Posted March 14th, 2011 by Laurence Schecker - General Counsel
The FCC’s second annual Chief FOIA Officer Report (Word doc) shows continued progress at the FCC in ensuring public access to Commission records through the Freedom of Information Act and by Internet posting. General Counsel Austin Schlick, the FCC’s Chief FOIA Officer, led a review of the Commission’s FOIA operations. Key points in the report include:
The Chief FOIA Officer welcomes suggestions to help the FCC’s FOIA program continue to operate successfully and to improve.Posted in Office of General Counsel , Open Government
Posted March 3rd, 2011 by Laurence Schecker - General Counsel
On March 1, 2011, the Supreme Court unanimously (with Justice Kagan not participating) confirmed the longstanding position of the Commission that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Exemption 7(C) does not protect the personal privacy of corporations. Exemption 7(C) permits agencies to withhold from mandatory public disclosure records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes when disclosure could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of “personal privacy.” AT&T had argued that as a corporation it, too, was entitled to “personal privacy.” Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts indicated that Exemption 7(C)’s use of the word personal “suggests a type of privacy evocative of human concerns – not the sort usually associated with an entity like, say, AT&T.” He continued, “AT&T has given us no sound reason in the statutory text or context to disregard the ordinary meaning of the phrase personal privacy” as being limited to the privacy interests of individuals.
The Court’s decision supports the Commission’s commitment to increased transparency and openness in government by giving this FOIA exemption its natural and more limited reading, hence refusing to expand the universe of records that may be withheld from the public.
If you're curious about the case and want to learn more, here's the decision (pdf) as delivered by Chief Justice Roberts.
Posted January 28th, 2011 by Austin Schlick - General Counsel
The rules that govern when and how parties may challenge FCC orders are clear, and Verizon and MetroPCS filed too early when they challenged the Open Internet order.
Today, the FCC filed several motions with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit asking that court to dismiss both companies’ challenges as premature.
For easy public access, we have posted the motions below:
Motion of the FCC to Dismiss
Motion of the FCC to Dismiss and to Defer Filing of the Record
Motion of the FCC to Defer Consideration of Verizon's Motion for Panel Assignment and to Defer Filing of the Record
Cross-posted from OpenInternet.govPosted in Office of General Counsel
Posted November 12th, 2010 by Sharon Gillett
This week the FCC notched another win for America’s taxpayers, and especially for America’s students. Working with the Department of Justice, and acting on tips from whistleblowers, the FCC investigated allegations that a group of companies that included Hewlett Packard Company (HP) lavished gifts on Houston and Dallas Independent School District personnel to lure contracts that included some $17 million in HP equipment. These improper actions constitute E-rate fraud, threatening the integrity of a crucial educational program, and have resulted in a settlement. Since 1996 the E-rate program has brought Internet connectivity to millions of students and virtually every classroom across the nation.
The charges are as eye-opening as they are disappointing. Yachting trips and pricey meals; tickets to see Tom Brady and the Patriots as Houston hosted the 2004 Super Bowl; and other varied and alluring entertainment packages. These contractors pulled out all the stops. All to sway officials to skirt a competitive bidding process that is vital to ensure that government funds provided to schools and libraries for our kids’ education stretch as far as possible.
In the settlement ironed out between the Department of Justice, FCC and HP, HP agreed to pay the government $16.25 million, most of which will be returned to the E-rate program. Further, the FCC will oversee a compliance agreement to prevent future foul play. HP will undergo audits of its E-rate business and has agreed to train its employees thoroughly on FCC gift and E-rate rules.
Collaborating with other agencies and alert citizens, we’re keeping our eyes open for instances of waste, fraud and abuse in the E-rate program. Just this September we took more steps toward ensuring a fair and competitive bidding process. These steps include more specific E-Rate Program gift rules that send a clear message that conduct like that found in the Dallas and Houston cases will not be tolerated. We’ll do all we can to ensure that E-rate funds continue to increase educational opportunities and are not misused. As Chairman Genachowski noted in the press release issued earlier this week, E-rate resources should “work to benefit schools and libraries.” We’ll continue to hold the line.
