Harvard University, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Issues Harsh Critique of the FCC, Calling the Regulator ‘Captured’ by the Wireless Industry

norm-alster-reportA new report by Norm Alster of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University says the wireless industry has unlimited access to shape FCC policies at the expense of public interests. The public interests mentioned included consumer safety, privacy, health and consumer wallets.

The report, titled, “Captured Agency: How the Federal Communications Commission is Dominated by the Industries it Presumably Regulates”, is available as a free download. We recommend this be shared widely.

Download Harvard Report: http://ethics.harvard.edu/files/center-for-ethics/files/capturedagency_alster.pdf

Published June 30, 2015 by the Edmond J. Safra Research Lab on Institutional Corruption, the report suggests the telecom industry is using the same playbook as tobacco, including things like:

  • Obtuse refusal to examine the health evidence
  • Hyper-aggressive legal action and bullying
  • Stonewalling PR
  • Undermining credibility of the scientists
  • Cutting scientist funding
  • Publishing contradictory science
  • Trivializing highly credible dissenters
  • Misleading about scientific consensus
  • Light regulation
  • Industry control of Congressional committees
  • Revolving door between industry & regulator
  • Enormous sums on direct lobbying & via associations
  • Hard $ and soft $ contributions

An important question the Safra analysis probed, by way of a poll, was:

“Would consumers embrace cell phones and WiFi so enthusiastically if the wireless industry, enabled by FCC and ‘Congressional errand boys’, had not so consistently stonewalled on evidence and substituted legal intimidation for honest inquiry?”

Strikingly, the poll showed only 1.5 % of respondents believe Congress forbids local communities from considering health effects when deciding to issue zoning permits for wireless antennas to be “definitely true”, though this is, in fact, true.

As explained in the Harvard report, the Telecom Act of 1996 contains a federal preemption that prohibits state and local governments from limiting antennas in their communities on health or environmental grounds. The public has very little knowledge of this fact and is routinely surprised to learn it when residents protest antennas near schools, hospitals, retirement homes, etc., only to find there is little communities can do to prevent antennas and towers going up, because of provisions of this Act, signed almost two decades ago by President Bill Clinton.

“In preempting local zoning authority—along with the public’s right to guard its own safety and health—Congress unleashed an orgy of infrastructure build-out”.

“Again and again, Congress and the FCC have extended the wireless industry carte blanche to build out infrastructure no matter what the consequences to local communities.”

“The FCC’s deferential compliance has allowed industry to regularly bypass and if necessary steamroll local authorities”.

Public ignorance may be the best ally of industry, the report suggested.

The poll conducted by the Safra Research Lab on Institutional Corruption showed that if certain health claims about cell phone radiation were known to be true, the public’s behavior would change, with potentially serious economic consequences for all related industries.

Informed citizens, the poll showed, would:

  • reduce wireless use
  • restore landlines
  • protect their children

Billion Dollar Handouts by FCC Applied for by Industry

A little known fact the Harvard report shared was there is a 16% surcharge on interstate calls that funds what is known as the Universal Service Fund. Originally set up to fund basic landline service in rural areas, wireless companies now apply for these funds to spur wireless deployment.

Since 1998, the USF has amounted to $110 billion, of which $40 billion has gone into the E-Rate program to underwrite WiFi in schools and libraries. Not only did the Harvard report question the appropriateness of these handouts to a billion dollar industry, and to further their marketing interests, but presented evidence showing the questionable value of technology use in schools in the first place.

The Harvard report says research shows there is little value in learning from technology in the classroom and that it is a poor fix for underperforming classrooms.

Kentaro Toyamo, co-founder of Microsoft’s research lab in India and now the W. K. Kellog Associate Professor of Community Information at University of Michigan, was quoted as saying, “Technology by itself never has any kind of positive impact”. He said the only schools in his experience that benefited from increased technology were those where “teachers were very good, the budgets adequate”. He says, “The inescapable conclusion is that significant investments in computers, mobile phones and other electronic gadgets in education are neither necessary nor warranted for most school systems.”

But despite the research showing technology is a poor use of resources for schools, lobbyists for industry keep recommending it and billions keep being given to wireless companies as freebies. These are companies who already earn billions of dollars themselves, who appear to be cozy with the FCC, according to this report.

Is it right that the FCC is using its taxing authority to promote WiFi?

“All these questions can perhaps be rolled up in one: do we all just play dead for the corporate lobbyists and spinners who promote the unexamined and unregulated application of their products?”

The Harvard report suggests trust may become a critical issue as the public becomes more aware of the risks from these technologies, and that the FCC might want to “shake itself free from special interests”.

A worthwhile suggestion made by investigative journalist at the Safra Center, Norm Alster, was to expand the partisan FCC by adding two public interest Commissioners.

“It would at least require party apologists to defend how they so consistently champion the moneyed interests that have purchased disproportionate access and power in Washington.”

“With the overwhelming application of money and influence, information and communications technologies have almost totally escaped political scrutiny, regulatory control and legal discipline”, says Norm Alster.

Are we going to roll over and play dead after a scathing critique like this by Harvard University?

Download PDF: “Captured Agency: How the Federal Communications Commission is Dominated by the Industries it Presumably Regulates”

Are we going to let 16% of our phone bills go to spur harmful wireless exposures, while the telecom industry moves to take away our landlines, when assuring landline connections was the purpose of the Universal Service Fund?

We recommend fighting to preserve the landline infrastructure.

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