Q&A: Rick Boucher

Virginia Democrat Rick Boucher, the recently appointed chairman of the powerful House Communications, Technology & Internet Subcommittee, says that his top legislative priorities include reauthorizing the law that allows satellite to import TV station signals into a market, and coming up with a new law that would restrict how behavioral marketers can target potential online customers. The latter will affect media companies looking to the Web for help in tough economic times.

But what may be equally important to the industry is what Boucher is not focused on: the media content issues, including indecency, that got lots of attention from some of his predecessors atop the subcommittee. Boucher talks about those and other issues in this interview with B&C.

Some of your predecessors as chairman of the subcommittee have closely examined media content issues—food marketing and children's programming for Rep. Ed Markey, and indecency for Rep. Fred Upton, for example. Are there any content issues that you are concerned about?

I have always been focused more on the nuts and bolts and the regulatory aspect of telecommunications law. That has been my history, and I am not at the moment planning to look at content issues.

We are going to have our hands full with three major pieces of legislation, plus the oversight that we have, plus a fourth possible legislative approach to the cellular telephone industry. And so, we do not have content-related matters on our agenda.

What are your priorities for the subcommittee?

We have three near-term legislative priorities. The first is the reauthorization of the Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reauthorization Act, which expires at the end of this year. That is important to allow the importation of distant network signals for viewers who cannot get a local affiliate of a particular network delivered over the air. These people are primarily found in rural America [Boucher's district is in rural Virginia] in places that are a long way from the station. Sometimes mountains obstruct the signal, or just plain distance can be a problem. We have areas where those signals do not exist. Some of the markets don't even have all the affiliates.

The law says that in that instance, a distant network signal can be imported. That license expires at the end of this year, so that needs to be reauthorized. There are a number of related issues that will be considered in the context of this measure.

Will retransmission consent be one of them?

Retransmission is not on the list of things for us to consider.

Priority number two is Universal Service reform [industry funding of telecommunications service to hard-to-reach areas].

And your third priority?

Privacy. Primarily with regard to Internet-based applications. The goal would be to give the Internet user a sense that information about him that is collected by Websites is well understood by the user so he has an opportunity to know what is collected. He would then have an opportunity to act in a way that prevents that Website from using that information to market him personally, and an even broader opportunity to prevent the transfer of that information to third parties.

I am working with my ranking Republican member, Cliff Stearns [R-Fla.], and Joe Barton [R-Texas], the ranking Republican on the full committee, as well as interested Democrats, in drafting a measure that would impose these privacy assurances across the board with regard to behavioral advertising, data collection and use by Websites.

Would that be mandating an opt-in as opposed to an opt-out model?

Yes, but we have a combination of opt-in and opt-out to provide control over how that information is used. Opt-in applies where the information is conveyed to third parties. Opt-out would apply where the Website that collects the information is using that information directly to market the customers from whom it is collected.

If you are shopping on a Website that sells General Motors cars, for example, when you visit the first time you might visit the Chevrolet page or the page for the [Cadillac] Eldorado, and then when you go back the next time, you would get ads directed to you related to the Chevrolet or the Eldorado. That would generally be permitted as a default option unless the Web user affirmatively clicked a box that said “do not send me this information.”

If it is going to third parties, the default option would be that it could not be sent. The person from whom the information is collected would have to act affirmatively to check the box to allow the transfer.

Do you believe there still needs to be a network neutrality law?

There has to be a firm principle of Internet openness that is abided by all. We do not have a legislative emergency at this moment that requires that as a priority today—in the top rank of priorities for action in the next several months—that we pass legislation such as was considered a couple years ago. I think because we elevated the issue, we showed the depth of concern for that business model. The plans to do that were effectively chilled, and so that hasn’t happened and the Internet has remained open.

And in those instances where there have been some eruptions of bad behavior, the FCC has acted very effectively to prevent that activity and keep the Internet open. The status quo is working.

You led the floor debate over moving the DTV transition date.

There was no doubt that we had to postpone the digital transition from Feb. 17 until June 12. The country simply wasn’t ready; 6.5 million homes were completely unprepared. They would have lost television coverage had the transition occurred everywhere on Feb. 17. That would have been an unacceptable outcome. That is [almost] 5% of all of the television households in the nation, and we could not have had one out of every 20 households losing coverage as a consequence of this transition.
NAB endorsed moving the date. I was very pleased that broadcasters also understood how important it was to move this date. They did not want to be losing viewers either. With a new date set and with money now provided to reenergize the coupon program, which had run out of money back in December, NTIA has worked through much of the waiting list. We are continuing to gauge with NTIA the success of their program, but from all appearances it now seems to be working very well.
The other major problem was that the FCC’s call centers were in complete disarray because they were short-staffed and [the commission] did not have adequate resources to staff the call centers. That problem has also been repaired as a consequence of the stimulus.

You had a bill to subsidize antennas to help with the DTV transition. What happened to that?

We were not able to do that. We were having enough trouble, as you can see from the outcome, just making sure there was adequate funding for the converter boxes. The funding history of the DTV transition was shoddy, very shoddy. There was an effort by those who wrote the law to fund this program on the cheap, and it was very clear that insufficient money was being allocated to the DTV transition in 2005, when the date of Feb. 17 for the analog shutoff was selected.
At the time, there were ample auction proceeds available that could be drawn to fund this program adequately. And we were urging well over $2 billion. The committee ultimately authorized $1.4 billion. The auction proceeds amounted to almost $20 billion. Taking 10% of that to fund the DTV transition would not have been out of line. It could have covered antennas. As it turns out, that is roughly what we are going to wind up spending.
I think history shows we were right. Unfortunately, those in charge decided to fund this program on the cheap. So, given that the coupon program itself ran short of funds, it was not possible to fund antennas or do other things that we would have liked.

Wouldn’t just fixing the anti-deficiency act have freed up funds, rather than having to move the date?
It would not have been satisfactory. Even if the renewal of those coupons could have cleared up the waiting list, which I don’t believe it could have, there was not time for it to be done. IBM, the contractor for NTIA, would have required several weeks just to reconfigure its processes to do that. It would have taken longer to get the coupons reissued and in the mail, longer for them to be received, longer for the viewers to get their converter boxes and get them installed. And that time, if you add those increments together, would have gone well beyond Feb. 17. So, we were going to have a train wreck on Feb. 17 even if we had waived the ADA.
What question should I have asked you that I didn’t?
Am I having fun?

Are you having fun?
Yes. I have been involved in information technology policy since almost my first day in the House in 1983, and so I have had a long history of dealing with these issues. I have seen previous versions of the laws on most of these subjects. I have been anticipating the opportunity to chair the subcommittee. Now that I have that opportunity, I intend to make the most of it.

E-mail comments tojeggerton@reedbusiness.com

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.