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Friday, January 26, 2007

Slate's case for killing the FCC and selling off spectrum

Jack Shafer in Slate has a list persuasive reasons the U.S. should eliminate the Federal Communications Commission here.
Suppose Congress had established in the early 19th century a Federal Publications Commission to regulate the newspaper, magazine, and newsletter businesses. The supporters of the FPC would have argued that such regulation was necessary because paper-pulp-grade timber is a scarce resource, and this scarcity made it incumbent upon the government to determine not only who could enter the publications business but where. Hence, the FPC would issue publication licenses to the "best" applicants and deny the rest. Whenever an aspiring publisher pointed out that timber wasn't scarce, that huge groves of trees in Canada and the western territories made it plentiful, and that he wanted to start a new publication based on this abundance, an FPC commissioner would talk him down. He'd explain that just because somebody had discovered additional timber didn't mean that the scarcity problem was over, it only meant that timber was relatively less scarce than before. He'd go on to say that the FPC needed to study how best to exploit this new timber before issuing new licenses. Based on the notion of scarcity, the FPC would have evolved a power to prohibit licensees from using their paper for anything but publishing the kind of print product the FPC had authorized—no using that licensed paper to print party invitations or menus or handbills or facial tissue, the FPC would mandate. And so on.

The absurd regulatory agency that I imagine here is only slightly more absurd than the Federal Communications Commission, which has exercised even greater control over the radio spectrum. Until the mid-1980s, broadcasters had to obey the "fairness doctrine," which required them to air opposing views whenever they aired a viewpoint on a controversial issue. Rather than tempt an FCC inquiry, most broadcasters simply avoided airing any controversial views. Aside from bottling up debate, what the FCC really excelled at was postponing the creation of new technologies. It stalled the emergence of such feasible technologies as FM radio, pay TV, cell phones, satellite radio, and satellite TV, just to name a few. As Declan McCullagh wrote in 2004, if the FCC had been in charge of the Web, we'd still be waiting for its standards engineers to approve of the first Web browser.

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