Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009 -- "Free Markets and Free Speech"

With Thanksgiving 2009 upon us, in the last several days I have been reflecting upon its meaning to me this year, and relating this meaning to the Free State Foundation's work, where we proclaim our mission to promote free market, limited government, and rule of law principles.

Of course, there are many ways we Americans think about Thanksgiving, including conjuring up our favorite cranberry sauce or stuffing, or deciding which team we're rooting for in the traditional Thanksgiving Day football games. Not to mention which Black Friday sales will draw us out of bed pre-dawn on Friday morning.

But I have no doubt that, aside from enjoying the turkey, the football games, and the shopping sprees, most Americans, and especially those who are more recent arrivals to our shores, marvel at the sheer abundance that prevails in America as we approach the end of 2009. And, even amidst the more difficult economic times, I have no doubt that, although not always consciously, and at times perhaps even grudgingly, most Americans recognize, and are thankful for, that abundance -- and for the success of the American experiment in democratic capitalism that has made such abundance possible.

The success of this experiment depends at its core on the protection of individual liberty – that is, the preservation of sufficient freedom from government interference and control that individuals and businesses can nurture the entrepreneurial spirit that fosters the drive for self-betterment, the willingness to take risks on new ideas and to innovate, and the willingness to invest capital in new businesses.

With the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall earlier this month, we were reminded, but perhaps not often enough, of President Reagan's famous June 1987 injunction: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Later in his Berlin speech, President Reagan proclaimed: "This wall cannot withstand freedom."

On this Thanksgiving, Reagan's freedom cry in Berlin called to mind for me that part of his January 1989 Oval Office Farewell Address in which, for the last time, he invoked John Winthrop's "shining city upon the hill" image. Here is what Reagan said:

"And that's about all I have to say tonight. Except for one thing. The past few days when I've been at that window upstairs, I've thought a bit of the "shining city upon a hill." The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we'd call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free. I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still."

"An early Pilgrim. An early freedom man."

The Pilgrims didn't set sail seeking the prospect of more government control over the way they lived their lives, and practiced their beliefs. They were seeking less.

In that same farewell address, President Reagan also proclaimed:

"Countries across the globe are turning to free markets and free speech and turning away from the ideologies of the past. For them, the great rediscovery of the 1980s has been that, lo and behold, the moral way of government is the practical way of government: Democracy, the profoundly good, is also profoundly productive."

"Free markets and free speech."

This is not the time to rehearse the Free State Foundation's voluminous scholarly position papers, commentaries, blogs, event transcripts, and the like. They are available on the FSF website for the taking. But if America is to continue to be that "shining city on the hill," it is always a proper time – and, yes, Thanksgiving, is a particularly proper time – to reflect upon the importance of preserving free markets and free speech. For without free markets and free speech, America would not enjoy the abundance that we do today.

Much of the work we do at the Free State Foundation involves the ongoing fight to preserve free markets and free speech. It happens this is especially true with respect to our work in the communications law and policy realm, where, for example, new proposals for government regulation of the Internet threaten both. Indeed, as I have explained here, here, and here, proponents of the benign-sounding Internet regulatory regime called "net neutrality" turn the First Amendment on its head, arguing we have more to fear from private Internet providers censoring speech than from the government enforcing its own brand of content neutrality. History and our founding principles belie this notion. Our liberty is more secure when the promotion of "fairness" and "non-discrimination" in our media resides in the hands of citizens exercising choice in the competitive marketplace rather than in the hands of the government as enforcer.

For now, it is enough to reflect and be thankful. And I am especially grateful for the support of so many friends of FSF. There will be time enough to carry on the battles for free market, limited government, and rule of law principles.

In the meantime, and for now, Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The November 12 IPI Telecom Conference

My friends at the Institute for Policy Innovation have put together an excellent conference, "Unlocking the Future of Communications," for November 12 in Washington, DC. FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell is a keynoter, heading a lineup of notable speakers.

Communications policymaking is entering a crucial phase in the next 12-18 months. If you're interested in learning about the issues from a cast of knowledgeable experts, I commend to you the IPI conference. Details here.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Computer Inquiries – Then and Now

There is much with which I agree in the Oct. 29 post, "43 Years of Internet Policy" by the FCC's Bob Cannon. And because I was happily ensconced at the FCC as Associate General Counsel at the time the Second Computer Inquiry decision was developed, and played at least some role in its development, I get somewhat nostalgic when the Computer Inquiries are invoked. I might take issue with the description of the Computer Inquiries proceedings as "wildly successful" in light of the generally lengthy delays experienced in modifying the policies once they became outdated. But I have no problem in agreeing they were successful in helping to achieve an important public policy objective – encouraging the development of nascent online services – at a particular time in history, when AT&T and then the divested Bell Companies exercised dominant market power.

