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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Does "the public" really communicate with the FCC?
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Matt Lasar has put together a very entertaining article illustrating how "Faux Celebrity FCC Filings [are] on the Rise." What he's referring to is the fact that just about anyone can file comments with the FCC, even fake celebrities or dead historical figures.

The whole process has become a complete joke. Some of my research on the FCC's indecency complaint process has illustrated how one group--the Parents Television Council (PTC)--has essentially been able to stuff the complaint ballot box at the FCC by filing endless strings of computer-generated complaints from its website. The PTC then fires off letters to the FCC and Congress that essentially say, "Look! Millions of Americans out outraged by the content on TV and are clamoring for regulation!" In turn, that nonsense gets included in the congressional record when legislation is introduced, and politicians claim "the American people have spoken" and are overwhelming in favor of regulation.

It's all nonsense, of course, because the vast majority of those "complaints" were just the same PTC form letter. But the same games are at work in the debates over media ownership policy and Net neutrality regulation. Jerry Brito and Jerry Ellig have shown that, in the FCC's Net neutrality proceeding, "Close to 10,000 comments were submitted to the FCC, yet all but 143 were what the FCC calls "brief text comments," many of which were form letters generated at the behest of advocacy groups." The same thing is at work in the media ownership debate. A couple of radical anti-media activist groups stuff the ballot box with computer-generated complaints. And the Washington Post recently ran a piece raising questions about how the public filing process is potentially being abused in the XM-Sirius merger fight.

But Matt Laser documents how truly absurd this process has become when the likes of Paris Hilton, Donald Trump, Joseph Stalin, and even Jesus Christ end up submitting "comments" for the "public record." Here's some of the highlights from Lasar's writeup:


"Don't prevent states from fixing my cell phone problems," someone who signed their name "Donald Trump" wrote to the Federal Communications Commission in June of 2005. "Here, hold my hairpiece for a minute while I take this call from California—" the filing continues. "what? You think cell phones should be regulated somehow? Disclosure? Costs? You crazy? Hell, I'll NEVER allow California to do any such thing! . . . YOU'RE FIRED!"


Those of you who find such commentary upsetting will be pleased to know that "Jesus Christ" files with the FCC from time to time. For example, Mr. Christ wrote to the Commission in late April to congratulate its latest Chair, Kevin Martin, on his appointment. He also asked Mr. Martin to consider various sorts of Universal Service Fund reform. "Jesus Christ / up above lane / Heaven, Florida 33156-2115," the Son of Man's missive concluded.

On the other hand, Jesus apparently wasn't in such a good mood in November of 2001 when writing to the FCC about its media ownership rules. "Your intention of striking yet another blow to media-monopoly regulations that somewhat protect the always wavering freedom of knowledge and expression of the people of your nation," Our Savior wrote. "YOUR 'god' approves, but GOD God is angry. Satan awaits (good guy, that Satan)."

Trotsky & Stalin

"I'm a dead Communist, but I don't want to pay more for my telephone service!" declared "Leon Trotsky" in an FCC statement submitted in March of 2005. "I urge you to reject a flat fee proposal that would change how contributions are made to the Universal Service Fund," Mr. Trotsky's comment concludes. "I am concerned that this proposal could make my current service unaffordable." "Leon Trotsky / 6 feet under / Mexico City," the letter is signed.

Ironically, the man alleged to have put Mr. Trotsky six feet under also communicates with the FCC. "This isn't the USSR, this is the USA. Don't Dictate," one "Joseph Stalin" wrote to the FCC in August of this year. "Net Neutrality is essential to free speech, equal opportunity and economic innovation in America."

Paris Hitlon

I rather doubt that, given her recent travails, "Miss Paris Hilton" actually sent a statement to the FCC this year against media consolidation. But who knows? "I don't want the same company that owns my TV station or my radio station to also own my newspaper I would just get the same news all over again," the commentary begins. "I rely on the media to find out about national and local issues. . . . " Miss Hilton continues. "I also want media outlets in my town to care about my needs and interests." Come to think of it, that last sentence sounds a lot like Paris Hilton, actually.

It's easy to find all this funny, but as I pointed out above, LAW is made based on the notion that "the public" is demanding certain types of regulatory or legislative responses. While I'm sure the folks at the FCC don't take seriously the sort of completely fake BS that Laser describes, they obviously do take seriously the other ways the complaint ballot box is stuffed and use it as justification for their regulatory ambitions.

There's no easy solution to this problem since it would be very difficult to verify every commenter before they were allowed to submit comments for the record. Nonetheless, we shouldn't allow the FCC or Congress to lean on the bogus "public record" to justify expanding government regulation. Of course, if we could simply cut back the FCC's censorial and economic regulatory powers, we would not have this problem!!

posted by Adam Thierer @ 10:25 AM | Generic Rant , Mass Media , The FCC

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You make a good point, but the problem is that we do have members of the public that do want to communicate with the FCC. There are other proceedings that generate hundreds of brief text comments that have substance. Several of the spectrum proceedings, for example, in which individual WISP operators or subscribers have submitted personal (but genuine) comments on their need for access to more unlicensed spectrum.

I have proposed the idea of the "Alice's Restaurant" rule of brief comments. If one commentor says "my media sucks because of consolidation," that's an outlier and you ignore it. If two people file, "my media sucks because of consolidation," then it's just tree huggin' liberals and you ignore it. But if two million people file such comments, that's data -- because we've demonstrated enough people care to at least make a minimal effort to express their feelings.

Obviously, we are at the beginning of a need for verification, and short comments like this provide only limited data. But it is not so simple as saying "well, if Jesus is filing, it must all be bogus."

Posted by: Harold Feld at December 16, 2007 1:27 PM

Fun read. I don't think we should ignore the "brief text comments", I am not sure anyone argued this. If the comment was sent then someone took the time to fill the form out in an effort to have their opinion heard.

I am not sure how we could verify the authenticity of a comment. My first thought was by social security number. It would have to be some unique identifier for each person. But would people comment if they had to give up their anonymity?

Posted by: Wyatt Ditzler at December 18, 2007 3:01 PM

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