Saturday, September 10, 2016

An Exposé of the FCC: An Agency Captured by the Industries it Regulates

Click on graphic to enlarge. Posted with permission of Einar Flydal.

June 26, 2015

Alster, Norm. Captured agency: How the Federal Communications Commission is dominated by the industries it presumably regulates. Cambridge, MA:  Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University.  2015. 

PDF: http://bit.ly/FCCcaptured  (free)
Kindle: http://amzn.to/1SQThCU ($0.99 -- check out the book reviews)
Introduction

This exposé provides insight into how the FCC became a victim of regulatory capture by industry and the implications of these corrupting influences for our health and safety, our privacy, and our wallets. 

This book concludes with a series of recommendations by its author, Norm Alster, an investigative journalist, who has written for the New York Times, Forbes, Business Week, and Investor’s Business Daily.  He wrote this book while serving as a journalism fellow with the Investigative Journalism Project at Harvard University.

Following are some excerpts that pertain to the wireless radiation industry and its corrupting influences on the FCC. I encourage you to read Mr. Alster's entire treatise.


Excerpts

A detailed look at FCC actions—and non-actions—shows that over the years the FCC has granted the wireless industry pretty much what it has wanted.

Money—and lots of it—has played a part ... In all, CTIA, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile USA, and Sprint spent roughly $45 million lobbying in 2013. Overall, the Communications/Electronics sector is one of Washington‘s super heavyweight lobbyists, spending nearly $800 million in 2013-2014, according to CRP data.

As a result, consumer safety, health, and privacy, along with consumer wallets, have all been overlooked, sacrificed, or raided due to unchecked industry influence …. Most insidious of all, the wireless industry has been allowed to grow unchecked and virtually unregulated, with fundamental questions on public health impact routinely ignored. Industry control, in the case of wireless health issues, extends beyond Congress and regulators to basic scientific research. And in an obvious echo of the hardball tactics of the tobacco industry, the wireless industry has backed up its economic and political power by stonewalling on public relations and bullying potential threats into submission with its huge standing army of lawyers. In this way, a coddled wireless industry intimidated and silenced the City of San Francisco, while running roughshod over local opponents of its expansionary infrastructure.

… Currently presiding over the FCC is Tom Wheeler, a man who has led the two most powerful industry lobbying groups: CTIA and NCTA. It is Wheeler who once supervised a $25 million industry-funded research effort on wireless health effects. But when handpicked research leader George Carlo concluded that wireless radiation did raise the risk of brain tumors, Wheeler‘s CTIA allegedly rushed to muffle the message. ”You do the science. I‘ll take care of the politics,” Carlo recalls Wheeler saying.

Graphic: The revolving door between the FCC and industry

Tom Wheeler, former Head of CTIA & NCTA, is now FCC Chair.
Meredith Atwell Baker, former FCC Commissioner, is now head of CTIA.
Michael Powell, former FCC Chair, is now head of NCTA.
Jonathan Adelstein, former FCC Commissioner, is now head of PCIA, the Wireless Infrastructure Association.

Graphics: Top House and Senate recipients of cellular industry campaign contributions 

It all begins with passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, legislation once described … as “the most lobbied bill in history.” Late lobbying won the wireless industry enormous concessions from lawmakers, many of them major recipients of industry hard and soft dollar contributions. Congressional staffers who helped lobbyists write the new law did not go unrewarded. Thirteen of fifteen staffers later became lobbyists themselves.

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. Emboldened by the government green light and the vast consumer appetite for wireless technology, industry has had a free hand in installing more than 300,000 sites. Church steeples, schoolyards, school rooftops, even trees can house these facilities.

In a 2010 review of research on the biological effects of exposure to radiation from cell tower base stations, B. Blake Levitt and Henry Lai found that “some research does exist to warrant caution in infrastructure siting” ….

Beyond epidemiological studies, research on a wide range of living things raises further red flags. A 2013 study by the Indian scientists S. Sivani and D. Sudarsanam reports: “Based on current available literature, it is justified to conclude that RF-EMF [electromagnetic fields] radiation exposure can change neurotransmitter functions, blood-brain barrier, morphology, electrophysiology, cellular metabolism, calcium efflux, and gene and protein expression in certain types of cells even at lower intensities.”

