FCC needs to change course under threats to net neutrality

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler’s decision to resign, announced on Thursday, raises an opportunity for his as-yet unnamed replacement to steer the Commission to finally join the federal eRulemaking Program, to make its processes more efficient, standardized, and transparent.

The first time I formally presented the case for applying advanced data analytic technologies to the federal regulatory process was in July 2014, at the invitation of David A. Bray, Chief Information Officer of the FCC.

The two of us had recently met at the 2nd Annual IBM/FCW Federal Summit, where we discussed how using Natural Language Processing (NLP) technology could augment and accelerate the Commission’s capacity to consider public comments on proposed rules.

Soon afterwards, we developed the first use-case for my company’s NLP platform called Regendus, to demonstrate its regulatory data automation and analysis capabilities to the FCC.

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My team had become experts by this time in the Regulations.gov system, which serves as the government’s public-facing portal where participating federal agencies issue regulatory notices and accept citizen responses. We wondered at the time why the FCC had elected not to participate in the executive branch’s own opt-in system.

When the FCC’s proprietary legacy system for accepting comments crashed in 2015, under a wave of 4 million public submissions made in response to net neutrality rules, the need for modernization of the Commission’s processes became glaringly apparent.

Even more so, when it ended up taking nine months and an estimated $50 million for the FCC to consider the entire comment dataset.

According to many close observers of the FCC, net neutrality appears targeted for reconsideration after a new FCC Chair appointed by the Trump Administration assumes control. A wide range of important rules, such as those regulating the ability of Internet service providers to sell data collected on their users, will once again be subject to change.

Decisions such as these made by the FCC have wide economic ripple-out impacts that affect more than just telecommunication businesses. Like transportation, the telecom infrastructure touches nearly every other industry, at both the national and local levels.

This is even more reason why the FCC should join eRulemaking, so that its regulatory data becomes standardized and readily accessible to all stakeholders in the process.

Federal Commissions traditionally enjoy more political autonomy than departments or agencies, since Commissioner terms frequently extend past that of the President and Senate which appoint and confirm them.

Nonetheless, several important federal commissions -- including the Federal Trade Commission, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission – have elected to become eRulemaking Participants.

With standardization of data comes a whole new level of immediate transparency in governance, permitting a higher degree of public participation -- and at earlier stages of the process, such as the discovery phase of highly common utility-pole- attachment disputes, which fall under FCC purview.

This greater degree of public data accessibility should naturally result in more efficient complaints adjudication.

Again, if net neutrality rules are re-opened for consideration, judging from public response to the last round, the FCC stands to be inundated by many millions of comments. Even if the Commission’s network does not crash again, its staff of lawyers are sure to be occupied for several months manually reviewing and analyzing the tidal wave of data.

Meanwhile, businesses will remain in a state of uncertainty about the shape of the future telecom regulatory environment.

Before we witness another fiasco of technical failure and procedural delays at the FCC, the new Chairperson – whoever it ends up being – should immediately direct the Commission to join more than 178 participating federal agencies and commissions in the eRulemaking Program.

The benefits in terms of cost savings, government responsiveness, and public data transparency make the move an obvious choice.

John W. Davis II is the founder and CEO of Notice & Comment Inc. He previously served as a federal prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, as well as a professor of ethics and professional speaking at George Mason University.


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