A recent Washington Post article highlights a bill that was recently introduced in Congress suggesting that the FCC bring back their rules for audio descriptions of video programming – rules which were thrown out by the Courts several years ago as being beyond the scope of the Commission’s authority without explicit Congressional authorization. But not only does this bill propose to give that missing Congressional approval to the FCC to re-introduce video description requirements for broadcast television, but it would authorize the FCC to introduce these rules, and closed-captioning requirements, on all video screens, including MP3 players, wireless devices and other video devices getting their programming through the Internet or other digital technologies. With this bill, and various other proposals that have surfaced in recent months, it seems more and more likely that, as the Internet becomes even more important in the provision of broadcast-like programming in the future, the FCC may be called on by Congress to impose broadcast-like restrictions on that programming.
The full text of the recent bill, introduced by Congressman Markey, Chair of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, can be found here. A summary of the bill is also available on Congressman Markey’s website. The bill deals first with the accessibility of telephones and other communications devices, before setting out the provisions dealing with the captioning and video description requirements for broadcast and Internet video devices. The bill first asks the FCC to study and report to Congress on the issues with captioning and video description on video devices, and then asks the FCC to adopt rules governing these matters, making video programming placed on the Internet that was either broadcast on a television stations or which is "comparable" to broadcast programming to be subject to these rules. The idea is to make all TV-like programming subject to the rules, no matter what device it is viewed on. Presumably, if adopted, the law would allow the FCC to make exemptions for certain types of programming (just as it currently allows exemptions from the current closed captioning requirements for small entities that have insufficient resources to caption a program). The bill also requires that the FCC make sure that program guides and emergency information are available to those with hearing or visual difficulties, and that the navigation devices on video receivers can be worked by those with disabilities. So the FCC would have much to do to comply with this law, if adopted, and all within an 18 month period.
Of course, as we are now entering the summer before a major Federal election, Congress will be preoccupied with various political campaigns, and will deal principally with that legislation that needs to get passed. But whether or not this bill is adopted this Congressional session, the mere fact that it has been introduced (and featured in a Washington Post story) may well mean that the issue will return in future Congresses.
This is not the only indication that the FCC will become involved in Internet programming issues in coming years. In a recent debate between surrogates of the two Presidential candidates, press reports indicate that former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, speaking on behalf of the McCain campaign, indicated that the FCC under a President McCain would look to make programming regulation uniform across various platforms – which could mean between broadcast and cable platforms, though some interpreted it to mean that such rules would be extended to the Internet as well. Through such platform parity, could this mean that, for instance, the enforcement of indecency laws and policies would spread to the Internet?
Whether it’s captioning or indecency, the Wild West of the Internet may one day in the not too distant future have a new sheriff to deal with – one with which broadcasters are already very familiar.