… Citing other studies—often industry-funded—that fail to establish health effects, the wireless industry has dismissed such concerns. The FCC has typically echoed that position.

… since the passage of the 1996 law, the very opposite has occurred. Again and again both Congress and the FCC have opted to stiffen—rather than loosen—federal preemption over local zoning authority ….

… would consumers‘ embrace of cell phones and Wi-Fi be quite so ardent if the wireless industry, enabled by its Washington errand boys, hadn‘t so consistently stonewalled on evidence and substituted legal intimidation for honest inquiry?

The FCC in 1997 sent the message it has implicitly endorsed and conveyed ever since: study health effects all you want. It doesn‘t matter what you find. The build-out of wireless cannot be blocked or slowed by health issues.

… federal preemption is granted to pretty much any wireless outfit on just one simple condition: its installations must comply with FCC radiation emission standards. In view of this generous carte blanche to move radiation equipment into neighborhoods, schoolyards and home rooftops, one would think the FCC would at the very least diligently enforce its own emission standards. But that does not appear to be the case.

Indeed, one RF engineer who has worked on more than 3,000 rooftop sites found vast evidence of non-compliance. Marvin Wessel estimates that “10 to 20% exceed allowed radiation standards.” With 30,000 rooftop antenna sites across the U.S. that would mean that as many as 6,000 are emitting radiation in violation of FCC standards. Often, these emissions can be 600% or more of allowed exposure levels, according to Wessel.

The best ally of industry and the FCC on this (and other) issues may be public ignorance.

An online poll conducted for this project asked 202 respondents to rate the likelihood of a series of statements … there was one statement of indisputable fact: “The U.S. Congress forbids local communities from considering health effects when deciding whether to issue zoning permits for wireless antennae,” the statement said.

Though this is a stone cold fact that the wireless industry, the FCC and the courts have all turned into hard and inescapable reality for local authorities, just 1.5% of all poll respondents replied that it was “definitely true.”

… many respondents claim they would change behavior—reduce wireless use, restore landline service, protect their children—if claims on health dangers of wireless are true.

… in May 2015, more than 200 scientists boasting over 2,000 publications on wireless effects called on global institutions to address the health risks posed by this technology.

Some have suggested that the health situation with wireless is analogous to that of tobacco before court decisions finally forced Big Tobacco to admit guilt and pay up.

It seems significant that the responses of wireless and its captured agency—the FCC—feature the same obtuse refusal to examine the evidence. The wireless industry reaction features stonewalling public relations and hyper aggressive legal action. It can also involve undermining the credibility and cutting off the funding for researchers who do not endorse cellular safety. It is these hardball tactics that look a lot like 20th century Big Tobacco tactics. It is these hardball tactics—along with consistently supportive FCC policies—that heighten suspicion the wireless industry does indeed have something to hide.

So how does the FCC handle a scientific split that seems to suggest bias in industry-sponsored research?

In a posting on its Web site that reads like it was written by wireless lobbyists, the FCC chooses strikingly patronizing language to slight and trivialize the many scientists and health and safety experts who‘ve found cause for concern. In a two page Web post titled “Wireless Devices and Health Concerns,” the FCC four times refers to either “some health and safety interest groups,” “some parties,” or “some consumers” before in each case rebutting their presumably groundless concerns about wireless risk. Additionally, the FCC site references the World Health Organization as among those organizations who‘ve found that “the weight of scientific evidence” has not linked exposure to radiofrequency from mobile devices with ”any known health problems.”

Yes, it‘s true that the World Health organization remains bitterly divided on the subject. But it‘s also true that a 30 member unit of the WHO called the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) was near unanimous in pronouncing cell phones “possibly carcinogenic” in 2011. How can the FCC omit any reference to such a pronouncement? Even if it finds reason to side with pro-industry scientists, shouldn‘t this government agency also mention that cell phones are currently in the same potential carcinogen class as lead paint?

Cell phones are not the only wireless suspects. Asked what he would do if he had policy-making authority, Dr. Hardell swiftly replied that he would “ban wireless use in schools and pre-schools. You don‘t need Wi-Fi,” he noted.

