A week ago Prof. Larry Lessig penned a provocative little column for Newsweek that apparently was supposed to be titled “Blow Up the FCC,” but was published as “Reboot the FCC.” In essence, Lessig argues for the FCC to be done away with, replaced by an “Innovation Environment Protection Agency,” focused on curtailing monopoly power in telecommunications and staffed by professions without any industry ties.
Indeed, Lessig provoked a response across the media reform blogosphere and elsewhere. I’m a little late to the game in adding my comments (a whole week is like a decade for a blog!), but I’ve wanted to think about it for a while before firing off.
As John and I discussed on last night’s radioshow, I think replacing the FCC is problematic, primarily because I don’t trust another government agency to necessary do a better job. Why would I think an iEPA would be any better than the current EPA, which has been hamstrung under the Bush administration in a far more damaging way than the Bush FCC?
The ban on industry ties is the most interesting amongst Lessig’s proposals, though one which would also be difficult to achieve in practical terms. Nevertheless, it’s valuable for Lessig to jump-start the debate like this, regardless of the details.
What has been left out of the debate is the very fundamental notion of democracy. The left-progressive reaction to Lessig’s salvo has been along the lines of, “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” or more reactionarily fearful of losing the few public interest regulations that still have teeth. The libertarian reaction has been mostly “Atta boy, but you don’t go far enough!” Unfortunately it gets boiled down to regulation vs. deregulation or government vs. no government.
What it really should be is public accountability vs. industry solidarity. For all of its flaws the FCC is still a nominally democratic agency, with five commissioners who actually vote on proceedings, who represent the two major parties. While the majority represent the party in the executive, there is still a reasonably powerful minority that can’t be steamrolled constantly, even in the unlikely event that the majority commissioners march in utter lockstep.
The uptick in citizen activism on media and communication issues has only forced the FCC to become more responsive, though not nearly as much as we’d like. Compared to the USDA or DHS the FCC seems absolutely transparent and accountable. Yet I agree that the FCC is still a captured regulator where commissioners and high level staff have a disproportionate incentive to feather their beds for a soft landing in the private sector after their public service tour.
There’s a strong side of me that would love nothing more but to see the FCC go away, except that I don’t trust the so-called “free market” to result in anything better for the public. We’re not starting at ground zero, and the current inequities in communication–especially the oligopolistic control of broadcast and telecomm–would only be exacerbated by an FCC-less US. While I do like the idea of a “reboot” with a new agency, I’m not sure this kind of creative destruction would be sufficiently creative nor destructive. In what way is the Department of Homeland Security that different from the separated pre-2001 TSA and FEMA?
Instead, I think the focus needs to be the increased democratization of regulatory bodies, making changes that require greater public responsiveness and accountability. What if FCC commissioners were elected? Sure, it flies in the face of our current executive practices, but it also means we could end up with an FCC that is far more representative of the public interest than either the president or congress. Less radically, what if public comment requirements were strengthened and the equal of anti-lobbying rules enacted, along the lines of Lessig’s suggestions for an iEPA? Combined with restricting the industry ties of FCC staff I think you’d see a lot of changes at the Commission.
Of course we can’t expect the FCC to become that much better than any other federal agency, not to mention the Congress and the president. There’s an overall lack of accountability and democracy in the US government in general. It’s unreasonable to expect the FCC or iEPA to be any more accountable than the executive or your state’s senators. Without wider reform or reconstruction of the nation’s politics we are not going to see a substantially better FCC. Following the libertarian argument, doing away with the FCC entirely is only useful if we do away with government entirely, which, to me, is only useful if we also dismantle corporate power in the process, truly leveling the playing field. That’s the plan that would get my vote if it were truly on the table.
Short of that, reforming the FCC we have is our best bet. With our current corporatized government a better, more responsive and accoutable FCC is better than no FCC at all.