FCC Takes A Break From Not Caring About Consumers To Hassle Some Landlords Over Pirate Radio

from the odd-priorities dept

It's been pretty clear for a while now that the Trump/Ajit Pai FCC simply doesn't give a shit about consumer protection, healthy markets, high prices, or competition. It's why they've effectively dismantled the FCC's authority and ceded US telecom policy-making to AT&T and Comcast lobbyists. All in the repeatedly disproven belief that gutting oversight of a bunch of politically powerful natural monopolies somehow results in free market magic. Of course the end result of thirty-years of this kind of policy thinking is Comcast, which pretty much speaks for itself.

Instead of doing one of its core jobs of protecting markets and consumers, the Pai FCC has spent an inordinate amount of time hyperventilating over pirate radio broadcasts. Every few months or so the FCC will crow about how it has cracked down on some piddly pirate radio broadcaster that (usually) is causing minimal harm (and can't pay the resulting fine anyway). Often, some of these broadcasts are catered to very narrow and underserved minority communities, and taking them offline isn't worth the time and enforcement cost unless it's causing significant, major harm to a legit regional broadcaster or public safety.

But recently the FCC took things to the next level, by using recently expanded authority under the PIRATE Act to target property owners and landlords who host those engaging in pirate radio broadcasts:

"The bureau issued an announcement that it is exercising the FCC’s new authority under the recently enacted PIRATE Act, which gave the commission a significant new hammer in its anti-pirate toolkit: “Parties that knowingly facilitate illegal broadcasting on their property are liable for fines of up to $2 million,” it stated.

Enforcement Bureau Chief Rosemary Harold said, “It is unacceptable — and plainly illegal under the new law — for landlords and property managers to simply opt to ignore pirate radio operations. Once they are aware of these unauthorized broadcasts, they must take steps to stop it from continuing in their buildings or at other sites they own or control."

There is, of course, a whole slew of secondary liability issues that crop up from the FCC cracking down hard on landlords that not only may not really understand they're hosting a pirate radio broadcast, especially given the "real" threat these often tiny pirate broadcasts pose. Some of the fines are upwards of $2 million; and landlords could wind up paying significantly more in penalties than the actual pirate broadcasters, who usually can't afford to pay the fines anyway. That's assuming FCC lawyers can show the landlord "knowingly tolerated" the broadcasts, which seems like a bit of an uphill climb.

It's also a bit odd to see the FCC aggressively flex here, given its complete and total apathy to its broader mission: protecting consumers, small competitors, and the market from giant regional monopolies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon. Yes, pirate radio broadcasts can certainly cause harm, especially if they're interfering with public safety broadcasts. But the scale of the actual harm is usually a far cry from the harm caused by letting natural telecom monopolies with thirty years of anticompetitive behavior under their belts literally dictate state and federal internet and telecom policy. It's odd to fixate on the smaller problem of pirate radio while being utterly apathetic to stuff like... rampant broadband monopolization.

Yes, these pirate broadcasters are breaking the law. Yes, they should just shift to streaming and avoid the legal hassle, risk, and potential harm they can cause. Yes, the FCC should investigate and punish pirate broadcasters when they're causing clear, significant, provable harm. But recall, this is also an FCC that's been totally apathetic to the way unchecked media consolidation has been harming marginalized minority voices for decades, so turning around and over-reacting to what are often creative (albeit illegal and potentially unwise) alternative solutions to navigate the US media landscape shows a lack of foresight and broader thinking.

Such high profile actions do, however, generate headlines that imply the Trump FCC hasn't been utterly negligent when it comes to doing its broader job of protecting the public at large because a bunch of giant monopolies told them to.

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Filed Under: ajit pai, fcc, harm, landlords, pirate radio, secondary liability


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2021 @ 7:25am

    Is this even constitutional? Can private citizens be coerced into enforcing government regulations upon others? Can I be punished because someone else is committing a crime that I might have known about, and I didn't compel them to stop by threatening violence upon them?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2021 @ 7:58am

    Lets get real here.

    The original broadcast radio was pirate broadcasters, at that time ham radio operators serving their local area. Thus, "pirate" broadcasters are as old as radio itself.

    As for the FCC serving markets and consumers, pleeeeeese. From Bill Clinton to Barak Obama the democratic controlled FCC cared as little as the republican FCC (including Trump's) for markets and consumers.

    The FCC is like every other government agency. The FCC as a whole cares about it's budget and perquisites. Beyond that everything else is window dressing.

    The complaint here is primarily against Agit Pai. While, I'll agree that Pai was a lousy FCC head, the idea that the FCC was a radio panacea under other (democratic) bosses is political BS in it's purest/smelliest form.

    I'll be nasty enough to remind readers that Obama didn't breakup the telecommunications monopolies. Obama/Democrats didn't provide/sign legislation that provided competition for the Internet, or Hollywood. The idea that things will change under j. biden is wishful thinking at best, or more likely more political deceit.