So what is the FCC doing in response to what at the very least is a troubling chain of clues to cellular danger? As it has done with wireless infrastructure, the FCC has to this point largely relied on industry “self-regulation.” Though it set standards for device radiation emissions back in 1996, the agency doesn‘t generally test devices itself. Despite its responsibility for the safety of cell phones, the FCC relies on manufacturers‘ good-faith efforts to test them. Critics contend that this has allowed manufacturers undue latitude in testing their devices.

The EPA, notably, was once a hub of research on RF effects, employing as many as 35 scientists. However, the research program was cut off in the late 80s during the Regan presidency. [Former EPA Scientist, Carl] Blackman says he was personally “forbidden” to study health effects by his “supervisory structure.”

Blackman is cautious in imputing motives to the high government officials who wanted his work at EPA stopped. But he does say that political pressure has been a factor at both the EPA and FCC: “The FCC people were quite responsive to the biological point of view. But there are also pressures on the FCC from industry.” The FCC, he suggests, may not just be looking at the scientific evidence, “The FCC‘s position—like the EPA‘s—is influenced by political considerations as well.”

Still, the FCC has ultimate regulatory responsibility and cannot indefinitely pass the buck on an issue of fundamental public health. Remarkably, it has not changed course despite the IARC classification of cell phones as possibly carcinogenic, despite the recent studies showing triple the glioma risk for heavy users, despite the floodtide of research showing biological effects, and despite even the recent defection of core industry booster Alex Lerchl. It is the refusal of both industry and the FCC to even acknowledge this cascade of warning signs that seems most incriminating.

This is a very rich industry that does not hesitate to outspend and bully challengers into submission. Meanwhile, amidst the legal smoke and medical confusion, the industry has managed to make the entire world dependent on its products. Even tobacco never had so many hooked users.

Such sustained success in the face of medical doubt has required industry to keep a lid on critics and detractors. Many scientists who‘ve found real or potential risk from the sort of microwave radiation emanating from wireless devices have learned there is a price to be paid for standing up to the industry juggernaut. A few prominent examples …

The FCC‘s network of corruption doesn‘t just shield industry from needed scrutiny and regulation on matters of public health and safety. Sometimes it just puts its hand directly into the public pocket and redistributes that cash to industry supplicants …

The General Accounting Office (GAO) has issued several reports citing fraud, waste and mismanagement, along with inadequate FCC oversight of the subsidy program. Bribery, kickbacks and false documentation can perhaps be expected in a handout program mandated by Congress and only indirectly supervised by the FCC.

[The "subsidy program," the Universal Service Fund, subsidizes various technology programs at public cost.]

Fraud—as pervasive and troubling as it has been—is just one of the problems with the programs of universal service. It may not even be the fundamental problem. More fundamental issues concern the very aim, logic and efficiency of programs to extend broadband and wireless technology at public expense. Though the aims of extending service to distant impoverished areas seem worthy on the surface, there are many reasons to think the major beneficiaries of these programs are the technology companies that win the contracts.

… the FCC, prodded by an industry ever on the lookout for incremental growth opportunities, is ignoring the health of youngsters to promote expanded Wi-Fi subsidies in schools across the U.S.

As a captured agency, the FCC is a prime example of institutional corruption. Officials in such institutions do not need to receive envelopes bulging with cash. But even their most well-intentioned efforts are often overwhelmed by a system that favors powerful private influences, typically at the expense of public interest.

… the auctions of electromagnetic spectrum, used by all wireless communications companies to send their signals, have yielded nearly $100 billion in recent years. The most recent auction to wireless providers produced the unexpectedly high total of $43 billion. No matter that the sale of spectrum is contributing to a pea soup of electromagnetic "smog" whose health consequences are largely unknown. The government needs money and Congress shows its appreciation with consistently pro-wireless policies.

Science is often the catalyst for meaningful regulation. But what happens when scientists are dependent on industry for research funding? Under pressure from budget cutters and deregulators, government funding for research on RF health effects has dried up. The EPA, which once had 35 investigators in the area, has long since abandoned its efforts.85 Numerous scientists have told me there‘s simply no independent research funding in the U.S. They are left with a simple choice: work on industry-sponsored research or abandon the field.


… an FCC with public interest commissioners is an idea worth consideration. 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.