Federal Communications Commission

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Friday issued a long-awaited ruling in a lawsuit challenging the Federal Communications Commission’s interpretations of key terms under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (“TCPA”), holding that the FCC in 2015 had adopted an unreasonably broad definition of the type of calling equipment subject to special restrictions under the TCPA — a definition so broad it would include any modern smartphone — and had failed to adequately justify its approach regarding liability for calls placed to cell phone numbers that have been reassigned to a new user.

The court upheld the FCC’s ruling that a party who has consented to receive calls may revoke that consent “through any reasonable means clearly expressing a desire to receive no further messages from the caller.”  The court also upheld the FCC’s decision to exempt from the TCPA’s consent requirements certain calls communicating urgent healthcare messages.

The D.C. Circuit’s unanimous decision addresses a consolidated set of petitions by various companies and trade associations — first filed in the summer and fall of 2015 and argued before the D.C. Circuit in 2016 — seeking review of a declaratory ruling released by the FCC in July 2015 (the “Omnibus Ruling”).  In the Omnibus Ruling, the FCC ruled on a total of 21 petitions seeking “clarification or other actions” regarding the TCPA, principally in connection with automated calls and text messages.

Petitioners sought court review of four aspects of the Omnibus Ruling:
Continue Reading D.C. Circuit Rejects Portions of FCC Decision Interpreting Key TCPA Terms

On February 28, 2018, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) issued a report discussing security updates for mobile devices.  The report stems from information the FTC collected from eight mobile device manufacturers — Apple, Blackberry, Google, HTC, LG, Microsoft, Motorola, and Samsung — and from information the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) collected from mobile carriers in May 2016. 
Continue Reading FTC Issues Report on Mobile Device Security Updates

In a ruling with implications for both net neutrality and privacy, the Ninth Circuit ruled en banc today that the common carrier exemption in Section 5 of the FTC Act is activity-based, reversing a 2016 panel ruling that the exemption was status-based.  Today’s decision bolsters the FTC’s authority to bring consumer protection (including privacy) and competition actions against providers of Internet access service, which the FCC has ruled is not a common carrier service in connection with that agency’s repeal of net neutrality rules.

This appeal arises from the FTC’s lawsuit against AT&T alleging that AT&T’s practice of throttling the speed of customers with unlimited data plans once they reached a certain data usage threshold violated Section 5 of the FTC Act.  AT&T had challenged the FTC’s authority to bring the case, arguing that the company was immune from FTC oversight because it also offers common carrier (e.g., voice telephone) service.  Although the district court sided with the FTC on this question, a 2016 Ninth Circuit panel went the other way and, in doing so, created what the FTC and FCC agreed was a potential ‘gap’ in authority in which neither agency would have the right to police many actions by telecommunications companies. 
Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Decision Provides Critical Win to FTC in its Authority over Internet Service Providers

A recent District of New Jersey case emphasizes that while, under the FCC’s 2015 interpretation of the law, a customer has a broad right to revoke consent to receive automated calls and texts under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”), the manner in which the consumer seeks to revoke his or her consent must be reasonable.

On November 27, 2017, a New Jersey federal judge dismissed a putative class action against Kohl’s, rejecting the plaintiff’s assertion that her sentence-long opt-out replies to automated text message “sales alerts” were reasonable when she was presented with other clear and simple opt-out mechanisms.
Continue Reading District Court Rejects Consent Revocation Claim Under TCPA

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced today that at its December 14 open meeting, the FCC will vote on an overhaul of the net neutrality framework adopted by the prior Administration in 2015.  The full text of the draft order will be released tomorrow, but Chairman Pai has made certain key details known today.  The order envisions an expanded role in oversight of Internet Service Providers (“ISPs”) by the Federal Trade Commission—a move which Acting FTC Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen welcomed.

First, as anticipated, Internet Service Providers (“ISPs”) will again be classified as providers of “information services” under Title I of the Communications Act, rather than “telecommunications services” under Title II.  In many ways, in recent years the net neutrality debate in the U.S. has been as much—or some would say, more—about this statutory classification question than it has been about specific net neutrality rules.  
Continue Reading FCC Poised to Release Draft Order on Net Neutrality Overhaul

Last week, the FCC issued a forfeiture order against Dialing Services, LLC (“Dialing Services”) $2,880,000, finding that Dialing Services made automated calls to wireless phones without prior express consent, in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”).  Dialing Services is a platform that offers automated calling services to its customers, and this Order is the culmination of the FCC’s investigation of the company dating back to 2012.

