November 10, 2016

November 10, 2016 | Commentary on Rule of Law, Regulation

FCC Disregard of the Rule of Law Requires Legislative Reform

On October 6, the Heritage Foundation released a legal memorandum (authored by me) that recounts the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recent sad history of ignoring the rule of law in its enforcement and regulatory actions.  The memorandum calls for a legislative reform agenda to rectify this problem by reining in the agency.  Key points culled from the memorandum are highlighted below (footnotes omitted).

1.  Background: The Rule of Law

The American concept of the rule of law is embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and in the constitutional principles of separation of powers, an independent judiciary, a government under law, and equality of all before the law.  As the late Friedrich Hayek explained:

[The rule of law] means the government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand—rules which make it possible to see with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and to plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge.

In other words, the rule of law involves a system of binding rules that have been adopted and applied by a valid government authority and that embody clarity, predictability, and equal applicability.   Practices employed by government agencies that undermine the rule of law ignore a fundamental duty that the government owes its citizens and thereby weaken America’s constitutional system.  It follows, therefore, that close scrutiny of federal administrative agencies’ activities is particularly important in helping to achieve public accountability for an agency’s failure to honor the rule of law standard.

2.  How the FCC Flouts the Rule of Law

Applying such scrutiny to the FCC reveals that it does a poor job in adhering to rule of law principles, both in its procedural practices and in various substantive actions that it has taken.

Opaque procedures that generate uncertainties regarding agency plans undermine the clarity and predictability of agency actions and thereby undermine the effectiveness of rule of law safeguards.  Process-based reforms designed to deal with these problems, to the extent that they succeed, strengthen the rule of law.  Procedural inadequacies at the FCC include inordinate delays and a lack of transparency, including the failure to promptly release the text of proposed and final rules.  The FCC itself has admitted that procedural improvements are needed, and legislative proposals have been advanced to make the Commission more transparent, efficient, and accountable.

Nevertheless, mere procedural reforms would not address the far more serious problem of FCC substantive actions that flout the rule of law.  Examples abound:

  • The FCC imposes a variety of “public interest” conditions on proposed mergers subject to its jurisdiction. Those conditions often are announced after inordinate delays, and typically have no bearing on the mergers’ actual effects.  The unpredictable nature and timing of such impositions generate a lack of certainty for businesses and thereby undermine the rule of law.
  • The FCC’s 2015 Municipal Broadband Order preempted state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that prevented municipally owned broadband providers from providing broadband service beyond their geographic boundaries. Apart from its substantive inadequacies, this Order went beyond the FCC’s statutory authority and raised grave federalism problems (by interfering with a state’s sovereign right to oversee its municipalities), thereby ignoring the constitutional limitations placed on the exercise of governmental powers that lie at the heart of the rule of law.  The Order was struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in August 2016.
  • The FCC’s 2015 “net neutrality” rule (the Open Internet Order) subjects internet service providers (ISPs) to sweeping “reasonableness-based” FCC regulatory oversight. This “reasonableness” standard gives the FCC virtually unbounded discretion to impose sanctions on ISPs.  It does not provide, in advance, a knowable, predictable rule consistent with due process and rule of law norms.  In the dynamic and fast-changing “Internet ecosystem,” this lack of predictable guidance is a major drag on innovation.  Regrettably, in June 2014, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, by a two-to-one vote, rejected a challenge to the order brought by ISPs and their trade association.
  • The FCC’s abrupt 2014 extension of its long-standing rules restricting common ownership of local television broadcast stations, to encompass Joint Sales Agreements (JSAs) likewise undermined the rule of law. JSAs, which allow one television station to sell advertising (but not programming) on another station, have long been used by stations that had no reason to believe that their actions in any way constituted illegal “ownership interests,” especially since many of them were originally approved by the FCC.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit wisely vacated the television JSA rule in May 2016, stressing that the FCC had violated a statutory command by failing to carry out in a timely fashion the quadrennial review of the television ownership rules on which the JSA rule was based.
  • The FCC’s February 2016 proposed rules that are designed to “open” the market for video set-top boxes, appear to fly in the face of federal laws and treaty language protecting intellectual property rights, by arbitrarily denying protection to intellectual property based solely on a particular mode of information transmission. Such a denial is repugnant to rule of law principles.
  • FCC enforcement practices also show a lack of respect for rule of law principles, by seeking to obtain sanctions against behavior that has never been deemed contrary to law or regulatory edicts. Two examples illustrate this point.
    • In 2014, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau proposed imposing a $10 million fine on TerraCom, Inc., and YourTelAmerica, Inc., two small telephone companies, for a data breach that exposed certain personally identifiable information to unauthorized access. In so doing, the FCC cited provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and accompanying regulations that had never been construed to authorize sanctions for failure to adopt “reasonable data security practices” to protect sensitive consumer information.
    • In November 2015, the FCC similarly imposed a $595,000 fine on Cox Communications for failure to prevent a data breach committed by a third-party hacker, although no statutory or regulatory language supported imposing any penalty on a firm that was itself victimized by a hack attack

3.  Legislative Reforms to Rein in the FCC

What is to be done?  One sure way to limit an agency’s ability to flout the rule of law is to restrict the scope of its legal authority.  As a matter of first principles, Congress should therefore examine the FCC’s activities with an eye to eliminating its jurisdiction over areas in which regulation is no longer needed:  For example, residual price regulation may be unnecessary in all markets where competition is effective. Regulation is called for only in the presence of serious market failure, coupled with strong evidence that government intervention will yield a better economic outcome than will a decision not to regulate.

Congress should craft legislation designed to sharply restrict the FCC’s ability to flout the rule of law.  At a minimum, no matter how it decides to pursue broad FCC reform, the following five proposals merit special congressional attention as a means of advancing rule of law principles:

  • Eliminate the FCC’s jurisdiction over all mergers. The federal antitrust agencies are best equipped to handle merger analysis, and this source of costly delay and uncertainty regarding ad hoc restrictive conditions should be eliminated.
  • Eliminate the FCC’s jurisdiction over broadband Internet service. Given the benefits associated with an open and unregulated Internet, Congress should provide clearly and unequivocally that the FCC has no jurisdiction, direct or indirect, in this area.
  • Shift FCC regulatory authority over broadband-related consumer protection (including, for example, deceptive advertising, privacy, and data protection) and competition to the Federal Trade Commission, which has longstanding experience and expertise in the area. This jurisdictional transfer would promote clarity and reduce uncertainty, thereby strengthening the rule of law.
  • Require that before taking regulatory action, the FCC carefully scrutinize regulatory language to seek to avoid the sorts of rule of law problems that have plagued prior commission rule makings.
  • Require that the FCC not seek fines in an enforcement action unless the alleged infraction involves a violation of the precise language of a regulation or statutory provision.

4.  Conclusion

In recent years, the FCC too often has acted in a manner that undermines the rule of law. Internal agency reforms might be somewhat helpful in rectifying this situation, but they inevitably would be limited in scope and inherently malleable as FCC personnel changes. Accordingly, Congress should weigh major statutory reforms to rein in the FCC—reforms that will advance the rule of law and promote American economic well-being.

About the Author

Alden Abbott Deputy Director of the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies and the John, Barbara, and Victoria Rumpel Senior Legal Fellow
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

Related Issues: Rule of Law, Regulation

This piece first appeared in Truth on the Market