The FCC: Censors, regulators and snoopers

Recall the health care debates during the 111th Congress and former White House aide Linda Douglass requesting Americans to report political opponents making “fishy” claims about health care reform. Concerned Americans interested in playing the political game of Tattletale were asked to email flag@whitehouse.gov. The effort was scuttled when cries of Big Brother spying grew too loud.

After a year and a half, enlisting the labor of Americans is back in vogue. In a January 5 press release, the FCC announced it would award prizes to app developers to monitor whether “Internet services are consistent with the open Internet.” 

The goal of the FCC is to find evidence that the Commission lacked when it thwarted Congress and the D.C. Circuit last December. Finding only anecdotal examples of congestion management by Internet service providers and no systemic market failure, the FCC went forward with rules that regulate the traffic management decisions of broadband companies. 

As dissenting Commissioner Meredith Atwell Baker noted, “[T]he majority presumes a malign intent on the part of broadband providers for which there is no factual foundation. The language is consistently hypothetical—the word ‘could’ alone appears over 60 times.”

The Commission also imposed vague “reasonable network management” standards that even the FCC can’t fully define. The 194-page rule contains only a few examples of what is acceptable network management, and even fewer persuasive legal arguments for its power to act absent Congressional action.

Now, the FCC needs your help in its “Open Internet Apps Challenge.”  This might be the most exciting government project since Cash for Clunkers. The goal is to “detect whether a broadband provider is interfering with DNS responses, application packet headers, or content.” What’s worse, taxpayers will have to pay the tab for this effort (up to $1,500 in travel expenses for winners). 

Interested participants can go to challenge.gov, a site that enlists Americans to perform regulatory work that is too burdensome even for federal regulators. Hurry.  Submissions are due by June 1.

The FCC must realize that it alone cannot monitor the trillions of bytes that travel across broadband lines ever day. No one entity controls the Internet, in spite of some companies that have the ability to block content. 

And what do winners of this apps challenge receive? Well, they’ll get an all-expense-paid trip to the glamorous FCC offices in southwest D.C.  Winners will also be honored at a Chairman’s reception and have their apps featured on the FCC website, provided broadband companies don’t block access to fcc.gov that day.

These are prizes that only a federal agency obsessed with censorship and regulating vibrant industries could invent. Winners should first send a thank you note to the American taxpayer for funding a scheme that helps the government regulate the Internet. Their second note should go to Chairman Genachowski for helping the President fulfill his campaign promise.

Doug Holtz-Eakin is president and Sam Batkins is coordinator – regulatory issues at the American Action Forum.