But just because an FCC policy was successful when adopted does not mean that it should be carried forward for all time. Indeed, Mr. Cannon's post itself makes clear that the then-market power exercised by the Bell Companies was a central premise underlying the adoption of the Computer Inquiry orders. ("The FCC wanted to ensure that carriers were offering the telecommunications services necessary in order for computer services to thrive and that the telecommunications networks could not use their market power to engage in anti-competitive behavior.") I can testify from my own experience – without fear of contradiction – that the Bell Companies' dominant market power was central the Commission's understanding of the desirability of developing safeguards to prevent the carriers from acting anti-competitively in a way that would injure the emerging online services. I agree the Computer Inquiries' separation of basic and enhanced services, and the implementation of safeguards, worked…for a considerable amount of time. And the Commission can take pride in this success.

But it is a mistake of the highest order to assume that a regulatory policy devised for a certain time in a particular environment is appropriate three decades later in a radically different environment. The fact of the matter is that, in today's broadband environment, the providers no longer exercise the dominant market power that concerned the Commission at the time of the Computer Inquiries. Indeed, Mr. Cannon's post, rightly, keeps referring to the "telecommunications networks" of the time. Now, as a result of findings made by the FCC beginning in 2002 concerning the competitive nature of the marketplace, the broadband providers that pro-regulatory zealots want to put under the yoke of common carrier regulation are no longer even classified as "telecommunications" providers. Rather, in light of the integration of communications and data processing functionality and marketplace changes, they are classified as information services providers.

Even in the 1980s marketplace conditions had begun to change sufficiently, along with the agency's understanding of the costs to consumers of strict separation of basic and enhanced services, that the FCC replaced the structural separation requirements of Computer II with the non-structural safeguards of Computer III. Even a casual skimming of the massive Computer III record will show this relaxation of regulation had mostly to do with the Commission's understanding that the costs of strict separation outweighed the benefits.

Well, it almost 2010. We can argue if you like about exactly how competitive the broadband marketplace is today. I'll grant it is not now and never will be the perfectly-competitive wheat marketplace that I read about in my Econ-101 text. But it certainly is no longer similar to the communications marketplace in which the Bell Companies once exercised dominant market power – the marketplace upon which the Computer Inquiries decisions were premised. Today's broadband Internet marketplace -- with wireline, cable, satellite, and wireless providers all competing, even if not with totally substitutable services – simply is much more competitive. In today's dynamic Internet environment, the costs to consumers of imposing separation requirements of the Computer Inquiries-variety greatly outweigh the benefits of such regulation that seeks to maintain a "bright line" separation between "telecom" and "information" services. Anyone pretending otherwise is living in the past, and conjuring up a black-telephone handset and 56K modem dial-up communications world that, thankfully, no longer exists.

FCC Keeps its Hands Off Handset Exclusivity, For Now…

The Federal Communications Commission has just approved the transfer of spectrum licenses as part of the AT&T-Centennial merger. This finality is welcome news, not the least reason being the finality itself. As I blogged previously, it was a year ago this month that the first applications for this merger were first filed at the FCC. To its credit, the FCC also declined to impose unwarranted restraints on the merging parties' business dealings with handset manufacturers.

In sum, the FCC found that "competitive harm is unlikely in most of the overlap markets" that will result from the merger "primarily because multiple other service providers in these markets would be an effective competitive constraint on the behavior of the merged entity." However, consistent with the U.S. Department of Justice's (DOJ) requirement that Centennial divest its wireless operations in seven local areas, the FCC likewise concluded that “absent a remedy, competitive harms would likely result." In addition to its mirroring of the DOJ's divestiture requirement for those areas, the FCC also is imposing a number of "voluntary commitments" as conditions of FCC approval.

Significantly, the FCC rejected calls to intrude on existing business practices involving wireless carriers and handset manufacturers. It found that proposals for prohibiting exclusive handset arrangements "are not narrowly tailored to prevent a transaction-specific harm." Rather, the FCC concluded that the concerns animating such calls for handset exclusivity prohibition "apply broadly across the industry and are more appropriate for a Commission proceeding where all interested industry parties have an opportunity to file comments." Without addressing the merits of handset exclusivity prohibition or even tipping its hand on the matter, the FCC chose to address the issue another day.

Wisely, the FCC avoided hasty imposition of backdoor regulation. Regardless of what one thinks of handset exclusivity agreements or prohibition of such agreements as a general matter, a selective imposition of such regulation hardly makes for fair public policy. For starters, handset exclusivity agreements are an industry-wide phenomena, not something limited to the carriers in this particular merger. Imposing such regulation only on one carrier is not a neutral, even-handed approach.