Visit the Department of Justice to learn more about the settlement.
Posted October 27th, 2010 by Richard Welch
During spring training, on the cusp of the major league baseball season, the Office of General Counsel discussed several significant cases involving the FCC that were pending before the appellate courts. See “On Deck” blog entry dated February 19, 2010. Now that the baseball season draws to a close, we thought this might be a good time to provide an update on these cases and other upcoming appellate litigation involving the agency.
The FCC in the Supreme Court
The Freedom of Information Act. In FCC v. AT&T, Inc, No. 09-1279, the Supreme Court of the United States will decide whether the FCC properly applied the Freedom of Information Act in a case involving the agency’s investigation into AT&T’s alleged over-billing of the United States Government for services it provided under an FCC program for schools and libraries. The Freedom of Information Act (commonly known as the “FOIA”) is the federal law that permits the public to request and obtain copies of records from the Government. After a trade association filed a FOIA request asking the FCC to release certain documents the agency obtained during its investigation, AT&T sued the FCC to block release of the documents, relying on FOIA Exemption 7(C). That provision exempts from mandatory public disclosure records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, when disclosure could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of “personal privacy.” The question facing the Supreme Court is whether Exemption 7(C)’s protection for “personal privacy” protects corporations in addition to individuals. In September 2009, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia held that corporations can have protected “personal privacy” interests under Exemption 7(C). The Supreme Court recently granted the request of the FCC and the United States Department of Justice to review that decision. Briefs are due by the end of this year, oral argument likely will be heard early in 2011, and the Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision by June 2011.
Intercarrier Compensation for Dial-up Internet Access Traffic. In January of this year, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the FCC’s authority to regulate the rates charged between carriers that collaborate to carry dial-up Internet access traffic. The Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission and a local carrier whose customers are Internet Service Providers (Core Communications, Inc.) have asked the Supreme Court to review the D.C. Circuit’s decision. The FCC and the Justice Department recently filed a brief opposing their petitions. By mid-November, we expect the Supreme Court to announce whether it will hear the case.
The FCC in the Courts of Appeals
Broadcast Indecency Enforcement. In our February 2010 blog entry, we discussed several pending cases involving the FCC’s enforcement of the statutory and regulatory prohibition against indecent programming on broadcast television. All remain pending. The most prominent case is Fox Television Stations, Inc. v. FCC, which presents a constitutional challenge to the FCC’s decisions finding violations of the broadcast indecency statute and regulations for Fox’s broadcast of expletives by celebrities Cher and Nicole Richie on live television awards shows. In July of this year, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled that the FCC’s indecency policy is unconstitutionally vague and therefore violates the First Amendment rights of broadcasters. The FCC has asked all active judges on that appeals court to review the panel’s decision. That request remains pending before the court.
We also await a decision by the Third Circuit in CBS Corp. v. FCC, another broadcast indecency case, which was argued in February 2010. At issue is CBS’s broadcast of the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show in which Janet Jackson, performing with Justin Timberlake, suffered what some have described as a “wardrobe malfunction.” CBS is challenging the $550,000 forfeiture that the FCC assessed against certain CBS-owned affiliates for broadcasting Jackson’s fleeting nudity. Both the FCC’s brief and its supplemental brief are available; its supplemental letter is available; and its second supplemental brief is available.
Finally, we await a decision by the Second Circuit in the case of ABC, Inc. v. FCC, which was argued in February 2009. That case presents a challenge to the FCC’s finding of an indecency violation for broadcast of nudity during an episode of the television show NYPD Blue. Here you can find the FCC’s brief in this case and its supplemental brief.
LEC-CMRS Interconnection. The D.C. Circuit recently heard oral argument in MetroPCS Calif., Inc. v. FCC, No. 10-1003. This case involves a dispute in which a competitive local exchange carrier that handles only incoming calls bound for chat lines (North County Communications) has sought compensation for completing such calls that originated on the network of a cellular carrier (MetroPCS California). Because all the traffic at issue was “intrastate” – that is, the calls originated and terminated within California and did not cross state borders – the FCC ruled that the California Public Utilities Commission should set the rate North County may charge MetroPCS for completing the calls to the chat lines. MetroPCS contends that the FCC, not the state regulatory commission, should establish the rate. We expect the court’s decision in the next few months, perhaps before the end of the year. The FCC’s brief in this case is available.
