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FCC Flap

Those of you on the nets may have noticed a flurry of postings about a proposed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) surcharge on modem users. Just to get this out in the open right away, this rumor is FALSE! Phew, now that we’ve cleared the air and everyone can stop being irate at the FCC, let’s look at this in a little more detail.

I can’t say that this posting is specifically a hoax, because that implies willful maliciousness on the part of an individual. That very well may not be true. It is true that such a proposal came before the FCC a number of years (ten or so?) ago and was defeated, in part due to the outpouring of sentiment from modem users. The problem is that such information on the nets never disappears, it just gets hidden for a while. Eventually someone who is new to the nets finds the information, say the posting on the original case, and assumes that it’s true, failing to check the dates involved and the current FCC docket. At that point, our well-meaning neophyte immediately forwards the seemingly urgent posting to everyone he or she knows, some of whom may know that this is a moot-point; others of whom will react with equal horror. This continues ad netfinitum until there are enough postings saying "Stop! It’s a hoax!" that everyone cools down for a year or two. Then some well-meaning net neophyte finds an archived posting and…

On the face of it, this problem only applies to people in the U.S. I don’t know much about modem surcharges in other countries, although I gather they are not unheard of. Nonetheless, this incident does have several lessons for users of the global networks no matter where you may be located – after all, you never know which warning will apply to you and which won’t.

The FCC surcharge posting appeared first (to my eyes) on a local user group BBS, forwarded by a well-meaning someone with net access at Microsoft. The user group members were horrified, and several of them immediately whipped off letters of complaint to the FCC, and even posted form letters people could print out to send to the FCC. This happened within only a few days, and by the time I saw these messages and posted a note of caution, expressing my doubt that the proposal was real, a bunch of people had already complained to the FCC. Luckily, several people acted equally as quickly on my note, and after checking with FCC, posted retractions and asked others to refrain from bothering the FCC further. At first, I thought this reaction might be limited to the BBS world, but then I received several copies of the posting from friends who haven’t been on the nets long enough to have seen it the first few times around.

There are a number of risks here. First, it’s trivial to spread a false warning around the globe in a matter of days so it’s likely that this sort of thing will happen again. In this situation, the thing to do is to check the source as carefully as you can before basing any serious action on that warning. Second is the case of The Net That Cried Wolf. Distributing warnings via the nets is an extremely powerful and useful method of informing lots of people quickly, but we cannot abuse that power or else everyone will ignore net warnings because they’re so common. Third, although this particular proposal is false, you may remember an editorial I wrote some time ago about how the Department of Justice wanted to require telephone companies to make it easy to tap phone systems. That incident proves that we cannot necessarily trust the government to leave us alone, happily telecommunicating away. This is an issue because if modem users periodically bombard the FCC with complaints about this non-existent surcharge proposal, the FCC is less likely to take us seriously as a group in the future when our combined clout might become necessary.

So the moral of the story is not so much "Look before you leap," but "Think before you post." We’ll all be better off for it.

Unlike the false posting that merely gives some general addresses to write to but no specific information about the fictitious proposal, the memo from the FCC we’ve seen does have specific information. If you wish to verify for yourself that this surcharge proposal is indeed a hoax, call the number below.

Federal Communications Commission
Common Carrier Bureau
Enforcement Division
Informal Complaints and Public Inquiries Branch Suite 6202
Washington, D.C. 20554

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