In 2012, FCC staff determined that Dialing Services had made more than 4.7 million calls to wireless phones in violation of the TCPA during a three-month period.  The Enforcement Bureau (“Bureau”) issued a citation in March 2013, directing the company to certify that it had stopped making calls in violation of the TCPA.  During a follow-up investigation, the staff determined that Dialing Services had continued placing calls after the citation, including 184 additional unauthorized calls to wireless phones in May 2013.  As a result, the FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”) in May 2014, proposing a $2.94 million fine.  (The ultimate forfeiture order reduced this amount to $2.88 million based on evidence that some of the calls were made with consent.)

In response to the NAL, Dialing Services asserted (among other things) that unlike its customers, it was merely a platform and therefore did not “make” or “initiate” the calls at issue under the TCPA.  The FCC applied its test for determining whether a party “initiated” or “made” a call for TCPA purposes from the 2013 Dish Network declaratory ruling:  whether the party “takes the steps necessary to physically place a telephone call” or, alternatively, is “so involved in the placing of a specific telephone call as to be directly liable for making it.” 
Continue Reading FCC Fines Calling Platform $2.88 Million for TCPA Violations

The FCC has released the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) on “Restoring Internet Freedom” that was adopted by a 2-1 vote at the Commission’s open meeting on May 18.  The NPRM is substantively very similar to the draft released by Chairman Pai on April 27, and the comment deadlines remain the same: July 17 for initial comments and August 16 for reply comments.

Of possible relevance from a privacy perspective, the NPRM now asks about the jurisdictional effects of finding broadband to be an interstate information service.  As he explained in his statement approving adoption of the NPRM, Commissioner O’Rielly had asked that this question be added to the NPRM, and he expressed the view that this finding should foreclose states and localities from regulating the privacy practices of ISPs (among other matters).  Whether the FCC would attempt to make such a broad preemption finding remains to be seen.   
Continue Reading FCC Releases NPRM on Broadband ISPs and Net Neutrality Rules

Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) has introduced a bill, the “Balancing the Rights of Web Surfers Equally and Responsibly Act of 2017” (“BROWSER Act,” H.R. 2520) that would  create new online privacy requirements.  The BROWSER Act would require both ISPs and edge providers (essentially any service provided over the Internet) to provide users with notice of their privacy policies, obtain opt-in consent for sensitive data, and opt-out consent for non-sensitive data.  In its current form, the BROWSER Act would define sensitive data more broadly than in existing FTC guidelines—mirroring the since-repealed privacy rules that the FCC adopted last year for ISPs, but applying those standards to ISPs and edge providers alike.

The BROWSER Act defines “sensitive user information” to include financial information, health information, children’s data, social security numbers, precise geo-location information, contents of communications, and, most notably, web browsing or app usage histories.  ISPs and edge providers must obtain “opt-in approval” from users prior to using, disclosing, or permitting access to such sensitive information.  For “non-sensitive user information,” the BROWSER Act requires opt-out consent.  And companies may not condition the provision of services, or otherwise refuse services, based on the waiver of privacy rights under the BROWSER Act.
Continue Reading New Republican Privacy Bill Would Expand Scope of “Sensitive” Data

The Ninth Circuit announced today that the full court will rehear the case in which the three-judge panel opinion had dismissed the FTC’s lawsuit against AT&T for allegedly violating Section 5 of the FTC Act due to past “throttling” practices around unlimited data plans.  According to the panel opinion, the FTC lacked jurisdiction over AT&T’s

In a widely anticipated step, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has released a draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) on the legal framework that governs broadband providers and related net neutrality questions.

Most notably from a privacy perspective, the draft NPRM proposes to find that broadband Internet access service is an “information service” under the Communications Act, reversing the 2015 “telecommunications service” classification that had brought broadband providers under the statutory privacy requirements of Title II of that Act.

The draft NPRM states that the 2015 reclassification “stripped FTC authority over Internet service providers,” in light of the common carrier exemption in Section 5 of the FTC Act.  By reversing the FCC’s prior finding that broadband is a common carrier service, the draft NPRM proposes to “return jurisdiction over Internet service providers’ privacy practices to the FTC, with its decades of experience and expertise in this area.”
Continue Reading FCC Chairman Pai Proposes New Regulatory Framework for Broadband ISPs, Seeks Comment on Net Neutrality Rules