Wednesday, January 28, 2009

CRS Reports To Be Leaked on Wikileaks

This is great news. Wikileaks is about to release a ton of CRS reports. I briefly mentioned this issue in my Berkman presentation on open access to government documents. The basic issue is that the Congressional Research Service, the taxpayer-funded think-tank for Congress, does not give citizens access to its reports. This is despite the fact that they cannot be copyrighted, and can have a real effect on legislative decisions. There has been a bill introduced in every session of Congress for quite some time now, which would release all of the reports to the public, but it has always stalled.

From the wl-press mailing list:

3. Wikileaks to release nearly 10,000 Congressional Research Service

Wikileaks has obtained nearly 10,000 US Congressional Research
Service (CRS) reports which it is preparing for publication. The
CRS spends around $100M a year preparing high quality reports for
members of Congress and Congressional committees. When members feel
publication of a report is in their political interest, they are
released. Alternatively reports that are not viewed as politically
favorable are kept from the public eye.

I originally noticed the news in this Open House Project post, which has more commentary. For more background on efforts to liberate CRS reports, check out this FGI post. Peter Suber has also commented on this development.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I Try to Explain the History and Structure of Communications Law

My latest conversation with David Weinberger is posted on Media Berkman. David asked me how and why the internet is regulated (or deregulated). The launched me into a somewhat long description of the history of Communications Law in the US. If you're one of those odd people that enjoys this topic as much as I do (or if you're a lawyer and want to correct my explanation), you can listen here.

And no, it wasn't my idea to use the goofy Western language in the description. Rawhide!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Through the Eyes of America

While trying to get one of the many web video streams of the inauguration working -- and ultimately falling back on an NPR audio stream -- I decided to try the Flickr feed for recent photos tagged "inauguration." I expected photos by people in DC, but what I didn't expect was so many photos of people across the country and around the globe watching the event. These snapshots of individual yet collective experience speak as strongly as a crystal clear high-definition video stream of the proceedings.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Kevin Martin Resigns

He's leaving as of January 20 and headed to the Aspen Institute. I'll update with more. It's interesting to read his list of accomplishments in the press release.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Next FCC: No More Monkey Business?

Today's big news for communications policy wonks is that apparently Julius Genachowski will be tapped for FCC Chairman. The pick is Obama's first big imprint on the Commission. Although it is not a surprise, it is probably a smart move. Genachowski is an FCC veteran with deep knowledge of the technology industry (as General Counsel for IAC and as a tech venture capitalist).

The news comes in the midst of growing calls for FCC reform from folks like Silicon Flatirons and Public Knowledge. The theme is that the FCC needs to re-orient its rules and processes to make more sense in a converging, Internet-oriented communications landscape. I heartily agree.

Of course, this is not the first wave of calls for reform. Back in 2005 the DC think-tank Progress and Freedom Foundation spearheaded the "Digital Age Communications Act," which argued that the powers of the Commission should be radically curtailed and that the Communications Act should be rewritten as antitrust policy. This amounted to abolishing most of the Commission's traditional powers. The bill never went anywhere.

Recently, Larry Lessig has argued that we should do away with the FCC and replace it with a new entity. Lessig thinks that the Commission is rooted in outdated notions of monopoly rights and incumbent protection. He says, "You can't fix DNA. You have to bury it." His dream agency has two mandates: 1) agressively police monopoly and 2) ensure openness. Of course these two ideals are both hard to define and sometimes at odds. Nothing about creating a new agency will fundamentally change this reality. What's more, focusing heavily on market forces can often provide an excuse for ignoring the more socially motivated or mundane-but-essential roles of communications policymakers. Market considerations are undeniably important, but proposals to reduce everything to antitrust lose sight of what is unique about communications.

The key to Lessig's approach appears to be "a strong agency head, and a staff absolutely barred from industry ties." I agree with his first prescription, and it's possible that Genachowski could be a step in the right direction. If recent reports are to be believed, he'll likely be an improvement over the outgoing Chairman. To begin with, the House released a blistering critique last month, titled "Deception and Distrust: The Federal Communications Commission Under Chairman Kevin J. Martin." It cites FCC employee's references to being "Martinized" or "blue-boxed" -- their euphemisms for the Chairman's alleged habit of killing fact-based reports that didn't support his policy agenda. Then there was the recently released Federal Human Capital Survey, which showed that an embarrasingly low number of FCC employees -- 38 percent -- felt that "My organization's leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity." I am less persuaded that the FCC staff should be "absolutely barred from industry ties." I'm not even sure what that means. Does it mean that they never can have worked in industry? Does it mean that after serving they never can move to industry? It seems like a recipe for inexperienced, disconnected bureaucrats.

One man with a passion for banishing uninformed bureaucrats was the late, great, and entirely deranged televangelist Dr. Gene Scott. During his prolonged battle with the FCC, he would taunt the agency on-screen by representing it with a band of wind-up monkeys. He would often pick up his favorite, banging it on the head and exclaiming, "That's the only way to treat a bureaucrat!" I don't think that the appropriate solution to the shortcomings of the FCC is to beat the commissioners over the head with a stick, and I also don't think the solution is to abolish the agency altogether.

We don't have to "blow up" the FCC or reduce it to doing antitrust (we already have two agencies that are experts in that area). We could certainly use a re-write of the Communications Act that does away with the outdated and technologically siloed model of regulation in favor of an approach more closely matched to reality. We could also use good leaders. I am hopeful that today's announcement sets the course of the agency in the right direction.

Gene Scott and the FCC Monkey Band:

(sorry about the low audio)