RealTime IT News

Reforming Regulators: Does the FCC Need Saving?

Kevin Martin
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin
Source: Reuters

WASHINGTON -- Is the Federal Communications Commission broken?

That's the consensus of a long list of opponents who, in the waning days of the Bush administration, have blasted the agency for its slowness, its secrecy and its close ties to corporate interests.

But here at the National Press Club on Monday, several tech policy experts -- former FCC commissioners and staffers, consumer advocates and others -- joined those critics at an event entitled "Reforming the FCC," hosted by the digital-rights group Public Knowledge and the Silicon Flatirons Center of the University of Colorado.

Critics have long charged that under the regime of Chairman Kevin Martin, the slow-moving agency has descended under a shroud of secrecy while falling captive to corporate interests.

In a series of panel discussions, participants diagnosed many of the ails they see within the commission as it operates under Martin. At the top of that list are the close ties that many staffers maintain with the industries they oversee.

Often referred to as the "revolving door," the pattern of moving between private-sector jobs and positions at the FCC has been widely criticized.

"When the interests of the regulator and the regulated entities are so closely intertwined, you have a problem," said Jessica Rosenworcel, telecom counsel for the Senate Commerce Committee. "I think that [the FCC has] lost sight of its mission."

Other panelists this morning echoed the recent findings of a Congressional investigation into the way Martin has run the commission since taking the chairmanship in 2005.

One took issue with the so-called "imperial chairmanship" some have accused Martin of installing. William Kennard, himself a former FCC chairman, said that power today is concentrated far too heavily in the office of the chairman. At the same time, other commissioners and the bureau staffs are ignored in favor of the chairman's agenda.

But to the FCC, those criticisms don't reflect reality.

"Chairman Martin follows the same policies and procedures that previous FCC chairmen, both Democratic and Republican alike, followed for the past 20 years," FCC spokesman Robert Kenny told InternetNews.com. "Chairman Martin actually led the recent efforts of the FCC to become more open and transparent by circulating proposed agenda items to the other commissioners three weeks in advance of the monthly meetings, issuing press releases announcing the items to be considered and holding press conferences to publicly release details about those proposals."

"Chairman Martin was the first chairman of the FCC to put such protocols in place for the benefit of the public," Kenny said.

Captive to industry?

Still, critics aren't dissuaded so easily -- particularly those who see the FCC as being too beholden to the industries it oversees.

[cob:Special_Report]To Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America, the answer is simple: Staffers should be barred from working in the industries they helped regulate for a certain number of years after leaving the commission.

Cooper said the problem with agencies such as the FCC that are in close contact with the businesses they oversee is one of temptation. As a staffer looking ahead to a career outside of the government, those companies are bright prospects. But taking a hard line on some regulatory matter could threaten their chances for winning a position after they leave the public sector, so pragmatic staffers are tempted to give companies a pass just to keep up friendly relations, he said.

So, he proposes the moratorium.

"[People will say] that interdicts the marketplace. Too bad," Cooper said. "The public interest here needs to be protected, and the only way to prevent the abuse of the public interest is to put that ban in place."

Page 2: Is a change in culture needed at the FCC?