Moreover, it hardly makes for fair administrative practice to use a merger between two carriers to regulate business relationships between a carrier and manufacturers. Some recent analyses suggest that handset exclusivity agreements owe more to the hard bargaining of handset manufacturers than carriers. As Robert Hahn and Hal Singer have written, "[h]andset makers seek exclusive agreements with carriers…to share the enormous risk associated with launching a new device, to align the incentives of the carrier with the handset maker, and to ensure network quality." Manufacturers want carriers to commit to providing customers with technical support, to market their devices, and to uphold their brand name's good will. That being the case, a merger review proceeding is particularly inapposite for imposing new regulations that would have sweeping effects on a different sector of the marketplace.

The merger review process shouldn't be the FCC's incubator for experimental policies or pet projects for which it doesn’t have rules for or which it otherwise has no authority to impose. For a decade FSF President Randolph May has been urging the agency to reform its merger review process. Here's one of his pieces, "Any Volunteers," from March 2000.

Unfortunately, the FCC's recent track record does include some special pleading regulation through selective merger condition requirements. As I mentioned in a prior post, the FCC imposed network non-discrimination requirements as a condition for approving the AT&T-BellSouth merger. Like in many other contexts, the FCC's "public interest" standards for merger review are much more fuzzy than the market power analysis that the DOJ is limited to under the Clayton Act. Earlier this year, the FCC solicited public comments on how to reform its merger review process. Absent any pending reforms stemming from that proceeding, the FCC's modest self- restraint in this merger review makes good sense.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

More on "The Faulty Berkman Report"

In my recent FSF Perspectives piece, "The Faulty Berkman Report: The Fallacy of Overlooking Secondary Consequences," I challenge the Berkman Report’s myopic focus on the touted benefits of a public policy to one segment of beneficiaries to the exclusion of the broader costs associated with that policy. The Report's retelling of the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) prior attempts to impose "open access" or "forced access" policy through unbundling regulations on incumbent wireline providers is a highly selective and thereby misleading account. It fails to mention the adverse infrastructure investment incentives of mandated access policies that effectively require incumbents to subsidize facilities to be used by their competitors. And the Report nowhere even mentions the telecom disinvestment trends, discussed in my Perspectives, that plagued the industry until the courts and the FCC begun to roll back unbundling regulations.

One aspect of the Report that I left unaddressed was its insistence that the FCC's unbundling regulatory regime failure was attributable in large part to the incumbents' lobby and litigation efforts, and ultimately to the courts' disagreement with FCC policy judgment. The Report asserted that the courts failed by not according proper discretion to regulatory experts. Urging a force-fit of extensive broadband regulatory regimes used by several foreign social democracies on the American broadband marketplace, the Report suggested that the U.S. give more "engaged" regulators greater "professionalism, independence, and power" in order to impose a next generation set of "open access" mandates on broadband network providers.

This argument about the woes of the FCC's unbundling regulations oversimplifies to the point of being totally unhelpful. To say that the courts simply disagreed with the FCC's policy is misleading. Moreover, the Report's trumpeting of regulators' independence and power in foreign nations as an antidote simply doesn’t translate in the U.S. government institutional setting.

The reality is that the FCC and other federal agencies receive a considerable degree of deference from U.S. courts under Administrative Procedures Act and the "Chevron doctrine." Under the former, courts typically decline to second-guess agency judgments or "expertise" on public policy questions. And under the latter, courts routinely acquiesce to agencies' interpretations of ambiguous statutory language unless the interpretation is clearly impermissible.

However, the independence of U.S. courts means that there are constitutional and statutory limits to agency discretion. (Such judicial independence is often lacking in foreign systems of parliamentary supremacy.) Contrary to the Report's claims about judicial disagreement with agency policy judgment, it was the FCC's own contravention of legal limits through its improper sub-delegation of federal agency authority to state regulators and the FCC's implausible readings of the terms of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that led to judicial invalidation of many of the FCC's unbundling rules. To be sure, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia forthrightly recognized that "[e]ach unbundling of an element imposes costs of its own, spreading disincentive to invest in innovation and creating complex issues of managing shared facilities." But the Court’s observation about the economic drawbacks to the unbundling rules was made in a larger context. The Court was attempting to ascertain whether an expansive unbundling policy with such obvious infrastructure investment disincentives was what Congress conceivably had in mind in passing the Act.

Moreover, Courts are not likely to unilaterally drop existing legal limits on arbitrary and capricious decision making by federal agencies on the grounds that even greater bureaucratic power and independence should alleviate agency capture concerns. Perhaps the Report seeks to trumpet a best-of-all-possible-worlds policy in its implicit calls for judicial retreat from review of any future agency "open access" regulations. But in this world, federal agencies must make do with the constitutional and statutory slack they have been given. In other words, they must act in accord with the rule of law.