Tales of the Sausage Factory

Net Neutrality: Tomorrow Is The Judgement Day (Well, Oral Argument).

So here we are. One day more until oral argument on the FCC’s February 2015 decision to reclassify broadband as a Title II telecom service and impose real net neutrality rules. We definitely heard the people sing — 4 million of them sang the songs of very angry broadband subscribers to get us where we are today. But will we see a new beginning? Or will it be every cable company that will be king? Will Judges Tatel and Srinivasen and Senior Judge Williams nip net neutrality in the bud? Or will we finally meet again in freedom in the valley of the Lord?

 

You can read my blog post on the Public Knowledge blog for a summary of the last 15 years of classification/declasification fights, rulemakings, and other high drama. You can read my colleague Kate Forscey’s excellent discussion of the legal issues in this blog post here. This blog post is for all the geeky Tales of the Sausage Factory type factoids you need to know to really enjoy this upcoming round of legal fun and games and impress your friends with your mastery of such details. Thing like, so how do you get in to the court to watch? What opinions have the judges on the panel written that give us a clue? What fun little things to watch for during argument to try to read the tea leaves? I answer these and other fun questions below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The Comedy of Comcast v. FCC Part I — What Did The Court Actually Do?

It’s been rather busy the last few weeks. Between my unfairly holding Sprint responsible for its own screw ups, shamelessly cheering on the documentation of our national broadband drought by Our Great Google Overlords, and generally crushing all who dare oppose me, it’s been hard to find time to blog about stuff. So naturally, while I was away for the last day of Passover, the DC Circuit issued its long awaited decision in the Comcast/BitTorrent case, Comcast v. FCC.

Needless to say, the opinion was greeted with the total hysteria that has become the hallmark of the network neutrality debate — with terms like “Nuclear Option,” “World War III,” and “spanking.” Opponents of FCC jurisdiction rejoiced, supporters of network neutrality lamented, and a few shrewd observers noted that the actual outcomes could prove far worse for Comcast and the incumbents than if Comcast had lost (as I noted after oral argument last January).

My co-counsel, Marvin Ammori, has written up his retrospective here. Understandably, he’s rather bummed. Despite this whole thing being my idea in the first place, however, I’m actually rather pleased and amused with how this whole thing is turning out. Sure, I would much rather have won. But as the history of the last 2+ years of this unfolds, the tale of how Comcast managed to bluff, badger, and bungle itself into a position where it has not only guaranteed harsher condition on its merger with NBC-Universal, but revived the possibility of classifying broadband access as a Title II telecom service for the first time in 10 years, is the stuff of high farce. And while I wish I could claim credit for this outcome, the real “heroes” here are Brian Roberts (head of Comcast) followed closely by AT&T, NCTA and the Republican party.

To try to keep this manageable, I’ll divide this into two posts. Below, I will try to set forth what the court actually said and the immediate legal implications, without worrying too much about the overall policy. While I can hardly claim to be an impartial observer, I’ll do my best to identify my editorial comments as such and note where reasonable minds can differ. In Part II, I shall shamelessly indulge myself with my own eyewitness to history and why I think the Comedy of Comcast v. FCC deserves its special place in the realm of farce — although we have by no means reached a certain conclusion.

More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Does Comcast Fear To Win Too Much?

I grant I wasn’t there, but pretty much everyone who was seems to think the D.C. Circuit oral argument in the Comcast/BitTorrent case was an utter disaster for the FCC/pro-NN forces and a total triumph for Comcast. Given my previously voiced opinion about the judicial activists on the D.C. Circuit, I can’t say this surprises me even in light of the previous precedent. Indeed, from what I have heard, the D.C. Circuit appeared breathtakingly eager to rush past the procedural issues and declare that the FCC has absolutely no jurisdiction to regulate anything an ISP ever does, ever.

So why has Comcast, which (along with its trade association) has argued that it would violate its First Amendment rights for the FCC to regulate its conduct as an ISP, posted this blog entry to explain that of course they totally support FCC regulation of broadband ISPs, under the right circumstances, etc.?

Answer: Comcast fears to win too much. For Comcast (and other broadband providers), the ideal world consists of an FCC with jurisdiction but no authority. That is to say, they want an FCC that appears to have authority to do something, but when push comes to shove is prevented from actually doing anything Comcast doesn’t like. Which is why Comcast wanted to win on procedure and, perhaps, get the court to threaten the FCC that it had no authority. In that universe (which could still come to pass), Comcast could keep Congress from giving the FCC explicit authority by saying it has jurisdiction but keep the FCC from doing anything by claiming that it lacked authority for any specific action.

