Campbell: Keep the FCC out of your living room

Fred Campbell

Americans don’t expect their government to be perfect, but they have a right to expect basic fairness. A lot of dissatisfaction with Washington is built on the sense that the deck is stacked in favor of a select few.

A recent example is the unnecessary proposal for new television rules being considered at the FCC.

For most people, the idea that we need new federal regulations to give us more choice in TV is ridiculous on its face. From Netflix to Roku to Apple TV, we have more ways to find and watch TV than ever before.

The quality and diversity of programming has exploded too — diverse voices and stories are stronger than ever on our TV screens. From “Modern Family” to “The Wire,” the quality and diversity of storytelling is light years beyond anything we saw during the “big three” network era.

Yet FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed a new rule, called “AllVid,” that would force existing TV companies to hand over their complete programming libraries for tech companies to use in competing services and devices of their own without negotiating or paying for the rights.

Some observers say it’s a giveaway to Big Tech — just the kind of big government thumb on the scale Americans have grown so sick of.

It’s a giveaway tech companies don’t need. Nothing stops any company from negotiating for programming rights and launching its own video service or streaming device today, just as Apple TV, HBO Go, Netflix and dozens more have already done.

Yet now the FCC thinks we need new rules for video to jump-start consumer choice? The disconnect suggests the real reason for these regulations is something far more Washingtonian — like pleasing political allies and propping up favored constituencies — than making markets work.

The new rules would cover a lot more than just devices that are used to watch video programming — they would rework an entire segment of our economy, reshaping or overturning a complex system of programming deals and licensing arrangements, privacy regulations, copyright issues and consumer protection laws.

The FCC chairman’s own proposal recognizes these issues are so vexing and complex they cannot be resolved at the FCC, and must be shunted into a vast new standards setting process to design new systems and technologies. But it’s hard to see how forcing the video industry into a lengthy, government-mandated standards process will speed up innovation.

These differences are why the FCC itself has found that “telephone networks do not provide a proper analogy to (video devices) due to the numerous differences in technology” between phone and video networks.

In the face of pressure from friendly allies in Big Tech, that conclusion is apparently no longer operative for the current FCC chairman.

Americans deserve better than this. Government shouldn’t change the rules depending on who is playing the game or invent justifications to intervene in markets that are working simply to boost its favored corporate interests.

Fred Campbell formerly served as chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission.