Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Changing the Face of Politics: Email and the FCC

To start, I worked in Senator Jim DeMint's office for half a summer between freshman and sophomore years of college (summer of 2005 for anyone interested). The experience was an amazing one, learning how we process opinions from constituents, going to hearings on issues that matter, and watching people make decisions that affect everyone in both the country and the world.

One of my primary jobs as an intern was sorting the mail which came in several times a day (three if memory serves correctly) into the wall of mailboxes that lay before me. As is typical I'm sure, different people handled different areas of policy. These Lower level workers reported to a head person in their field. The policy gurus converged to a single advisor who then reported directly to Senator DeMint. If a given piece of mail was important enough, it would travel all the way up this chain, but rare did a piece of mail like that come in.

The least important pieces of mail came in the form of mass faxes/emails. These form letters came in by the hundreds every day, with several often under the same name, and all of them coming from a single source. I was told that interest groups sent out tons of these letters every day in an attempt to influence Senator DeMint by showing support of the people for a one policy initiative or another.

As an intern these were good pieces of mail, because they were the easiest to sort into a mailbox, and they came in huge stacks of the same letter. So in one swift motion, the pile of mail to be sorted could shrink as much as an inch or more.

Many interest groups use this tactic, from the conservative Parents Television Council to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Again, I find their purpose to be subverted by their tell tale manufactured style. I would think that any reasonable person could tell that these were cheaply written and mass produced. There is no way each incarnation of the letter could represent a unique voter's opinion.

Now, on to news. Ars Technica pointed out this week that CBS is complaining about an indecency fine imposed by the FCC for an episode of Without a Trace which aired in 2004.
CBS affiliates are now protesting the fine against them, arguing that all 4,211 e-mailed complaints about the show came from [the Parents Television Council's] site and from one run by the American Family Association (which claims that more than 70,000 complaints were submitted; it's difficult to reconcile these two numbers). The CBS stations argue that such complaints are inappropriate and invalid.
I have no problem with these two utilizing any tactics within the law to get their message across. I'm only worried that the FCC felt that the complaints from these two sources were enough to justify a federal response(pdf). Discounting the objection that the most of the complainants never saw the clip in question nor the show itself, the fact that a few thousand emails can cause this response from the FCC prompts some thinking about both its security implications and its implications on democracy as we know it.


Granted, the job of the FCC requires them to pay more attention to complaints than Senator Jim DeMint's does, but I've seen countless examples of the form letters that get sent to the government from these groups, and they are ridiculously easy to spot. Surely the FCC understands that each of these impersonal letters doesn't count for a unique individual's opinion on the issue.

How many emails were sent, ranging anywhere from 4.2k according to the FCC to 70k according to the AMA, is not a big difference for a few computers and a database of names. Given a few hours, either result can be readily produced. Thus, if the FCC will let itself be swayed by the number of emails it receives, how long will it take before someone learns to exploit this concept and threatens to sic the FCC on various content companies unless they change something more to the extortionist's liking? It's doable today, even if I don't think it's very likely. And the reason I don't find it likely deals with the democratic implications of the issue.


Email is an amazing new technology, enabling us to connect to one another across the globe in a faster and more convenient form than ever before. Its potential abuses are worrisome though, especially in a society like ours that wishes to value the individual opinion. If an individual's voice can be duplicated and changed slightly after each copy by a machine to be passed off as a choir of voices, then the balance of power in our government has the potential to shift dramatically from the many to the few. To relate it to what people may be more familiar with *depressed sigh* it's like when geeks make machines to place an American Idol vote thousands of times in one night. Now replace American Idol with the US government and the geeks with terrorists or special interest groups.

Aside from the Idol affect, there appears to be another force at work here. If the FCC heard all email campaigns equally, they'd be a busy organization. Granted, to an extent they are constantly busy, but it seems that they listen to the PTC and the AMA more closely than they listen to other grassroots campaigns, like the EFF's DMCA reform campaign. This no doubt comes in part because there is no significant lobby against the PTC whereas the EFF takes on many active and very influential competitors in each of its complaint campaigns. After all, companies with deep enough pockets will pay whatever it takes to impose their business model into legislation, whereas few people are going to lobby that more sex on TV is a good thing for America.

However, I'm afraid of giving these two groups in particular control over the morality that comes through my TV screen. Last I checked we have a lot of competition in terms of television content. What's the upper limit on channels we can receive these days? 900? These days, no one is forced to watch anything on TV, and market forces will assure that if some content is too far out of line, they'll receive repercussions from people tuning out. Even for extremists, who think that television is too indecent on every channel (which is very unlikely), no one forces them to watch television at all. They can simply turn it off.

But coming back around a bit, how should emails be treated by the FCC? An email is more convenient for an individual to send, and I think an email written from scratch should be just as valuable as a handwritten letter. That said, I think the FCC, and the entire government for that matter, should implement a policy in which they won't accept pre-written emails anymore. If I had my way, I'd extend it to the flimsy postcards the AARP gets their members to send out en mass as well, but I'll stick to the email point, because email could be screened electronically, saving some manpower on top of the other benefits.

After that, I'd watch as the number of complaints from these organizations drops into the ground. I think the policy would work because the distinction between "Click here to send a letter to your Congressman" and "Click here to Compose a Letter from Scratch to Your Congressman" is large enough that the potential abuses of the system would be minimized while at the same time letting the technology grow and express appropriately how we feel in the matters of state.

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Update: For those who want further reading on the subject, or want to look at specific numbers regarding indecency complaints and the FCC, Adam Thierer has pointed me to a great report(pdf) he put together for the Progress and Freedom Foundation last December. Check it out.

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