But there is every indication that the D.C. Circuit will go much further, and find that the FCC has no jurisdiction to even consider regulation of ISP behavior no matter what the circumstances, because it doesn’t believe that ancillary authority exists. While that sounds like exactly what Comcast would want, it scares them silly. Because even the fear of this sort of huge loss creates a panic that could lead Congress explicitly delegating the FCC extremely clear and unambiguous authority.

More, including a shout out to all my fellow Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans, below . . . .

UPDATE: According to this blog post by Washpo Reporter Cecilia Kang, I’m not the only one thinking this way. A few more choice remarks from NCTA’s Kyle McSlarrow about how the FCC’s role is to be a big ATM for his members may get even this Congress off it’s rear end.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Will The DC Circuit Pull The Plug On Program Access?

Next week, the D.C. Circuit will hear oral argument on the FCC’s 2007 decision to extended the program access rules another five years. What surprises me is how few people seem to have considered the possibility that the D.C. Circuit will reverse this decision and vacate the rule, as they did last month with the 30% cable horizontal ownership limit.

Part of that is the way people tend to make analysis based on conventional wisdom. “Everyone knows” that without the program access rules, competitive providers would be toast because the largest cable incumbents can control programming, just as “everyone knows” that we don’t need a 30% cable ownership limit because the MVPD market is so wildly competitive that the largest cable incumbents can not possibly influence cable programming. As Comcast and Cablevision pointed out to the DC Circuit, however, the conventional wisdom in this regard is not entirely consistent. If, as the court found last month as a matter of law, the MVPD market is wildly competitive and consumers switch willy-nilly from one to the other rendering it impossible for a cable provider to block a rival programming network from emerging, how on Earth can cable programmers below the 30% limit exercise foreclosure?

There are, of course, sound answers to that in both law and economics, although the biggest single deciding factor is likely to be the absence from the panel of Douglas Ginsburg, a man who believes membership in the Federalist Society substitutes for an actual understanding of economics and has published an academic article yearning for the “good old days” when the courts made economic regulation unconstitutional and concluding that courts should not defer to agency efforts to create “synthetic competition.” (An offense in the eyes of the Gods of the Marketplace.) I believe the panel is Sentelle, Griffith and Kavanaugh, which is not exactly good news for the program access rules but isn’t death on wheels like Ginsburg (or Williams or Edwards). Sentelle and Griffith, who were both on the imaginary competition outweighs real competition decision back in June overturning the FCC’s decision not to grant Verizon a forbearance petition, and Kavanaugh, who was on the cable ownership panel and therefore presumably agrees that switching costs aren’t real and cable operators are in such fear of youtube clips they would never make programming decisions based on affiliation. On the flip side, Kavanaugh actually wrote the somewhat more deferential special access opinion from July. Unfortunately for those who rely on program access, none of the judges who affirmed the Inside Wiring Order are on this panel.

Of course, there is something to be said for actual law and analysis of the underlying FCC Order, even in the D.C. Circuit. So below, I shall provide a brief outline of the program access rules, how we end up in court, the likely arguments, and what happens if the D.C. Cir. overturns the rules (which even I give a low probability to, but do not discount — especially given the panel) — including why that might actually be the best thing to happen to cable regulation in the long run.

More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

FCC Last Call — Part I: Cable

The FCC sure had a busy day a its last open meeting on December 20, 2006. In addition to the oral argument for the indecency cases in the 2nd Cir., the FCC also had its last open meeting of 2006. While it is impossible to provide a thorough analysis until the FCC releases the full text of the orders it adopted, below find some brief impressions based on the what we know so far about the FCC’s cable franchising order, cable rates report. Later, a post on the surprise Return of the Incredibly Awful Cyren Call Proposal.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Talking Dirty for the Public Interest

On December 20, the Second Circuit heard oral argument on an appeal from FCC indencency decisions involving some naughty words spoken live in prime time during the Fox Billboard Music Awards. Some analysis and cynical snark below.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Thinking a Bit More Clearly on Grokster and Brand X

A bit of time lends perspective. There is already a ton of stuff out there on this, but I’ll add a few perspectives that I hope are fresh. . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Black Monday

As I demonstrated last fall when I predicted a Kerry victory, my powers of prognostication are nothing to write home about. OTOH, I suppose this demonstrates the wisdom of the old saw that you ca’t judge an outcome by oral argument.

We lost Brand X by 6-3. Interesting split that put Scalia and Thomas on opposite sides but, as I have observed in the past, telecom issues do not fall into the neat conservative/liberal divisions everyone is so fond of making.

Grokster also went the other way, with the Court not even remanding for trial.

I will have more later when I have read the decisions. Right now I’m trying to sort things out.

Stay tuned . . .

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