) could tap dance around FTC oversight. Those without such components could simply buy or merge with a small company with a common carrier component to nab the same benefit. This, the FTC warned, would create a massive accountability and enforcement gap regarding corporate America.
Fortunately for consumers, AT&T’s legal efforts have seen mixed results. AT&T won a major ruling in the case back in August of 2016, but the FTC won the most recent federal appeals court decision. Undaunted, AT&T made it clear this week that this is a battle it intends to take to the Supreme Court:
“AT&T intends to file a petition for certiorari in the Supreme Court” by the deadline of May 29, according to a joint case management update filed last week. An AT&T victory could leave many ISPs in a regulation-free zone. The Federal Communications Commission in December 2017 voted to eliminate net neutrality rules and relinquish its authority to regulate ISPs as common carriers. One of the FCC’s justifications for deregulating the broadband market was that the Federal Trade Commission can force ISPs to uphold their net neutrality promises.”
The goal remains little to no oversight of some of the least-competitive and most anti-competitive American companies in any industry. What could possibly go wrong?
It’s worth reiterating that even if the FTC wins this case, the agency remains a pale echo of the FCC when it comes to holding giant ISPs accountable. The FTC lacks rule-making authority, is already over-extended, and can only hold an ISP accountable if it can clearly prove the ISP engaged in “unfair or deceptive” behavior. That’s something that’s particularly problematic on the net neutrality front when anti-competitive behavior is routinely hidden behind bogus claims of routine network management.
Granted if you really like growing monopolies running amok, this plan should be right up your alley. But if you realize that removing already pretty tepid oversight of an uncompetitive and broken telecom industry could cause vast irreparable harm to consumers and smaller businesses alike, then this is a case you most certainly should be keeping an eye on.