House Democrats take aim at FCC practices

by Anne Broache, CNet News

The Federal Communications Commission endured a bruising on Wednesday from congressional Democrats who accused the regulators of overstepping their authority, lagging in answering consumer complaints, and operating in secret.

Politicians targeted the Republican-controlled body's approaches on many fronts in the first appearance by all five commissioners before a U.S. House of Representatives telecommunications and Internet panel since a hearing about the Janet Jackson Super Bowl brouhaha three years ago. Inquiries touched on everything from the union of AT&T and BellSouth to the National Security Agency's controversial surveillance program and Net neutrality.

Perhaps the most scathing attack came from Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who said he was tempted "to schedule an oversight hearing in this committee every month to keep the FCC on track." He accused the regulators of straying from their "sole duty--that is, to implement the laws as passed by Congress."

"The FCC is not a legislative body," he said in a packed hearing room here. "That role resides here, in this room, with the people's elected representatives."

Of particular concern is the FCC's decision last December to adopt rules designed to ease telephone companies' entry into the TV market, Dingell said. He and other Democrats on the committee suggested the FCC was stepping on Congress' toes by issuing those rules, which impose new requirements on all local governments nationwide that grant franchise agreements allowing companies to offer TV service.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of a House oversight panel, vowed to keep a closer eye on the FCC's activities and cited concerns that the agency is letting petitions and consumer complaints languish. For example, approximately 70,000 complaints related to the Do Not Call registry and dating back as many as four years, have gone unanswered, Stupak said.

In a tense exchange with FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and Republican Commissioner Deborah Tate, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) questioned why the two commissioners indicated that they would not enforce certain conditions, including Net neutrality, attached to an approved merger of AT&T and BellSouth late last year. Eshoo is one of the major proponents of passing legislation that makes Net neutrality--that is, prohibiting all network operators from prioritizing online content--mandatory.

"I think it's rather extraordinary to commit to not really enforcing parts of the agreement that you voted for, and I'm asking you, what was the meaning of it?" asked Eshoo, echoing a question by a Democratic leader at a Senate hearing featuring the FCC officials last month.

Martin insisted that "we are going to enforce it." He attempted to clarify that a joint statement issued by him and Tate stipulated that they would hold only AT&T--as opposed to the industry as a whole--to certain voluntary conditions, including Net neutrality, that it proposed.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), the chairman of the telecommunications and Internet subcommittee, reiterated concerns over the FCC's failure to investigate allegations that phone companies have turned over consumer records to the National Security Agency in violation of the law.

"This NSA scandal is important to investigate, and communications laws are implicated," he said. "Mr. Chairman, are you now prepared to open an investigation?"

Because the U.S. Department of Justice believes its national security privileges limit such an investigation to within its walls, the FCC "would be unable to get the underlying information from the carriers without threatening that," Martin replied.

Markey told Martin that the committee would apply its own pressure to the Justice Department on the legality of the program if the agency "thwarts your efforts."

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