Six Steps Toward a Stronger, More Transparent, More Accountable FCC in the Obama Era
Public policy should be made with robust, publicly-available data. Few would disagree. Yet in the last decade, federal policymaking in the communications arena has repeatedly failed to meet these two basic conditions: quality of data and access to data.
Worse, through neglect and, occasionally, deliberate action, the FCC has diminished its ability to collect and evaluate the data it needs. Decision making in a wide range of policy areas, from minority ownership, to broadband deployment, to cable regulation, to broadcaster public service obligations, to net neutrality, has foundered for lack of robust data about the media and communications environment. Over-reliance on expensive, tightly-controlled commercial datasets has reduced opportunities for critical review and debate. Serious thinking about the future is also overdue. The question of what the FCC is and does, in a post-broadcast era, cannot be separated from what it can know and measure.
The Obama-era FCC will inherit problems related to the quality, accessibility, and scope of the data needed for good public policy in a convergent media environment. Some of the necessary steps are simple; many are complex. Drawing on SSRC Data Consortium work over the last three years, we recommend six steps toward a stronger, more accountable, more transparent FCC:
- Reporting by licensees has become dysfunctional in many areas and needs to be systematically reexamined. In the short term, the FCC should return to the practice of enforcing compliance with reporting requirements. This would mitigate a number of weaknesses in critical datasets—among them, media ownership, employment, and broadband competition.
- Effective regulation in the media and communications environment now clearly requires data collection on a wider range of entities than the FCC has traditionally maintained. This expanded data mandate should encompass: (1) The most powerful intermediaries in the modern digital media environment, going beyond broadcasters to include cable companies, satellite TV and radio companies, ISPs, and major distributors of online content; (2) Comprehensive information on the financial state of those companies, in the service of better competition policy. Collaborations between the FCC and SEC should be considered in this context; (3) A significant investment in Internet data collection, which is dramatically underprovisioned in the current environment. This should be broad-based in view of the fast-evolving regulatory context, and include traffic patterns, phishing, spam, and ISP performance and behavior.
Data Disclosure: The FCC should mandate:
- Full public disclosure of the datasets produced through FCC-sponsored studies. Arguably, this is already required under the Data Quality Act.
- Full disclosure of third-party data used in research submitted in formal FCC policy proceedings.
Because of the heavy reliance of all parties on commercially-collected data, the second recommendation is the most sweeping reform on our list. The restrictive terms of most commercial licenses greatly distort the policymaking process by forbidding disclosure or sharing of data used in research—even, in many cases, with the FCC. Reform in this area would require innovation in licensing—possibly in the form of an FCC-mandated ‘public policy license’ for datasets used in work formally submitted to the FCC. Such a license would require disclosure and encourage independent evaluation, but protect providers from unauthorized secondary commercial appropriation.
Content Archiving: Much of media policy is an effort to shape the content of the media, yet the current regulatory environment makes access to audio-visual content difficult, haphazard, and expensive. The FCC should:
- Require broadcast licensees to provide thorough, accessible and reliable records of station programming and performance.
- Work with the Library of Congress, the Copyright Office and other actors to create a modern regulatory framework for audio-visual content archiving. Among the numerous benefits of a more complete audio-visual archive of American life: better research on the media policy questions that involve content, from media diversity to news to children’s programming.
Finally, the FCC should create an Advisory Committee on Data Quality, Integrity, and Access to advise the Commission on these and other data issues over time.
- A more detailed account of these issues can be found in Napoli and Karaganis, “Toward a Federal Data Agenda for Communications Policymaking,” CommLaw Conspectus, Vol.16.1; pp.1-44.
- More SSRC work on access to data....