    I have the guts to say it. Trump was a bad president, however, Biden is evil incarnate. The Biden FCC will reflect such.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2021 @ 8:04am

      Re: Lets get real here.

      Everybody is corrupt inside, even you.
      With or without money.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2021 @ 9:52am

      Re: Lets get real here.

      "Biden is evil incarnate"

      Did he turn you into a newt?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2021 @ 10:54am

      Re: Lets get real here.

      Gee, thanks for reminding us about stuff Techdirt wrote about all the time. Yep, you're supe nasty and insightful. Good on you for calling out the "political BS". Much kudos, many cheers.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 4 Jan 2021 @ 2:19pm

      Re: Lets get real here.

      When you do/dont do your job..
      And have nothing left to do.
      YOU DO SOMETHING, to look asif, you are doing a job.

      Employers get Fussy, when you PAID the Checkers to Check, but there are not enough customers for All of them to be busy, and they Stand or Clean up the Checkstands. Its Costs money to look busy, and do NOTHING.
      Which is abit different then an agency that DOES have many jobs, and isnt DOING ANY OF THEM. So they change a regulation so they can do Little things, and look important. AND still not doing their jobs.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    EGF Tech Man (profile), 4 Jan 2021 @ 8:03am

    Poor argument

    Most of the pirates I hear around my area are broadcasting Alex Jones, hardly serving the community, and they are interfering with licensed broadcasters - with the proliferation of FM translators rebroadcasting HD-x or AM signals now in addition to LPFMs, there really is very little spectrum left, and transmitting on nearly any frequency is interfering with the fringe reception of another LICENSED user.

    What should have happened was after the DTV conversion in 2009 and the low band VHF TV channels were mostly abandoned, TV channel 6 should have been reallocated to some sort of community radio (LPFM like) service with easier licensing requirements.. for worldwide compatibility, most FM radio RF decks and chipsets are capable of going down to 76MHz, so it would mostly be firmware changes for "USA mode" on modern microcontroller based tuners.

    Property owners can be normally be held liable for activity occurring on their property if they take no action to stop it...Authorities can do the same for them if there is a meth lab on their property and the property owners protect it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2021 @ 11:00am

      Re: Poor argument

      Well, what should have happened is public open band not getting screwed. I thought broadcasters forced to go digital was supposed to open up vast tracts of spectrum.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2021 @ 7:25pm

        Re: Re: Poor argument

        I thought broadcasters forced to go digital was supposed to open up vast tracts of spectrum.

        It did. Just not for the public. Remember, corporations are masters at taking away something you get for free and selling it back to you at a significant markup.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JustMe (profile), 4 Jan 2021 @ 9:22am

    I know virtually nothing about this subject

    I disagree with you Karl that the pirate broadcasters "should just shift to streaming and avoid the legal hassle". I imagine some of the pirates are serving communities of listeners who cannot afford to have computers or cell phones, to say nothing of the data plans that allow them to stream stations that aren't included in corporate cap agreements. I also imagine some of the pirates want to serve their listeners by playing content that, while still under copyright and thus illegal to broadcast unless one is licensed by the FCC, is also not included in any of the playlists of terrestrial radio or streaming services. There is a lot of fantastic music that will never be heard again because it is locked up by greedy record companies and collectives such as ASCAP, BMI and SESAC - entities who would rather let music die if they are unable to extract a profit (almost none of which finds its way to the original creators).

    We can also look at the recent events at Twitch, in which even incidental songs playing in the streamer's own house caused the RIAA to issue C&D letters, resulting in streams being deleted. So no, streaming isn't necessarily without legal risks.

    This is to say nothing of the capricious rules governing web broadcasts of music, such as the Sound Recording Performance Complement. The box set clause, specifically, could make it nearly impossible to feature songs from an artist.

    Fight the power, music for the people ♫♪

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Paul Johnson (profile), 4 Jan 2021 @ 9:23am

    Dangerous interference

    I know that pirate radio is a problem for air traffic control in London, and I suspect that the same goes for other US cities. Pilots on approach to London airports have been unable to hear the controller due to interference from pirate radio. Emergency services also suffer from this.