Upcoming Cases. Over the next three months, the FCC will file briefs or present oral argument in support of its decisions in a number of cases, including the following:
• A First Amendment challenge to a provision of the Communications Act that bars a non-commercial educational television station from broadcasting promotional advertisements. (Minority Television Project, Inc. v. FCC, No. 09-173111 (9th Cir., argument scheduled for Nov. 1, 2010) (to be argued by the Justice Department)). The brief for the United States and the FCC is available.
• A challenge to an FCC order establishing interim rates for providers of Video Relay Service. (Sorenson Communications, Inc. v. FCC, No. 10-9536 (10th Cir., FCC’s brief due Nov. 8, 2010)).
• A challenge to an FCC order permanently transferring three toll-free suicide hotline numbers from a private nonprofit entity to a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Kristin Brooks Hope Center v. FCC, No. 09-1310 (D.C. Cir., argument scheduled for Nov. 9, 2010)). The FCC’s brief in this case is available.
• A challenge to an FCC order concluding that an exclusive distribution agreement between a cable operator and a terrestrially-delivered cable-owned network may constitute an unfair method of competition in violation of the Communications Act. (Cablevision Sys. Corp. v. FCC, No. 10-1062 (D.C. Cir., FCC’s brief due Nov. 18, 2010)).
• A challenge to an FCC order denying Alpine PCS, Inc.’s request for a waiver of the FCC’s automatic license cancellation rule, when Alpine defaulted on its installment payments for wireless licenses it won at auction. (Alpine PCS, Inc. v. FCC, No. 10-1020 (D.C. Cir., argument scheduled for Dec. 3, 2010)). The FCC’s brief in this case is available.
• A challenge to FCC orders denying a complaint filed by Staton Holdings, Inc. against MCI concerning the reassignment of a toll-free number from Staton to a third party. (Staton Holdings, Inc. v. FCC, No. 10-116 (D.C. Cir., FCC’s brief due Dec. 10, 2010)).
• A challenge to an FCC order consenting to the involuntary transfer of nine radio station licenses to a state court-appointed receiver. (Cherry v. FCC, No. 10-1151 (D.C. Cir., FCC’s brief due Dec. 20, 2010)).
• A challenge to an FCC order interpreting a provision of the Communications Act that requires state and local governments to act “within a reasonable time” on siting applications for facilities used to provide wireless communications services. (City of Arlington, Texas v. FCC, No. 10-60039 (5th Cir., FCC’s brief due Dec. 23, 2010)).
• A challenge to an FCC order denying Qwest Corporation’s petition that the FCC forbear from enforcing certain network element unbundling requirements and certain dominant carrier regulatory obligations against Qwest in the Phoenix area. (Qwest Corp. v. FCC, No. 10-9543 (10th Cir, FCC’s brief due Jan. 10, 2011)).
• A challenge to an FCC order concerning the grant of certain applications to operate Automated Maritime Telecommunications Service stations in various locations of the United States. (Havens v. FCC, No. 02-1359 (D.C. Cir., FCC’s brief due Jan. 20, 2011)).
As the above discussion shows, unlike baseball, litigation challenging the FCC’s decisions never ends. So stay tuned for the next edition of “On Deck” – perhaps when pitchers and catchers report to spring training early in 2011 and help chase away those winter blues. Who knows, maybe the Washington Nationals will finally have a winning season next year. In baseball, as in appellate litigation, “Hope springs eternal….”
Posted September 30th, 2010 by Michael Krasnow
On Tuesday, September 28th, the Supreme Court granted the request of the FCC and the Justice Department to hear the case of Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T, Inc., No. 09-1279. The case involves the Freedom of Information Act (commonly known as the "FOIA"), the federal law that permits the public to request and obtain copies of records from the United States Government. In general, the law requires that federal agencies release the requested records unless they are covered by one or more of the FOIA's statutory exemptions.
