The FCC yesterday announced that they had seized the equipment of two Boston-area pirate radio stations that had refused to cease operations after receiving FCC notices to do so. The FCC Public Notice on the seizure thanks the US Attorney’s Office and US Marshall’s Office, and the Boston Police Department, for assisting the FCC Field Office in carrying out the seizure authorized by the Communications Act for stations operating without a license. Seizure of equipment is carried out pursuant to Section 510 of the Communications Act, and generally requires that the US Attorney receive approval of a US District Court before the equipment can be seized Thus, the cooperation of the US Attorney’s office in a local jurisdiction is vital to conducting a seizure such as that done in Boston. Commissioner O”Rielly, who has been a vocal proponent of increased actions against pirate radio (see our post here) issued a statement commending the action and calling it a complement to legislative action to enhance fines on such stations and impose clear liability on landlords who host pirate operations (see our post here about a case where the FCC has already put landlords on notice of potential liability for pirate radio operations where they had clear involvement in such operations).

Legislative action on pirate radio seems to be in the works. To combat pirate radio operations, the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology last week held a hearing (video available here) on proposed bills to amend the Communications Act, including one called the Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement (PIRATE) Act (see discussion draft here). The draft bill would raise potential fines on pirate radio operators to $2,000,000, and fines of up to $100,000 per day for violations of the Communications Act and FCC rules related to such pirate operations. It would eliminate the need to provide pirates a Notice of Apparent Liability, with the opportunity to respond, before a fine is issued to an operator of a pirate radio station, if the operator is caught in the act of operating the illegal station. The Act would also make clear that those who facilitate pirate radio operations are also liable for up to $2,000,000 fines (“facilitates” is defined to include providing property from which the pirate operates or money for their operations). The draft bill also calls on the FCC to, twice each year, dedicate staff to “sweep” the top 5 radio markets determined to have the most pirate activity to identify pirates and seize their equipment, and authorizes states to enact their own laws making such operations illegal as long as the determination of who is a pirate radio station is made by the FCC. 

The statement made at the hearing by David Donovan, President of the New York State Broadcasters Association, provides a litany of the ways in which pirate radio operators can cause disruptions to the communications industry – including causing interference to licensed stations and to FAA communications, as well as disruptions to the Emergency Communications network. His testimony also makes clear that increased penalties for pirate radio operations will make US Attorneys more willing to take actions to authorize equipment seizure. I have had experience where clients have identified long-term pirate operations to Federal authorities who, because of the press of other business, have been slow to obtain seizure orders and coordinate the actual seizure of a pirate’s equipment (see our post here). Increasing penalties may help to highlight the importance of such actions and speed such coordination.

Together with the increased FCC enforcement activity against pirates already underway (see our posts here and here), many broadcasters, particularly those in markets where pirate activity has been high, are hopeful that real progress against these illegal operations may be on the way.

Update – 3/29/2018 4:30 PM Eastern – The FCC today, perhaps to emphasize how serious they are about stamping out pirate radio, released 4 notices sent to suspected pirates, telling them to cease operations or face criminal or civil fines.  Those warnings can be found here, here, here and here