FTC CTO: We Have Tech Smarts to Enforce Net Neutrality

Federal Trade Commission acting Chief Technology Officer Neil Chilson says that the FTC has the tech expertise to enforce network neutrality in the absence of FCC rules against blocking, throttling and paid prioritization, but that it does not need a "granular, micromanaging" level of technical detail to protect consumers and competition--it is not writing specific rules--but rather to focus on the end effects of a particular practice.

Chilson was featured on a webinar Tuesday (March 27) hosted by USTelecom, a fan of the FCC's move to give the FTC ISP enforcement authority, and its VP of law and policy, Diane Holland. He made it clear that he was speaking for himself, not the agency, but he is the top tech official at the agency.

Asked if the FTC could ban paid prioritization, he pointed to a 2007 Broadband Connectivity Competition Report in which the FTC concluded that prioritization had pro-competitive applications that argued for a case-by-case review rather than a ban.

Holland pointed to critics who have aid the FTC does not have the technical expertise to oversee network access, Chilson begged to differ.

Related: FTC Cracks Down on Internconnected Toys

While Chilson may have said the FTC did not need to drill down to the granular level, he also said the commission had plenty of sector-specific tech savvy, including on the complex online ad ecosystem to complicated middleware and data security issues to the internet of things.
The FTC can use that expertise to enforce net neutrality either through its unfairness authority over harmful conduct or its deceptiveness authority over ISP disclosures of conduct mandated in the FCC's Restoring Internet Freedom reg rule rollback order.

He also pointed out that the FCC has long been the primary enforcer of privacy and data security, a highly technical endeavor that takes a lot of expertise. "And we have a lot of expertise," he said.

Related: FTC Preps Online Privacy, Security Conference.

Holland asked if it was more important to have expertise in how consumers were injured by unfair practices or to have the tech knowledge.

Chilson said the FTC has a world of experience in identifying consumer injury and that, as a primarily enforcement agency, it cares about the ultimate effect on consumers and the competitive process. He said the FTC needs to be able to identify potential harm from high-tech markets, but did not have to know all the details "in the middle." He signaled it was more important to know how a practice could injure consumers or impeded competitive processes rather than exactly how the tech works.

Holland asked whether the FTC would need more staff to handle a potential "onslaught" of net neutrality complaints, Chilson said he actually didn't anticipate a a huge influx. He said he thought ISPs were quite familiar with the FTC's enforcement ability so he expected to see a lot of compliance. As to resources, he said there could be a shift in emphasis, which meant if they were bringing cases against ISPs, they might bring fewer of some other cases.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.