No, The FTC Is Not Going To Do A Good Job Policing Net Neutrality

from the this-does-not-end-well dept

We've noted repeatedly how broadband ISPs aren't just trying to kill net neutrality, they're trying to kill nearly all state and federal oversight over giant telecom monopolies entirely. From language buried in the net neutrality repeal aimed at preventing states from protecting consumers, to attempts to neuter the FCC and shovel all remaining oversight to an FTC ill-suited to police telecom operators, the end goal really is little to no real oversight of some of the least liked, least competitive companies in any industry.

While this is all being portrayed as "regulatory modernization" by ISPs and their armies of consultants and allies, former FCC Boss Tom Wheeler has gone so far as to call the effort a "fraud." Wheeler was quick to note that not only does the FTC lack rule-making authority, it can only act against an ISP if it can be very clearly shown that the ISP's actions were "unfair or deceptive." That's tricky to do in the net neutrality era where anti-competitive behavior is often disguised as "reasonable network management."

The ISP narrative being parroted about is that the FTC is somehow better suited to police net neutrality than an FCC custom-built by Congress for the purpose. But that's patently false, and as Wheeler noted in an interview last year, ISPs know that shifting oversight authority from the FCC to FTC will leave ISPs lost in the regulatory wash (which is the entire purpose of their gambit):

"In the Trump administration, people are talking about stripping regulatory power from the FCC, and essentially taking the agency apart (including moving jurisdiction over internet access to the Federal Trade Commission [FTC]). “Modernizing” the FCC is the lingo being used. What’s your thought about that?

It’s a fraud. The FTC doesn’t have rule-making authority. They’ve got enforcement authority and their enforcement authority is whether or not something is unfair or deceptive. And the FTC has to worry about everything from computer chips to bleach labeling. Of course, carriers want [telecom issues] to get lost in that morass. This was the strategy all along.

So it doesn’t surprise me that the Trump transition team — who were with the American Enterprise Institute and basically longtime supporters of this concept — comes in and says, “Oh, we oughta do away with this.” It makes no sense to get rid of an expert agency and to throw these issues to an agency with no rule-making power that has to compete with everything else that’s going on in the economy, and can only deal with unfair or deceptive practices.

Wheeler's warning was ignored and as of June 11 (net neutrality's formal death date, for now), this is the agency that's going to be tasked with holding AT&T, Comcast, Charter and Verizon accountable to the public. Meanwhile Andrew M. Smith, the man being appointed to head the FTC consumer protection division tasked with enforcing what's left of net neutrality (read: nothing) isn't exactly instilling confidence:

"The new director of the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer protection unit, a watchdog with broad investigative powers over private companies, stands out even in an administration prone to turning over regulatory authority to pro-industry 2012, Mr. Smith was also part of the legal team that defended AMG Services, the payday lender founded by the convicted racketeer Scott Tucker, whose predatory practices against impoverished borrowers eventually led to a $1.3 billion court-ordered settlement, the biggest in the commission’s history.

“It’s outrageous the F.T.C. would pick the lawyer for a criminally convicted racketeer’s payday loan company as consumer protection chief,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, who opposed Mr. Smith’s selection. “The agency should pick someone with a track record of protecting consumers, not companies that cheat people."

And while it's true that a lawyer isn't defined by who he or she represents, it also remains pretty clear that Smith has zero experience protecting consumers or startups, making him a dubious selection for the job. And given his laundry list of past employment for companies ranging from Uber and Equifax (who he defended during their recent privacy kerfuffle), he's going to have to recuse himself from a long list of decisions at the FTC, which also doesn't make him a particularly compelling hire.

It shouldn't take a doctoral degree to understand how this massive regulatory paradigm shift ends badly for consumers, startups, and the health of the internet. And this is all before you realize that AT&T is currently in court trying to argue that the FTC has no authority over monopoly ISPs whatsoever, something ISPs (and their list of pay to play allies) just kind of conveniently omit when talking about how the FTC is perfectly suited to help protect the open internet and the would-be competitors of tomorrow.

Filed Under: andrew smith, broadband, consumer protection, fcc, ftc, regulation

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2018 @ 7:57pm

    What if the FTC is bad at everything?

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