Civil Rights Groups Seek Set-Top Sunshine

In a petition to the FCC, 19 civil rights groups including the NAACP, National Action Network, and MMTC have asked that FCC chairman Tom Wheeler lift the "sunshine rule" restrictions on outside parties contacting FCC decisionmakers about the set-top box revamp.

B&Creported Friday there was some stakeholder unhappiness and an FCC filing might be imminent.

Wheeler pulled the item from a planned public meeting vote last week and placed it on circulation—where it could be voted outside a public meeting—but invoked sunshine prohibitions on outside contacts as work continued on the item.

The groups pointed out that sunshine restrictions are usually lifted when an item is pulled.

The same groups also want the FCC to release the text of the latest proposal and allow for further public comment and included that in their petition.

"Chairman Wheeler’s refusal to release the new plan for public comment makes a mockery of the process and violates the most basic principles of transparency," said National Urban League president Marc Morial. "And his decision to impose rules that silence our voices, while decisions impacting our communities are settled behind closed doors, is unacceptable. The FCC must ‘unlock the plan’ and allow for meaningful feedback.”

When the chairman took the item off the public meeting, he put it on circulation. The sunshine rule prohibitions on communications with decisionmakers usually apply to items in the seven days before a public meeting and are traditionally lifted after an item has been taken off the meeting calendar, said one industry critic of that decision.

Asked Friday about keeping the item under the sunshine rule so that outside parties could not talk with the commissioners about the item, the chairman's office pointed to the rulebook and its authority. "Where the public interest so requires in a particular proceeding" to "retain the discretion to modify the applicable ex parte rules by order, letter, or public notice."

In this case, they said, the modification "is warranted to allow continued deliberations by the Commissioners on the remaining open issues." Wheeler said following the item's removal from the agenda that it was all about "running out of time" on the latest iteration of the proposal, which included edits and content tweaks.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.