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New Bill Could Expand FCC Authority

New Bill Could Expand FCC Authority
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XBIZ 360 - Jan. 13-16, Los Angeles
Monday, Aug 13, 2007    Text size: 
WASHINGTON — A new child-protective bill under review by a Senate panel could significantly expand the scope of the Federal Communications Commission’s regulatory powers, according to critics of the legislation.

The Child Safe Viewing Act of 2007, or S. 602, which originally was introduced by Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., in February, was approved by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation earlier this month and now is headed to the full Senate floor.

While S. 602 ostensibly is designed to spur the development of “the next generation of parental control technology,” an analyst from a government watchdog group recently warned that the bill also could serve to expand the reach of the FCC’s regulatory powers to include oversight of content transmitted via cable, satellite and Internet platforms.

In a statement issued following the Commerce Committee’s approval of the bill, Pryor said that it was an “uphill battle for parents trying to protect their kids from viewing inappropriate programming.”

“I believe there is a whole new generation of technology that can provide an additional layer of help for these parents,” Pryor said. “My bill simply lights a fire under the FCC to take a fresh look at new options in the marketplace.”

S. 602 includes a set of nine Congressional findings, including: “[V]ideo programming has a direct impact on a child's perception of safe and reasonable behavior;” that “[c]hildren imitate actions they witness on video programming, including language, drug use and sexual conduct;” and that “[t]here is a compelling government interest in empowering parents to limit their children’s exposure to harmful TV content.”

The bill would direct the FCC to “initiate a proceeding to consider measures to encourage or require the use of advanced blocking technologies that are compatible with various communications devices or platforms,” including “wired, wireless and Internet platforms.”

S. 602 also calls for the FCC to consider technologies that can “filter language based upon information in closed captioning,” “operate independently of ratings pre-assigned by the creator of such video or audio programming,” and “be effective in enhancing the ability of a parent to protect his or her child from indecent or objectionable programming, as determined by such parent.”

In a report evaluating the legislation, Adam Thierer, the director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom at The Progress and Freedom Foundation, wrote that while the legislation is well-intentioned, it also is “unnecessary” and even “dangerous” in terms of its 1st Amendment implications.

Thierer asserted in his report that “the case has not been made that FCC action is needed here at all.”

“The findings section of S.602 states that ‘There is a compelling government interest in empowering parents to limit their children’s exposure to harmful TV content’ for a variety [of] reasons,” Thierer wrote. “While that may be a worthwhile government interest, there is no reason that such empowerment should be carried out through government mandates.”

Thierer added that the bill also is “problematic because it could potentially expand the focus and scope of the FCC’s authority to meddle with private rating systems and parental control mechanisms.”

“In demanding that regulators investigate and consider requiring blocking technologies for ‘wired, wireless and Internet platforms,’ the measure potentially opens the door to the beginning of convergence-era content regulation at the FCC,” Thierer wrote.

“The agency currently has no authority to regulate content (or parental control technologies or rating systems) on most media or communications platforms outside of broadcasting, and its authority over broadcasting is limited. But S. 602 would potentially give regulators the ability to begin expanding the horizons of federal content regulation.”

Even if one were to set aside the 1st Amendment concerns, Thierer argued, there is “no practical reason to believe that the government could actually do a better job of assigning ratings or creating parental control tools.”

Thierer said that while the goal or Pryor’s measure is laudable, he’s concerned that the wrong people might benefit from S. 602 becoming law.

“Sen. Pryor is to be commended for avoiding direct content regulation and instead focusing on empowering families to make media consumption decisions on their own,” Thierer wrote. “Nonetheless, in an attempt to empower parents it is important that Congress not empower regulators instead.”

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