Procrustes at the FCC

Published April 22, 2014

The Federal Communications Commission has a Procrustean problem. The agency would do well to acknowledge it as a means of reforming its regulatory process.

I borrow from FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen’s address, “The Procrustean Problem with Prescriptive Regulation,” delivered at the Free State Foundation’s Sixth Annual Telecom Policy Conference on March 18. If you missed the conference and haven’t seen the C-SPAN video of Commissioner Ohlhausen’s speech or read it, you should. It ought to be required reading at the FCC.

In her speech, Commissioner Ohlhausen briefly relates the Greek myth of Procrustes:

“Procrustes was a rogue blacksmith, a son of the sea god Poseidon, who offered weary travelers a bed for the night. He even built an iron bed especially for his guests. But there was a catch: if the visitor was too small for the bed, Procrustes would forcefully stretch the guest’s limbs until they fit. If the visitor was too big for the bed, Procrustes would amputate limbs as necessary to fit them to the bed. Eventually, Procrustes met his demise at the hand of Greek hero Theseus, who fit Procrustes to his own bed by cutting off his head.”

According to Commissioner Ohlhausen, “[t]he general lesson of Procrustes is a warning against the tendency to squeeze complicated things into simple boxes, to take complicated ideas, technologies, or people, and force them to fit our preconceived models.” Hence, regulators should resist the urge to simplify – to think they have the expertise or knowledge to simplify – and learn to tolerate complexity.

How should regulators confront the Procrustean problem? Commissioner Ohlhausen offers two fundamental principles, especially for those regulators who exercise authority in markets in which technology plays a large role: (1) embrace regulatory humility and (2) focus on evaluating consumer harm. As Commissioner Ohlhausen puts it: “Because it is so difficult to predict the future of technology, government officials…must approach new technologies and new business models with a significant dose of regulatory humility.”

With regard to the second principle, what Commissioner Ohlhausen says about the FTC should be equally applicable to the FCC as well: “By focusing on practices that are actually likely to harm consumers, the FTC has limited its forays into speculative harms, thereby preserving its resources for clear violations. I believe this self-restraint has been important to the FTC’s success in tackling a wide range of disparate problems without disrupting innovation.” The emphasis is on protecting consumers, not protecting competitors.

To adhere to the principles of embracing regulatory humility and focusing on consumer harm, Commissioner Ohlhausen emphasizes a point I have made in this space (literally) countless times: an ex post enforcement approach, based on the filing of individual complaints, is preferable to ex ante prescriptive regulations. As she puts it, the ex post enforcement method, employed by the FTC, “typically focuses on actual, or at least specifically alleged, harms rather than having to predict future harms more generally.” In contrast, the FCC’s general resort to prescriptive ex ante rulemakings necessarily suffers from systemic knowledge problems that are exacerbated in the context of a dynamic market with fast-changing business models and technologies.

Finally, and importantly, Commissioner Ohlhausen rightly takes on the invocation of the now common shibboleth, “data-driven.” Too many regulators, including those at the FCC, believe that if they simply repeat the well-worn mantra “our decisions are data-driven” that their actions ought to be accepted, without question, as proper. As Commissioner Ohlhausen reminds us: “[D]ata isn’t knowledge or wisdom. ‘Data-driven’ decisions can be wrong. Even worse, data-driven decisions can seem right while being wrong.”

I was pleased that Commissioner Ohlhausen suggested some skepticism is warranted regarding ritual incantations of “data-driven” decision-making because, frankly, I have been doing the same for years. As I said in a blog three years ago, “data, no matter how sweet-sounding the oft-repeated ‘data-driven’ mantra … is viewed differently, and put to different uses, depending upon one’s regulatory philosophy and perspective.” Or, to the very same point, in a 2010 piece I suggested Chairman Genachowski’s “data driven” mantra, even then, already was being overworked because “regulatory philosophy matters a lot” in deciding how to interpret and make use of data.

I’m certain that Commissioner Ohlhausen doesn’t mean to imply that regulators should not seek to obtain relevant, accurate data, or ignore it when they have it. And I don’t either.

But I do want to suggest that, by following Commissioner Ohlhausen’s two fundamental principles – embracing regulatory humility and focusing on consumer harm – the temptation of regulators to cover shoddy reasoning by invoking the “data-driven” mantra may be lessened. That is to say that abiding by the principles enunciated by Commissioner Ohlhausen will lead to sounder decisions that are less dogmatically pro-regulatory. Overall consumer welfare is more likely to be improved by such decision-making.

In the next year, the FCC will be making some important decisions in major proceedings – for example, in the incentive auction, the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, and IP transition proceedings, to name but three. Free State Foundation scholars have addressed issues in each of these proceedings before, and I am certain we will do so again in the months to come. I don’t want to do so here.

Except to say, in closing, that I am confident the Commission’s decisions in these matters, and others, will benefit consumers most if Chairman Tom Wheeler and his colleagues take to heart Commissioner Ohlhausen’s message concerning the virtue of regulatory humility.

That means slaying Procrustes in his own bed at the FCC.


[Originally published at the Free State Foundation]