OVERNIGHT TECH: Scholars call for FTC guidelines

THE LEDE: A handful of legal scholars will call for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to better explain its enforcement powers at a hearing on Friday.

In prepared testimonies released ahead of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing, academic experts said guidelines about its enforcement powers would help it balance its twin responsibilities to both promote competition and protect consumers.

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Under Section 5 of the FTC Act, the commission has the authority to take action against companies with “unfair or deceptive” practices. Last year FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright, a Republican, pressed for the agency to issue clear guidelines “to promote consistently the Commission’s mission of protecting competition.” 

Wright’s plans contained “a fatal flaw,” however, by ignoring Congress’s intent with the law, according to the testimony of Robert Lande, a law professor at the University of Baltimore. The FTC should issue guidelines about its powers under the law, he said, but only if they focus on “consumer choice.”

Daniel Crane, a law professor at the University of Michigan, agreed with the need for guidelines. However, he said that the guidelines would make it easier for courts that review the FTC’s work. “Although guidelines issued by the Commission may not be legally binding, they can provide a set of principles that can be invoked initially before the Commission and ultimately in court to limit the Commission’s discretion,” he said. 

The hearing is the commission’s second focusing on the 100-year anniversary of its founding. In December, the four current commissioners on the FTC defended the scope of their regulatory authority.

Over the last century, the issues before the FTC has evolved, according to Geoffrey Manne, the founder and executive director of the International Center for Law and Economics and a senior fellow at the think tank TechFreedom. Now, the agency “has become, for better or worse, the Federal Technology Commission, and technology creates a special problem for regulators,” he said in his prepared testimony.

Manne agreed that the FTC should offer more guidance on its legal authority and also increase the power of its economics bureau. That could provide some “internal constraint,” he said, and limit the commission’s ability to take action against a business “simply because three Commissioners — or a few staff lawyers — think they're helping consumers by crucifying a particular company.”

Franken outlines Comcast, Time Warner Cable worries: Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) continued to express his worries about the recently announced deal that would combine Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the country’s top two cable Internet companies, in a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on Thursday.

“I am concerned that the proposed acquisition could result in higher prices, fewer choices, and even worse service for consumers,” he wrote.

In the letter, Franken asked Wheeler and the agency to consider Comcast’s history of abiding by merger conditions, such as those the company agreed to when it purchased NBC Universal in 2011.

“Simply put, the FCC does not write on a clean slate in this matter,” he wrote. “Recent history, including Comcast’s adherence to the legal obligations it owes the public, should be taken into account when deciding whether to permit further consolidation in the cable and broadband markets.”

Silicon Valley Dem hit over Comcast merger: Rep. Mike Honda’s (D-Calif.) primary challenger is demanding that he come out against a proposed $45 billion merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Ro Khanna, who is looking to unseat Honda for the Silicon Valley district, wrote in a letter on Thursday that the deal would “result in unprecedented concentration in the cable TV industry.”

“I believe that this merger is not in the best interests of the hundreds of thousands of your constituents in the 17th District of California who have no choice but to use Comcast as their cable provider,” wrote Khanna, a former deputy assistant secretary at the Commerce Department. 

Pelosi backs Eshoo in race for Energy panel: Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) got a boost in her campaign to be ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday when House Minority Leader and fellow California Democrat Rep. Nancy Pelosi endorsed Eshoo for the Committee’s top spot. Currently, Eshoo — an influential member on tech and telecom issues — is ranking member of the Commerce subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

H Block auction closes at $1.564 billion: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wrapped up its H Block spectrum auction after meeting the $1.564 billion revenue lower limit that Dish Network — the auction’s largest participant — agreed to pay before the auction started. The H Block auction is one of multiple auctions being held by the FCC as it attempts to free up unused and inefficiently used airwaves. 

In a statement, FCC chairman said the H Block auction “is a win for the American people” as it “makes good on [the agency’s] commitment to unleash more spectrum for consumers and businesses, delivering a significant down payment towards funding the nationwide interoperable public safety network.”

Broadcasters launch new coalition: Broadcasters launched a new coalition Thursday to work on policy issues related to the broadcast industry. The coalition, Voices for TV Choices, includes more than 170 individual broadcast stations and “is committed to preserving independent ownership in media, rich and diverse programming for viewers, and local content for communities across America,” the group said in a statement.

The coalition launches as Congress is looking to reauthorize the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act, which governs the video marketplace and is set to expire at the end of this year. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is also beginning a process to rewrite the Telecommunications Act, which governs communications industries. As these processes unfold on Capitol Hill, Voices for TV Choices “will provide a strong, united voice in support of policies that preserve competition, choice and localism in programming,” the group said.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

The film lobby has been dramatically beefing up its presence in Washington by giving millions of dollars to lobbyists and nonprofit political groups, according to a watchdog organization’s report.

Members of Congress are pushing the Federal Communications Commission to look into phone companies that add unexpected fees to customers’ monthly bills.

The head of the National Security Agency pleaded with senators to pass legislation to protect the country from cyberattacks.

The National Security Agency helped its British counterpart intercept and store images of millions of Internet users through their webcams, according to a published report.

As the Federal Communications Commission prepares for its 2015 airwaves buy-back and auction, a pair of House lawmakers has launched a new congressional caucus focused on spectrum.

 

Please send tips and comments to Kate Tummarello, katet@thehill.com, and Julian Hattem, jhattem@thehill.com

Follow Hillicon Valley on Twitter: @HilliconValley, @ktummarello, @jmhattem 

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