(Sadly, the original version of this got lost in the disk failure we had Tuesday. So this is a somewhat shorter reconstruction.)
With both Republicans and Democrats interested in reforming the FCC for their own reasons, it seems a perfect time to crank out a new white paper on reforming the FCC. As you can see from the press release, Common Cause and my employer Media Access Project have released a new white paper called Puting the Public Back In Public Interest: Painless Reforms to Improve the FCC, authored by yr hmbl obdn’t, fellow Wetmachiner Gregory Rose, and Common Cause’s Jon Bartholomew. Astute readers with good memories will recognize many of the recommendations from previous posts and writings of mine, including this from this speech I gave back in 2003. Most of these issues have festered for years, for all that they have gained recent notoriety.
In the same vein, I draw attention to Matthew Lasar’s piece, 5 Ways to Improve FCC.GOV, on his generally excellent FCC Blog Lasar’s FCC Letter. Lasar’s suggestions are good, and many of them are echoed in our white paper (although derived independently, great minds think alike and all that).
Coincidentally, a different piece by Matt, “Faux Celebrity Comments At the FCC,” triggered a serious question by Adam Thierer at the Progress and Freedom Foundation blog. Given that we have situations in which a single organization such as Parent’s Television Council is able to generate thousands of identical comments from its members, and that others are using fake names, and that there are even allegations that NAB submitted false comments fake brief text comments opposing the Xm-Sirius merger, or used deceptive means to get people to send in such comments, is there any real value in making it easier for the public to file brief comments? Doesn’t that just create opportunities for confusion and abuse, warping the regulatory process and shifting power away from the real public to the manipulators and unscrupulous?
Matt gave his answer here, in which he makes reference to what I call the “Alice’s Restaurant” rule of public 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.
To amplify a bit, I would certainly like to see anyone who submits fake comments designed to persuade the FCC that people support a particular position when they don’t, either by forging their names and email addresses or obtaining these through deceptive means, should be subject to criminal penalties under 18 USC 1001. But I do not dismiss the ability of an organization to get its members to file a boatload of identical comments or complaints through a comment engine. This is the modern equivalent of the petition drive. In a previous generation, the determined citizen might spend a day in a mall parking lot or knocking door to door to get signatures on a petition in support of some candidate or in opposition to some law. Signing something in a parking lot to “send a message about global warming” or “show Washington you hate big government” takes about as much time and understanding as filling out the info in a standard “comment engine,” and tells us the same thing — a broad base of citizens cares at least enough to take a minute to send a message rather than just ignore it.
Policymakers have long experience with petitions and petition drives. They understand the difference between a petition with 10,000 names, 100 individual letters that talk about real life experiences, and the 5 people who take the trouble to actually call or make a visit to discuss their case. Each of these forms of contact provides a type of information, and decisionmakers weight it accordingly — or should.
In addition, as I went on at length after the media ownership vote, the entire regulatory process gains validity when the public perceives it has a meaningful way of communicating with regulators and can monitor the process. Taking brief text public comments in a a simple and straightforward fashion, and allowing the public to follow who files and how many people file, is an important aspect of this.
Finally, it reconfirms for those that have filed that they are not alone (or, perhaps, that they are), helping interested members of the public to organize and engage in discussion with each other. It provides a focal point for concerned citizens to act as citizens and make themselves heard in a way that goes beyond the mere ritual of voting. Even if public comments had no other value, it would be worth it for this benefit alone.
Which is why, I suppose, I’ve been such a fan of FCC reform for so many years. It’s not just about getting better data and creating a process that everyone perceives as more open and fair. These are important. But it is also about something more vital. Ensuring that in our modern administrative state, when so much of our government in a democratic society seems beyond our control, any means by which we maintain the vital link between the government and the governed is to be cherished and nurtured. It reminds us that we are free people in the land of the free, with both the right ad the responsibility to participate in the government decisions that matter to us. We are not spectators in our own lives, nor helplessly awaiting the decisions of others. We are citizens, from whose consent all sovereignty arises, and without whose consent sovereignty is tyranny. When we speak, the FCC (and the rest of the federal government) owes it to us to listen.
Stay tuned . . . . .