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FTC Wants More Authority Over Communications Companies

Federal Trade Commission Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras and the other commissioners unanimously endorse giving the FTC authority over common carriers.

That came in response to a question from Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) at an FTC oversight hearing in the House Energy & Commerce Committee Tuesday, a hearing at which Dorgan urged the FTC to better enforce its regulations.

Majoras said that with communications companies increasingly bundling broadband and traditional phone service, the exemption of FTC oversight from the latter is problematic. With the converging of media, the commissioners agreed the exemption was an anachronism and an artifact of a 70-year-old regulatory regime.

Majoras raised the hypothetical of the commission wanting to look at a potentially deceptive broadband-delivered ad but being stymied by the bundling of that service with phone.

Dorgan also asked whether the FTC was looking into the proposed Siruis/XM Satellite merger. Majoras said no, pointing out that the FTC and the Justice Department divvy up jurisdiction over merger reviews, with Justice handling radio mergers.

Dorgan said that if the recent history of consolidation was any gauge, Justice's review wasn't of particularly high value. Dorgan said the committee would have to make sure and talk to Justice about the merger, then, saying a hearing had been scheduled.

Dorgan, a frequent media consolidation critic, went so far as to say that he wanted to put the pictures of Justice and FTC antitrust attorneys on the sides of milk cartons because they had appeared to "vanish" when it comes to enforcement. He said it had happened under Democratic and Republican administrations, with "pom poms and cheerleaders" and a few conditions here and there. The result, he lamented, was a "dramatic growth" in concentration.

Dorgan asked the FTC commissioners to remember it was a "regulatory" body. "There is nothing wrong with regulation," he said.

Committee Co-Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who had to make an early exit, said he would submit written questions to Majoras, including regarding his concern over the FTC's monitoring of minor's access to objectionable content, citing "Internet predators" as one example.

Majoras said the commission would continue to monitor self-regulation of marketing of alcohol, video games, music and movies, as well as the issue of childhood obesity, where the FTC has encouraged the industry to boost its efforts.

She also said that cracking down on bogus health care claims would continue to be a focus of the commission.

Since at least 2003, the FTC has been cracking down on TV informercials and ads as well as online and other marketing of products billed as curing cancer, adding height, trimming weight, and other claims. The commission has also been trying to better educate media companies about what claims should raise an immediate red flag.

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.