Google recently launched a fact-checking label (0) to appear along news stories. It would be nice if such a label could accompany FCC communications, particularly its latest report, Empowering the 21st Century Consumer (1), which outlines “recent actions that the FCC has taken to protect consumers while promoting the competition and ingenuity that keep our markets thriving.” The report, which grandstands on questionable and litigated FCC rulemaking and enforcement actions, appears to be timed with the FCC’s next open meeting (2) this coming Thursday, when the agency will vote on controversial online privacy rules (3).
It would seem that the FCC would demonstrate the consumer concept of transparency by publishing its proposed rules before the vote is taken, but the FCC has declined to do that on a number of contentions rulemakings including privacy, rejecting yet a second request (4) from Arizona Senator Jeff Flake to make the rules public. The similarly-justified pro-consumer rulemaking on set-top boxes (5) has been so divisive that it was removed from the previous meeting agenda and does not appear on this month’s agenda.
FCC’s assertions are not based in law
On page 3 of their report, the FCC claims that “protecting consumers is part of its DNA.” Similarly Chairman Wheeler announced in an op-ed (6) timed with the release of the report that “We’re here to reinforce consumer rights.” However, a review of the FCC’s rules (7) and the 1934 Communications Act (8) that founded the agency shows that consumer protection was not a base concept of the agency at all. At best, one could argue that this concept has evolved as a (quite liberal) interpretation of the FCC’s mission. At worst, it’s a statement the FCC makes up to justify rulemaking which is otherwise not part of their mission — perhaps even unlawful. While the notion of consumer protection is sovereign, the FCC does not conform to any such consumer bill of rights. Rather, the agency seems to define “consumer rights” to suit its preferred policy outcomes.
Brent Skorup and Joseph Kane of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University describe (9) that the FCC has managed to survive and even thrive despite its declining relevance as an economic regulator because the FCC has succeeded to rebrand itself as a social regulator, a feat it accomplishes by blurring the lines of common carriage and private carriage or “quasi–common carriage.” The FCC calls this “adapting and modernizing to keep up with the times.” While it’s laudable that an agency wants to evolve, it’s the job of Congress to decide whether the agency should be updated, or whether it should even exist at all (10).
Consumer protection has been corporatized
Perhaps one reason that the FCC feels entitled to define “consumer interest” is because America’s once-leading consumer magazine, Consumer Reports, has endorsed the FCC’s policy moves on several occasions. A review of CR’s filings to the FCC show them in lock step with Chairman Wheeler on Title II (11), broadband privacy (12), set-top boxes (13), and other issues.
However, Consumer Reports’ support for the FCC has happened after the magazine underwent a rapid depopulation of most of its journalists and editors. As described by a former editor of 24 years (14), Consumer Reports suffered a serious decline in integrity and leadership, and some 38 key scientific and journalistic staff left the magazine in disgust. Chairman Wheeler recently toured (15) the magazine’s office, a trip which had been in the works for some time.
FCC consumer protection assertions amount to propaganda
While we can appreciate that federal agencies issue statements to communicate their missions to the public, with the FCC we enter into the arena of propaganda in which false and/or exaggerated statements are used to promote policies. Scott Wallsten’s analysis (16) of federal agencies’ use of Twitter found that while most federal agencies’ tweets focus on their activities, events, and relaying factual information to the public, the FCC issues propaganda to support the chairman’s preferred policy.
The FCC has proven quite apt at this type of wordsmithing. The segmentation of a wide range of heterogeneous individuals with different wants and needs into a single category of “consumer” has been an expert political manipulation, and has allowed for the fabrication of an artificial constituency which political actors leverage for pre-ordained goals. Too bad then for real consumers, who are actually worse off (17) by the FCC’s policies, which serve its special interest groups masquerading in the name of consumers as whole.