BOSTON, April 13, 2011 - Panelists at the Free Press National Conference for Media Reform railed on the Federal Communications Commission over the weekend, debating to what extent the Commission has been "captured" by industry and how to fix it.
Joel Kelsey, Political Advisor at Free Press, moderated the panel, entitled "How to Fix the Broken FCC." The event included participants from the public interest, industry and government sectors.
Kelsey started the discussion by posing the question of the difference between capture by the industry and corruption. He also highlighted issues such as a perceived "revolving door" between employment at the FCC and private industry and the comparative discrepancy between the lobbying representation from the public and that of the telecommunications industry.
"We're really at an important inflection point," said Kelsey. "We find the vision we all share and the policies we're all fighting for are crashing into a political juggernaut in D.C."
Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of industry watchdog, Public Knowledge, called attention to the entrenched relationship between a government regulator and the industry it oversees as problematic. Repeatedly during the hour-long panel, she pointed a finger at current FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, as having failed to provide competent leadership at the agency.
"We have to tell the White House that we want leadership that leads to an open and democratic medium," said Sohn. "Unfortunately we don't have the leadership at the FCC to get the policies we want."
Sohn also called for a mandatory 5-year buffer between employment with the FCC and private industry - and vice versa.
Chris Libertelli, senior director of government and public affairs at Skype, noted the sometimes-cozy relationships between the industry and the agency and said that a strong conviction was integral to avoiding industry capture.
"We need intellectual leadership," said Libertelli, "someone who comes to the agency with the mentality of 'here's who I've been reading, here is the intellectual framework I want to institute.'"
Libertelli, however, disagreed with Sohn's employment buffer proposal, saying that such a rule would discourage highly-qualified people from considering government service.
Kelsey also presented the question of whether the perceived lack of philosophical direction at the FCC originated within the agency or as a result of influence from the outside. According to Jonathan Askin, a professor at Brooklyn Law school and former senior attorney at the FCC, the problems come from both within and without the Commission.
"The problem is both that there are 100 AT&T lobbyists," said Askin, throwing the first of what would be several jabs at the telecommunications giant, "but also that they do the work for the staff and the staff lets them do it."
Askin also asserted that the problem goes beyond the Commission itself, to Congress, which confirms the commissioners.
"At the top, it's almost impossible to get an independent champion at the FCC," he said, "when Congress is so heavily influenced by the industry."
Some members of the panel called out the effects of an agency they seemed to describe as largely a puppet of industry interests through the example of the recent Open Internet Order. That order, which established net neutrality rules for Internet Service Providers, did not go nearly far enough they said. Askin commented that the Order was not "real net neutrality."
Using the net neutrality rules as an example, Malkia Cyril, executive director and founder of the Center for Media Justice, joined Sohn and Askin in predicting that their perceived weakness of the Open Internet Order signified a likely acquiescence by the FCC to the industry in the upcoming AT&T/T-Mobile merger review.
"Everyday people need to turn their attention from the FCC to the Department of Justice and let them know very clearly what we need out of this [merger]," said Cyril.
Both the DOJ and FCC will review the merger to ensure it comports with antitrust considerations and the public interest, respectively.
While Sohn predicted the DOJ would eventually block the merger - as Libertelli pointed out, Justice has put the kibosh on 2 out of 3 mergers with similar conditions - she did not anticipate a close look by the FCC. Even in the event that the DOJ blocks the merger, however, she asserted that the merger process would sideline T-Mobile in the meantime and may damage competition in the marketplace as much as a successful merger.
Libertelli, in response, called the merger an attempt to replicate the 1913 deal that formalized AT&T's monopoly over the phone system.
"AT&T is trying to make another Kingsbury Commitment," he said.