The AT&T case involves FOIA Exemption 7(C). That provision exempts from mandatory public disclosure records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, when disclosure could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of "personal privacy." The question presented is whether Exemption 7(C)'s protection for "personal privacy" protects corporations like AT&T in addition to individuals (who clearly are covered). A federal appeals court in Philadelphia held that corporations can have protected “personal privacy” interests under Exemption 7(C). The Supreme Court agreed to take the case to review that decision.
Briefs in the case will be due the end of the year, oral argument likely will be heard early in 2011, and the Supreme Court should issue its decision by June 2011. For more background on this case, please see our post dated June 22, 2010, as well as the official webpage of the FCC’s Office of General Counsel.
Posted July 29th, 2010 by Richard Welch
Most people who work in the area of communications law and policy have heard the term “primary jurisdiction referral.” But myths and misconceptions abound, and they are shared by litigants, lawyers, and even judges. This post is intended to clear up some of the confusion.
In the communications law context, a primary jurisdiction referral typically occurs when private litigants raise an issue in court (most often a federal district court) that involves a contested interpretation of the Communications Act, the FCC’s rules, or an FCC order – in other words, a dispute over an issue that the Commission has the congressionally delegated authority to resolve. In most instances, the dispute also lies within the court’s subject matter jurisdiction. Nevertheless, the court, recognizing that the FCC also has jurisdiction over the matter and may be better suited to answer the particular issue in the first instance, may elect to invoke the doctrine of primary jurisdiction and stay its hand to permit the FCC to decide the issue.
Here is where the confusion begins. The term “primary jurisdiction referral” is a misnomer – the court refers nothing to the FCC. Rather, the court will stay – that is, suspend action on – the judicial proceeding (or dismiss the case without prejudice) and direct the litigants to initiate an administrative proceeding before the FCC seeking resolution of the particular issue. Thus, the parties to the litigation – not the court – must take affirmative steps to effectuate a primary jurisdiction “referral” to the FCC.
What action must the parties take once the court has invoked the primary jurisdiction doctrine? What pleadings must they file at the FCC? Many – perhaps most – primary jurisdiction referrals involve allegations of unlawful conduct by common carriers. In such circumstances, we strongly encourage the parties to contact the Market Disputes Resolution Division of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau at (202) 418-7330 prior to filing any pleadings with the agency. See Public Notice, Primary Jurisdiction Referrals Involving Common Carriers, 15 FCC Rcd 22,449 (2000). The staff of that division can discuss the issues with you and provide advice on whether the referral is best effectuated by filing a complaint against a common carrier under section 208 of the Communications Act, or a petition for declaratory ruling to terminate a controversy or remove uncertainty under section 1.2 of the FCC’s rules.
After the Commission has issued an order addressing the issue(s) involved, what happens next? Contrary to what one might think, the case does not return to the “referring” court to review the FCC’s decision. The federal circuit courts of appeals have exclusive jurisdiction to review final FCC orders – even one resulting from a primary jurisdiction referral. Accordingly, an aggrieved party may seek review of the FCC’s decision only in a federal circuit court of appeals. Thus, even if the case does return to the “referring” court for further proceedings in the original litigation, that court has no jurisdiction to review the lawfulness of the FCC’s order and must take the FCC’s decision on the specific issue(s) involved as a binding statement of law.
Primary jurisdiction referrals to the FCC can be a useful tool in private litigation, and they can allow the agency to clarify unclear areas of communications law. But it is important for litigants to understand what they are and how they relate to the underlying court case.
Posted June 17th, 2010 by Christopher Killion
At its public business meeting today, the FCC voted to adopt the Broadband Framework Notice of Inquiry (NOI). This NOI launches an open proceeding through which the agency will seek public comment on issues related to the future of broadband in America.
