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FCC provides more information to some lobbyists

Consumer, public-interest groups left out, GAO says

By Grant Gross
October 3, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission has routinely let some telecommunications lobbyists know in advance when votes important to them will happen, but it has not done the same for some consumer and public-interest groups, according to a report by a government auditor.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, released today, said the FCC has violated its own rules by leaking information to some lobbyists letting them know of upcoming votes in the critical weeks just before an FCC decision. FCC rules prohibit the agency from leaking information about upcoming votes, the GAO said.

One stakeholder involved in many FCC proceedings told the GAO that FCC employees call its staffers and tell them what items are scheduled for a vote. For the report, the GAO studied four FCC decisions, two related to telecommunications issues, one related to television set-top boxes and one related to amateur radio spectrum.

But in an agency where "timing is everything," some consumer and public-interest groups do not get warnings about upcoming FCC votes and do not have the opportunity for last-minute lobbying, the GAO report said. These groups do not know "when it would be best to meet with FCC staff to make their arguments," the GAO said.

"It is critical that the FCC maintain an environment in which all stakeholders have an equal opportunity to participate," the GAO report said. "Since the success of lobbying for a particular issue can be highly dependent on whether an issue is being actively considered, FCC staff who disclose nonpublic information about when an issue will be considered could be providing an advantage to some stakeholders, allowing them to time their lobbying efforts to maximize their impact."

An FCC spokesman said the agency works hard to include consumer and public-interest groups. The commission "actively reaches out and works with" those groups, he said. "We have always been very open and transparent about what is in circulation and we are exploring ways in which we can make our processes even more open and transparent," the spokesman added.

The FCC has become more open to consumer and public-interest groups since Kevin Martin was appointed chairman in March 2005, added Art Brodsky, a spokesman for Public Knowledge, a digital rights advocacy group.

The FCC has been "open and willing to talk" with Public Knowledge and its allies since Martin became chairman, Brodsky said. "Of course, we don't know what we're not being told," he added. "They may be still giving more information to others."

The GAO report comes just days after Frontline Wireless LLC filed a complaint with the FCC saying that rival Verizon Wireless Inc. was skirting rules by trying to lobby the agency behind the scenes about the upcoming 700-MHz spectrum auction. A Frontline spokeswoman didn't have an immediate comment on the GAO report.

The GAO report didn't address the Frontline complaint, but it said the FCC generally follows its rules governing so-called ex parte communications about lobbying efforts on upcoming FCC proceedings.

Read more about Mobile/Wireless in Computerworld's Mobile/Wireless Topic Center.

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