FCC Wields Too Much Tech Power

It's time to tell lawmakers that the FCC works for Congress and the people, not the other way around.

Recently, people in the United States came out in large numbers to choose who would be president for the next four years. Whether your candidate won or lost, you had the opportunity to participate in selecting the person who would lead the country.

There is someone relatively as powerful in the IT community, but we have no opportunity to directly vote for or against him. No, Im not talking about Bill Gates. For all the power Gates wields, we all have the chance to vote for or against him every day with our software decisions and purchases.

When it comes to the ability to massively affect future technology choices and innovations, there is an entity with even more power than Gates—namely, Michael Powell and the rest of the Federal Communications Commission.

Some of you might be thinking, "The FCC? I thought it was mainly around to serve as a watchdog for phone companies and TV stations and to prevent wardrobe malfunctions on broadcast events. What does it have to do with IT?"

Well, based on recent decisions and comments from FCC officials, it seems like the commission has decided that it can control technology decisions and prevent new product innovations whenever and wherever it pleases.

There are probably many of us who applauded a recent FCC IT intervention: Earlier this month, the FCC effectively ruled in favor of the spread of VOIP technology, by stating that VOIP is not subject to the traditional public utility regulation and taxation levied by or on states.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about the FCCs ruling.

For all of us who use and support VOIP, this was very good news. Almost nothing would have stifled the growth of this important technology more than a confusing mix of state taxes, controls and limitations.

However, after my initial positive response to the decision, I had to step back and look at all the power the FCC had reserved for itself. First, it had pretty well smacked down the states, which did have some compelling reasons to regulate VOIP calls, especially in the public-safety area.

The FCC stated that the states did not have a right to regulate VOIP because the technology is basically standard Internet traffic—no different from e-mail or Web browsing. However, its pretty clear from reading the decisions and comments coming out of the FCC that the people there think they do have the right to regulate VOIP.

Do you think Im reaching with this conclusion? Then youll love this next part.

The FCC is facing a legal challenge brought by several consumer-protection groups and organizations representing consumer electronics companies. These groups are challenging the FCCs ability to force electronics vendors to support a broadcast flag that networks and content vendors would use to prevent copying and distribution of digital broadcast content.

These groups have said that the FCC has overstepped its mandate and that without specific instructions from Congress, the FCC doesnt have the ability to force electronics vendors to support the broadcast flag.

But in a brief filed in the lawsuit, the FCC has asserted that it has even more power than this. In the brief, the FCC basically states that, even though Congress has never given the commission specific rights to control television equipment, Congress also never said "that the FCC lacks general rule-making authority over television receiving equipment."

Combine this with the claim in the brief that the FCC has control over all messages sent and received via either radio or wire-based communications, and youre looking at the FCC having control over the entire Internet and every piece of equipment that connects to it.

After all, Congress never told the FCC that it doesnt have control over PCs or Ethernet routers or firewalls. Maybe to ensure that digital television isnt being sent through ISPs and company networks, all these pieces of equipment will also need to support broadcast flags and send regular updates to the FCC and the Motion Picture Association of America.

It can be tough to call a lame-duck Congress to action, but now is the time to let representatives know that the FCC works for Congress and the people, not the other way around.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at jim_rapoza@ziffdavis.com.

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