    The problem is that pirate transmitters are often crude and not properly adjusted, so they leak across lots of other frequencies. This isn't just The Man cracking down on some under-dogs: there is a real public safety issue here.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2021 @ 10:58am

      Re: Dangerous interference

      England has always had a much larger (and higher wattage) pirate radio scene than the US. If any of these stations were causing actual interference, it would have been all over the news.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      OGquaker, 4 Jan 2021 @ 4:49pm

      Re: Dangerous street drugs

      So the more extra-legal a market is, the less market pressure to improve a product. By controlling the entire radio spectrum with "permissions" that are $free to players decimating the Government's pablum (or on the Left end of the dial; Christianity) and not even a small window of spectrum available to 380,000,000 "other" Americans, thus transmitter quality is poor. The FCC's MISSION is to regulate quality for EVERYONE, not dole out 1st Amendment rights to the richest players. Half of my friends in the last 60 years have the chops to fix a radio transmitter/antenna set up , but only 10% know how to buy safe street drugs. Legalize!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2021 @ 11:52am

    News Flash!! 10 yr old arrested for Raspberry pi Pirate radio station!!!!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2021 @ 4:02pm

    Knowledge standard

    That's assuming FCC lawyers can show the landlord "knowingly tolerated" the broadcasts, which seems like a bit of an uphill climb.

    I wouldn't assume it's a significant hill just yet. The government has been successful in other areas twisting the "knowing" standard to be a farce. I can believe that the flow here will be:

    • Pirate broadcasts from a rented property
    • FCC determines the origin and identifies the landlord
    • FCC sends a letter to the landlord alleging a pirate radio is on the landlord's property. The letter is written such that most landlords don't understand the significance of the letter, and either bin it or stick it on a long to-do queue.
    • Some time passes, perhaps even just a few days.
    • The FCC determines the pirates are still broadcasting.
    • The FCC alleges that the landlord "knowingly" (because the FCC letter provided the knowledge) "tolerated" (because the pirates are still broadcasting) the activity.
    • The landlord gets screwed in court.

    It's possible that the FCC won't abuse this as aggressively as I fear, but on the other hand, if they weren't interested in pushing this, they might not be bothering with pirate radio at all until a large legitimate broadcaster raised a fuss about it.

    Factor in also that there will be plenty of smaller landlords who lack the legal teams to fight this effectively, making them easy prey once the FCC establishes a farcical knowledge standard.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2021 @ 7:17pm

      Re: Knowledge standard

      "smaller landlords who lack the legal teams..."

      My landlady isn't absentee. She's dead.

      If no one even cares about the squirrels getting into the attic, and now you're asking these same absentee landlords to engage in broadcast regulation?

      Good luck with that.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      OGquaker, 4 Jan 2021 @ 9:02pm

      Bury past knowledge, and alternative futures are lost

      Use to be a Licensed radio engineer had to be on the premises. My friend was a Class-A, supporting the local FM at 20 years old. ANY transmission F-U was then a $10k fine for all and any portion of each day. RKO-radio & TV lost half their licenses, pulled by the FCC. See https://web.archive.org/web/20060831093020/http://www.nyls.edu/cmc/uscases/rko.htm has engaged in a staggering variety of corporate misconduct
      A Glendale, CA radio station was fined $5,000 in the early 1970's for broadcasting a single program that was not recorded locally, under the Paramount Decree (SCOTUS 334 U.S. 131 (1948). All these restrictions were lifted during the Reagan epoch, and "non-profit" broadcasting morphed into for-profit dynamics when their sidebands were monetized; SCA's were deregulated in 1983.
      American radio network (2004-10) was the last we saw of leftest radio on the right of 90.7 in this country. The FCC, under riot conditions from radio pirates, "created" Low Power FM maximum of 100watts (unlicensed CB is 10 meters @ 10 watts) as a non-commercial educational broadcast radio service in 2000. Who Knew?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Paul B, 4 Jan 2021 @ 9:38pm

      Re: Knowledge standard

      Judges tend to use tests based on the above. A letter from the FCC needs to give time for the landlord to take corrective action as his rights to shut down the renter are not always clear and often have legal time frames attached.

      So as long as the landlord can show he started the process the government is not going to get far with a court. Even outright illegal activity on the landlords property can only be met with civil evictions or notice to vacate depending on the local rules.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Tim R (profile), 5 Jan 2021 @ 12:08am

    Oh, goody. I can't wait to have to deal with the cops on a weekly basis because a random nosy Karen in the neighborhood saw a 25ft portable dipole in my back yard.

    Tim, KO4JZM

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TasMot (profile), 5 Jan 2021 @ 5:33am

    Let's Try to Get This Straight

    The FCC, using its own (hopefully sophisticated- or not - equipment), has detected a Pirate radio station. Now, instead of using standard (relatively easy) triangulation to find the station and under its legal authority shutting it down. It stops and sends a letter to a landlord who now has to find a way to locate the Pirate station and shut it down. WOW. It sounds like the landlords now need a Section 230 to protect them from secondary liability. Instead, a law gets passed that says they have to become the FCC's enforcement arm, determine where the radio station is and then shut it down. This is a cluster of lawsuits against the landlords as they try to find the radio station and shut it down while possibly searching through hundreds of apartments in a building. Let's face it, if the FCC can detect the illegal radio station, they should be able to then locate it and shut it down.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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