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FCC Vows to Reform Ex Parte Rules

Goal is to stop abuse

Among myriad changes suggested by the Federal Communications Commission in how it accomplishes things are proposals to update its “ex parte” process.

These are the rules that govern how parties to commission proceedings communicate with the FCC staff and decision-makers. Ex parte rules are intended to make sure the public is aware of who is possibly influencing the regulators’ decision process.

The FCC has proposed that anyone who gives an oral ex parte presentation would have to provide a written description of the discussion; currently, such descriptions are required only when new material is involved. It also wants to require e-filing of these meeting summaries in machine-readable formats, so the public can see them faster.

In its notice, the commission asks for comment on whether to require that companies meeting with the commission should disclose ownership information in meeting summaries or filed pleadings so readers can better grasp the filer’s interest in the proceeding. The agency is thinking of requiring summaries within four hours for an item that’s to be on the agenda during its open monthly meeting during the seven-day “sunshine period” immediately before those meetings.

The idea is to make meeting summaries of ex parte discussion more clear to the public. Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps said last week the agency sometimes receives summaries that say a meeting took place on a given topic “without remotely approaching a sufficient level of detail on the arguments or data presented to allow the public or interested parties to respond.”

Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell questioned whether the rules need revising, but said enforcement needs to be stepped up. He also said ownership information is readily available and wonders whether requiring ownership information for each ex parte filing is a burden to licensees.

And finally, the commission has not proposed anything to address how the public comments on various issues through new media such as blogs. Some of those issues are subject to the commission’s ex parte rules and it’s treating those on a case-by-case basis as it gains experience with new media. It would like comments specifically on whether it should account for differences in access to new media by various segments of the population, such as those whose homes are not served by broadband.

McDowell wonders if this leaves open a back door to presentations that would otherwise be prohibited. “What is the difference between a filing made during the Sunshine prohibition period through the commission’s electronic filing system and the same filing posted to one of our blogs?” he wondered.

I think anything to make the commission’s processes more transparent is a good thing and these rule changes may actually help filers stop submitting summaries that follow the letter of the rules yet contain no substance. That’s a waste of everyone’s time and doesn’t help resolve conflicts.

Comments to GC Docket 10-43 (PDF) are due 45 days after the proposals are published in the Federal Register.