After expressing frustration in past columns about some damaging and idiotic law or policy, Ive sometimes stated that things would be a lot different if I were Lord Emperor of the Earth. I have no doubt the world would be a better place if I were ruling over all humankind with an iron, er, velvet glove, but its hard to become Lord Emperor of the Earth, especially if youre not willing to go the full Dr. Evil route.
I recently realized there is another path to attaining the power I need without actually having the right to exercise that power. And, as in all situations where logic and common sense need to be overcome, my model is a part of the U.S. government—namely, the Federal Communications Commission.
During the past few years, the FCC has tried to put several tech-unfriendly policies in place. Trouble was, the agency didnt have the authority to do the things it wanted to do with these policies.
Of course, getting around a little obstacle like not actually having the right to do something is childs play for government bureaucrats used to thinking outside the box. These quick thinkers essentially decided, “Authority shmathority! Lets just do what we want to do and worry about it later.”
As the guys in the Guinness Stout commercials would say, “Brilliant!”
Initially, the FCCs first try at this strategy went swimmingly. The commission wanted to do a favor for its good buddies (wink, wink) at the big movie and TV studios by getting everyone who made anything that could receive a digital broadcast signal add a feature to recognize a “broadcast flag.” This flag would let broadcasters take over peoples electronics and dictate how and when they could record and use movies, TV shows and other broadcast events.
Electronics manufacturers grudgingly prepared to support the broadcast flag, but then some snitch realized that the FCC might not have been within its rights to mandate the flag and went running to the federal courts. Unfortunately for the FCC, the courts agreed, deciding that the FCC did not have the authority to force features such as a broadcast flag on manufacturers and would need to get Congress to provide that authority. Lousy party poopers!
But did the FCC give up? No way!
First, the FCC got its Hollywood buddies to do some of the dirty work and pay, I mean, ply members of Congress to give the FCC the right to enforce a broadcast flag. Then the FCC thought, “What the hey? Since were pretending to have one authority we dont actually have, we might as well fake it in other areas as well.”
So the FCC decided to do a favor for some of its federal family members. You see, the FBI is worried that things such as VOIP and other Internet communications protocols cant be wiretapped. To help out, the FCC recently ruled that any ISP or broadband provider must be able to provide wiretap capabilities for law enforcement by 2007.
Now, theres a little bit of confusion about what an ISP actually is and therefore who will need to comply. Is a university an ISP? What about a hotel or a public wireless hot spot?
Theres also the little problem of the law: The 1994 wiretapping legislation that the FCCs decision is based on contains language specifically stating that the law doesnt apply to ISPs. Even some of the FCC commissioners who agreed to the new policy admitted that it probably isnt legal and will likely face review by federal courts. Of course, the FCC has been there, done that.
So now the whole VOIP movement will slow down as everyone tries to figure out what this FCC ruling means or even if it will stand up in court. Me, I cant wait to see what the FCC tries next. Maybe itll rule on medicine or world treaties. Maybe it can do something about Iraq.
Now that I think about it, Im not sure if I can follow the FCCs path to world domination. I thought about just trying to move into the White House, but Id probably end up in shackles—as opposed to being slapped on the wrist by a federal court.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.