The Federal Communications Commission was created by the Communications Act of 1934 as the successor to the Federal Radio Commission. The FCC was originally tasked with managing all non-governmental use of the radio waves, as well as managing the telephone infrastructure. The initial rationale for managing the airwaves was relatively straightforward: no one could own the air or frequencies, and unless there was someone managing the use of the airwaves, broadcasting would fall into chaos. (Just imagine if there was no system in place to determine and assign broadcast frequencies.)
More importantly, there was a strong hope that the telephone system would work on a national level, and so consolidating management of these two key communication forces made sense. Over time, the organizations control has extended to all uses of the wireless spectrum, as well as all interstate and international telecommunications.
While there are a many items on the FCC's plate, there are really only two that relate back to us as gamers: controlling radio-emitting devices and policing broadcast content. The former is where all of the revealing filings come into play. As part of the FCC's job in regulating the airwaves, it has to regulate electronic devices that intentionally emit a frequency of some sort, as well as those which could potentially emit a frequency of some sort, albeit inadvertently, often called "unintentional emitters." The reason behind these controls is twofold: to manage the use of spectrum and prevent unnecessary interference, while also protecting consumers from devices which may emit harmful frequencies or amounts of radio.
The first kind of device, intentional emitters, should be fairly obvious, from wireless controllers to the Bluetooth headset you use on your PS3, the FCC is tasked with clearing these devices for public use. In fact, a FCCID should be printed on each device, which you can use to look up the test information on the FCC website. Unintentional emitters, on the other hand, are actually more prevalent, but subject to less complex testing. These are devices like power bricks, which may have an FCC logo, but no ID number. These devices have to be tested to comply with FCC standards, but aren't subject to the same registry. Companies importing such products have to file a Form 740 with the import to certify compliance, and violations can be subject to pretty still penalties.
The other major FCC function, policing content, is the one that often grabs more attention. As part of the various communications laws, the FCC is allowed to prevent the broadcasting of certain kinds of lewd material. Originally, this meant fining broadcasters or refusing to renew broadcasting permits. However, this eventually evolved into the television rating system we have today, in conjunction with the V-Chip.
The FCC doesn't have the authority to extend its reach to video games.
The line, however, has always existed. The FCC had no control over movies, unless being re-aired on television (which resulted in those often mediocre language edits), and it had no control over games, as video games by their nature could not be broadcast while being played. In fact, immediate response to comments on a universal rating system point out both that the FCC fails to mention movies in its statements and that is doesn't have the authority, based on various legal mandates, to extend its reach to video games. The proposal is also ironic, given the FCC's own admissions [PDF link] about the comparative high quality of the ESRB's game rating system.
Of course, I can't imagine universal content classifications would move forward. If anything, given the repeated government praise of the ESRB system, I wouldn't be surprised to see the FCC convert its ratings systems to mirror the ESRB, if any change is made at all. That doesn't mean the FCC would have control over ESRB ratings, only that TV ratings would adopt a system that more closely matches the depth of descriptors used by the ESRB.
And that, in a nutshell, is the friendly FCC; though the organization has other roles we didn't discuss here because they have no significant ties to gaming, like the Do Not Call Registry. It's quite probable that as communications continue to evolve that the FCC's role will continue to evolve with them, just as we have seen in the past. For that reason, it's probably a good idea to keep an eye on the FCC, especially if you want to monitor the filings that break stories on all sorts of new electronics.
Mark Methenitis is the Editor in Chief of the Law of the Game blog, which discusses legal issues in video games. Mr. Methenitis is also a licensed attorney in the state of Texas with The Vernon Law Group, PLLC and a member of the Texas Bar Assoc., American Bar Assoc., and the International Game Developers Assoc., where he is a board member of the Dallas chapter. Opinions expressed in this column are his own. Reach him at: lawofthegame [AAT] gmail [DAWT] com.
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