The NOI seeks input on the best legal framework to apply to broadband Internet services—such as cable modem and telephone company DSL services—in order to promote competition, innovation, and investment in broadband services; to protect consumers; and to implement important aspects of the National Broadband Plan. A decision in April by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Comcast Corp. v. FCC raised serious questions about the Commission’s ability to rely on its current legal framework—which treats broadband Internet service as solely an “information service”—when moving forward on these policy objectives.
The NOI asks questions about three approaches in particular, while also inviting new ideas. First, the NOI seeks comment on how the Commission could most effectively perform its responsibilities within the current information service classification. Second, the NOI asks for comment on the legal and practical consequences of classifying Internet connectivity as a “telecommunications service” to which all the requirements of Title II of the Communications Act (the provisions that apply to telephone-type services) would apply. Finally, the NOI invites comment on a third way modeled on the successful “Regulatory Treatment of Mobile Services” set out in the Communications Act. Under this third way approach, the Commission would: (i) reaffirm that Internet information services should remain generally unregulated; (ii) identify the Internet connectivity service that is offered as part of wired broadband Internet service (and only this connectivity service) as a telecommunications service; and (iii) forbear under authority Congress provided in the Communications Act from applying all provisions of Title II other than the small number that are needed to implement fundamental universal service, competition, and consumer protection policies that have received broad support.
The NOI also seeks comment on the appropriate classification of wireless broadband Internet services, as well as on other discrete issues, including the states’ role with respect to broadband Internet service. The NOI does not contemplate a change in the Commission’s treatment of, or authority over, Internet content, applications, or services.
The Broadband Framework NOI commences a thorough, objective examination of a topic that is being debated in the pages of the press, in the blogosphere, and at industry conferences. We look forward to hearing your views.
Cross-posted from Blogband.
Posted June 2nd, 2010 by Michael Krasnow
Does a corporation have "personal privacy?" The FCC didn't think so, but a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, AT&T v. Federal Communications Commission (No. 08-4024), says "yes" -- at least when a corporation tries to block a federal agency from releasing certain records concerning the corporation's potential wrongdoing under the Freedom of Information Act (commonly known as the "FOIA").
The FOIA is a federal law that permits the public to request and obtain copies of records from the United States Government. In general, the law requires that federal agencies grant such requests and release the requested records unless the records at issue are covered by one or more of FOIA's statutory exemptions. One of those exemptions, known as Exemption 7(C), protects from mandatory disclosure agency records or information that have been compiled for law enforcement purposes where the public disclosure of the records could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of "personal privacy."
The Solicitor General, on behalf of the FCC and the United States, has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Third Circuit's judgment in the AT&T case, arguing that corporations do not have "personal privacy" under Exemption 7(C). In the filing with the Supreme Court, the Solicitor General argued that "[t]he law ordinarily protects personal privacy to safeguard human dignity and preserve individual autonomy," concepts that "do not comfortably extend to a corporation, which exists only in contemplation of law as an artificial being, invisible [and] intangible." This "new consideration of corporate personal privacy," the Solicitor General argued, will likely "result in the withholding of agency records to which the public should have access, including records documenting corporate malfeasance."
If the Supreme Court decides to hear the case, it would be briefed, argued, and decided during the Court's next Term, which runs from October 2010 until June 2011.
Posted May 6th, 2010 by Austin Schlick - General Counsel
When the D.C. Circuit issued its opinion in the Comcast/BitTorrent case, it was clear the decision could affect a significant number of important recommendations in the National Broadband Plan, the Commission’s Open Internet proceeding, and other policy initiatives related to broadband. In light of the uncertainty created by the decision, the Chairman asked me to investigate all of the options available to the Commission. Other FCC staff and I have developed a proposal that we believe resolves the doubt created by the D.C. Circuit’s opinion while providing a firm legal basis for the Commission’s limited, but vital role with respect to broadband. Whether, all things considered, the legal response to Comcast sketched out in our proposal is the best one for the Commission to adopt would be for the five FCC Commissioners to answer after public comment and private study. In my judgment, it’s a question worth asking.
Read more about the proposal here.
Read Chairman Genachowski’s statement discussing his reasons for seeking comment on the proposal here.
[Cross-posted from Blogband]