FCC’s Secret Meetings Raise Significant Process Concerns

Published October 23, 2014

A little-noticed article in the Wall Street Journal over Labor Day Weekend concerning the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger caught my eye, not only because the article obviously concerns an important matter of communications policy, but also because it raises questions regarding a matter of proper administrative agency process. 

In the online version, the article is titled, “Comcast Targeted by Entertainment Giants.” This presages the article’s focus on the substantive communications policy matter. Along with my colleague, Seth Cooper, I filed public comments in the FCC’s proceeding that set forth our views concerning the proper way for the FCC to consider the merger proposal. You can read our comments, and I don’t intend to discuss the substance of the merger proposal here.  

Instead, what I want to focus on is the matter of proper agency process. The article’s subtitle says a lot about my process concern: “FCC Encourages Media Companies to Provide Confidential Complaints on Time Warner Cable Purchase.”According to the WSJ, the FCC “is encouraging those big companies to offer feedback confidentially, people familiar with the matter say.” 

In my decades-long experience with FCC matters, it is fairly unusual, if not unprecedented, for the FCC to take the initiative in encouraging confidential complaints in the context of an on-the-record merger review proceeding. The fact that it is doing so here caught my “administrative law” eye. (As a former Chair of the American Bar Association’s Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice, a current member of the Administrative Conference of the United States, and a current Fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration, I do have such an “administrative law” eye. But, of course, I am speaking here only for myself.) 

The theory spun out in the WSJ article is that the so-called “Entertainment Giants” may be too intimidated to put whatever concerns they may have about the merger on the public record. Unless these companies are able to meet with Commission officials on a confidential basis, so the story goes, they may not present their concerns at all because they fear that they may be subject to retribution by Comcast. 

I can follow the theory, but nevertheless I do question the use of secret meetings in the context of the FCC’s transaction review proceedings. The practice of conducting off-the-record meetings raises questions of fundamental fairness that go to the integrity of the agency’s decision-making process. This is because no one –including Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the parties most directly affected – is in a position to rebut claims made by the parties during the confidential meetings. 

In administrative law terms, the FCC’s merger review proceeding – a proceeding in which the FCC is considering applications to approve the transfer of specific spectrum licenses and other specific authorizations – is an adjudicatory proceeding affecting the legal rights of the parties to the applications. In most cases, adjudicatory proceedings are “restricted” proceedings. This means that ex parte, or off-the-record, contacts between interested parties and Commission decision-making officials are not allowed. In restricted proceedings, all communications between interested parties and FCC officials must be on-the-record. 

But in certain adjudicatory proceedings that may have significant public policy implications beyond the rights of the immediately affected parties, the FCC may invoke what it calls a “permit-but-disclose” process. The agency typically designates major merger reviews “permit-but-disclose” proceedings under Section 1.1206(b) of its rules, and it did so in a public notice in this case. As the name implies, in a “permit-but-disclose” proceeding, an interested party may make an ex parte presentation to Commission decision-making personnel, as long as the person promptly places in the public record the substance of the presentation.

The “permit-but-disclose” process allows interested parties to present their views to Commission officials considering the transaction, while ensuring, at the same time, that the substance of those views is placed in the record so that other interested parties, including the applicants seeking approval of the transaction, have notice of the presentation and an opportunity to respond.

If the Wall Street Journal reporting is accurate, and in fact the FCC is deviating from the “permit-but-disclose” practice in the case of the Comcast-TWC merger proceeding, then I have concerns. Providing fair notice and an opportunity to respond are fundamental elements of due process, even in a constitutional sense. A “permit-but-non-disclose” process, which by definition lacks fair notice and an opportunity to respond, is problematic from the perspective of proper conduct of an adjudicatory proceeding.

Now, I understand that perhaps in this instance the FCC may be invoking a further exception to the restricted proceeding requirements that otherwise apply to adjudicatory matters. Section 1.1204(a)(9) of the Commission’s rules provides that the Commission may allow a secret presentation to be made “to protect an individual from the possibility of reprisal, or [if] there is a reasonable expectation that disclosure would endanger the life or physical safety of an individual.” I understand that this provision may have a role to play as a “safety valve” in very rare situations, including when life or limb may be threatened.

Despite some of the exaggerated and unhelpful heated rhetoric bandied about regarding so-called “media giants” – whether they be cable operators like Comcast and Time Warner Cable on the one hand or content programmers on the other – no one seriously entertains the notion that anyone’s life or physical safety is threatened by on-the-record participation in the merger proceeding. So, perhaps agency officials are reading “reprisal” in the sense of an interested party’s possible fears that it might not be treated as well as it otherwise would like in a business negotiation if it expresses concerns about the proposed merger.

Well, of course. It is understandable that one business “giant” (or even little giant) might prefer not to tick off another by expressing concerns in a public proceeding. But this worry, such as it is, must be balanced by concerns about maintaining the integrity of the agency’s administrative process. I don’t know what is said in the secret meetings – well, that’s obvious – but, without knowing more, my sense is that here the balance tips in favor of putting the substance of the claims on the public record. After all, remedies are available if anticompetitive retaliatory conduct is proven, and they will remain available whether or not the Comcast-TWC merger is approved.

Finally, I understand that the Department of Justice, in investigating proposed mergers, conducts secret meetings just like the FCC apparently is conducting in this instance. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that DOJ is conducting confidential meetings with some of the very same parties with whom FCC officials are meeting. To some extent this just serves to highlight the duplication of effort, in many instances unnecessary duplication of effort, when both DOJ and the FCC investigate the same merger.

But in a more fundamental sense, DOJ’s conduct of confidential meetings just serves to highlight my concern about the FCC’s process. DOJ, an executive branch antitrust enforcement agency, presumably is investigating whatever competitive concerns it may have about the proposed merger, including those brought to its attention by competitors of Comcast and TWC and those who deal with them. But, ultimately, if DOJ concludes the merger presents competitive concerns, it must either file a complaint in court seeking to block or condition it. This would begin an on-the-record process in federal court that will be conducted in full public view.

In the case of the FCC, ultimately it will adopt a public order regarding the applications seeking transfer of specific licenses. But the substance of the secret meetings will never be put on the public record before this official action is taken. Comcast and Time Warner Cable most likely won’t even know who met with whom, and they won’t have an opportunity to respond.

There may be more than I know as to why the FCC is proceeding in the unusual fashion it is. But based on what I know, I think this is a problematic way for the Commission, acting in its quasi-judicial capacity, to proceed in an adjudicatory proceeding.

Alexander Bickel, the prominent constitutional law scholar, wrote in his 1975 book, The Morality of Consent, that “the highest form of morality almost always is the morality of process.” I share Professor Bickel’s view regarding the importance of process.

In this case, converting a “permit-but-disclose” proceeding into a “permit-but-non-disclose” one raises significant process concerns.

[Originally published at The Free State Foundation]