The FCC Can Has Google for Piratez

Ever wondered how the FCC tracks down and busts pirate radio operators? Anyone familiar with the subject has heard about radio tracking equipment that helps agents triangulate a signal, but what other tools are in their arsenal?

Google is a big one. Another tool? Taking pictures of the buildings where they find signals, and photographing the license plates of cars parked in front.

That’s what we learn thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Lumberjack, the student-run newspaper of California’s Humboldt State University. The paper filed the request regard the FCC’s investigation of the Humboldt Free Radio Alliance last year which led to the station shutting down.

Amongst the notes revealed in the case file obtained by the paper are an agent’s “investigation” of a MySpace page:

“The webpage shows a number of people who are dj’s. Printed out the myspace web pages and placed them in the case folder,” FCC documents said.

The Commission apparently learned that the station had shut down from a Google search, too, which brought up a post to an Indymedia site:

“Googled ‘Humboldt Free Radio Alliance’ an (Internet publication) IndyMedia article related to our shutdown,” stated the FCC documents.

“Since information indicates station off the air and may be trying to find a new location, will close the case based on the certified mail receipt. A new location will require a new case.”

What’s interesting about this is the sheer mundaneness of it all. Aside from being able to use signal finding equipment, there’s very little cleverness about finding pirate operators. And you really don’t even need the fancy equipment in the first place. A relatively sensitive radio can help you track down a pirate signal to within a block or so. Then you can look around for an antenna, which needs to be mounted high and away from other blockages, and so is likely to be somewhat conspicuous if you know what you’re looking for.

Indeed, the way most pirates evade the FCC is through simply keeping things on the down-low and common sense. Not broadcasting 24-7, and keeping a more erratic schedule are two very simple ways of minimizing detection and making it a little more difficult for the FCC to track you down, since agents have lots of other things to do besides hunt down pirates.

It’s also good to see some confirmation of the fact that agents do use the internet. Ever since I started following the pirate radio underground on the ‘net some 14 years ago, the most common admonition you’d read–whether on usenet, listservs or bulletin boards–is not to post too much identifying information about your station and its broadcasts.

Of course, the problem with not using the internet to publicize a station is that it makes it more difficult to attract listeners who might be interested.

Although I haven’t seen the case file, my guess is that the FCC only starts its Google searches once it’s opened an investigation. That is, I doubt that the Commission spends a lot of time trolling the internet to find pirate radio websites and posting–though I also would believe that agents do peruse pirate-related sites like the Free Radio Network. The Commission after all is truly a complaint-driven bureaucracy.

More likely is that the searches start once the Commission has received complaints from listeners or other broadcasters.

So, keep that in mind if you want to publicize your unlicensed station online. Publicity comes with a price, so a little caution goes a long way.

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