Envisioning an FCC for the Internet Age

The Federal Communications Commission hasn’t always been known as a paragon of transparency and technical prowess, but there is a reform movement brewing within the agency that is charged with overseeing much of the Internet industry.

FCC officials described efforts to modernize and streamline the agency’s arcane operations at an event in Washington Friday morning, a transparency push that will see greater use of the Web for submitting filings and publishing draft rules when the commission issues a notice of proposed rule-making.

“This is something the agency had gotten away from over the decades,” said FCC General Counsel Austin Schlick. “What we’re moving towards is as close to full online filing as we can get.”

Under Chairman Julius Genachowski, the FCC has moved rapidly to embrace new media tools like RSS feeds, blogs and online videos, and currently boasts that among federal agencies, only the White House and the Centers for Disease Control have more Twitter followers.

But other panelists at the discussion were more skeptical of the FCC’s ability to right the ship, warning that it remains under continuous pressure from industry lobbyists, many of whom have worked stints at the commission.

As a result of the clubby atmosphere of Washington telecom circles, the FCC is considered by some to be one of the most heavily lobbied agencies in the federal government and has been widely criticized for the revolving door that sees departing commission officials land top policy spots at the cable and telecom companies it regulates.

“There’s been concern about undue influence at the FCC,” said Matthew Hussey, a telecom advisor to Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). “That really resulted in the erosion of trust with the public with the courts and with Congress.”

Susan Crawford, a former technology advisor to President Obama who currently teaches law at the University of Michigan, put it a little more bluntly.

“Like all independent agencies the FCC is subject to political power,” Crawford said. “To an outsider who has no experience in telecom it’s really quite appalling.”

Schlick and Mary Beth Richards, the special counsel at the FCC who is spearheading the reform effort, noted that the commission recently began a proceeding to reform its ex parte rules, which require disclosures about private meetings or written exchanges with commission staffers. The revised ex parte rules would mandate that anyone who meets with FCC officials disclose the subject of the conversation, rather than simply documenting that the meeting occurred.

“The record would show what was covered in the meeting, and we think that’s very important to reform,” Schlick said.

But that’s small solace to outspoken critics of industry pressure on the commission. Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America, warned that no amount of ex parte disclosure requirements will curb the outsized influence well-heeled firms and trade associations exert on FCC officials.

“Ex parte communications are an affront to democracy. They are simply an insult,” Cooper said. “Why this agency needs to have everything explained to it by an army of industry lobbyists is beyond me.”

Richards defended the practice of keeping an ongoing dialogue with the private sector at the commission. In making policy decisions about highly technical matters, FCC officials need to collect input from network engineers and others who can explain the practical impact of regulatory proposals.

Critics have argued that the FCC should be more reliant on in-house technical expertise to make those calls. Earlier this week, Sen. Snowe introduced a bill that would commission a probe to evaluate the FCC’s engineering staff and outline recommendations for bringing more technical experts on board.

“The technical community has been voicing some serious concerns about the depletion of technical resources and expertise at the FCC,” Hussey said.

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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