Yes, the FCC Still Wants Your Social Security Number

Scott R. Flick

Posted January 3, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

Earlier today, the FCC released a Sixth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking relating to its biennial broadcast ownership report filing requirements, reigniting a controversy over privacy, broadcast investment, and indeed, the very purpose of the reports.

In 2009, the FCC revamped its Form 323, the Commercial Broadcast Station Ownership Report, somewhat to address data collection shortcomings identified by the U.S. Government Accounting Office, but mostly to try to make the information more standardized and transparent for academic researchers wishing to generate industry-wide ownership statistics, particularly with regard to minority and female ownership. Unfortunately, the FCC's initial effort to revise the form seemed to have focused on trying to create a form that researchers would applaud, rather than on the "user experience" of those required to fill it out. The result was an awkward effort at forcing complex ownership information into highly redundant machine-readable spreadsheet formats.

Causing particular consternation, however, was a new requirement that every officer, director and shareholder mentioned in those reports have a unique FCC-issued Federal Registration Number (FRN). Because the FCC wants researchers to be able to track the race, ethnicity and gender of each individual connected with a broadcast station, it requires that those registering to obtain an FRN provide either a Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN), or a Social Security Number (SSN). This, according to the FCC, is necessary to allow it to differentiate between individuals that may have similar names and addresses.

Not surprisingly, this requirement met with fierce opposition from numerous groups, including: (1) those who have heard the admonition of government and others to never reveal your SSN to anyone or risk identity theft; (2) broadcasters, who found less than thrilling the experience of badgering their shareholders to either hand over their SSN or take the time to apply for and deliver the FRN themselves; (iii) broadcast lawyers, trying to get ownership reports on file by the deadline despite never hearing back from a significant percentage of those asked to cooperate to provide individual FRNs; and (iv) the investor community, which is not fond of the idea of having to hand over personal information because an individual chose to buy shares of a broadcast company rather than a movie studio.

After fierce opposition and various failed efforts to get the FCC to eliminate the requirement or at least create an alternate method of obtaining an FRN that didn't require an SSN or TIN, the FCC had a change of heart when required by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit to explain itself (you can read Paul Cicelski's discussion of that response here). The FCC defended the new ownership report filing requirements by telling the court that no one would be forced to hand over their SSN or TIN, as it was going to permit broadcasters to apply for a Special Use FRN (SUFRN, one of the most descriptive acronyms you will find) in cases where a party refuses to allow use of its SSN/TIN. In light of this representation, the court declined to intervene, and the FCC proceeded with implementation of the new ownership report form and requirements.

With the availability of SUFRNs and various other changes to the ownership report form and filing system, the FCC was finally able to make the oft-extended filing deadline stick, with commercial broadcasters filing their November 1, 2009 ownership reports by a July 8, 2010 deadline. However, the effort at making the data more accessible for researchers ended up making the form very burdensome for broadcasters required to complete and submit the reports. The biggest issue is structural--requiring the submission of the exact same information over and over in a filing system never lauded for its user-friendliness. During the numerous extensions of the filing deadline, the FCC did incorporate some features like copy and paste to lessen the burden of creating duplicative reports, but no tech feature can overcome the burden created by requiring the filing of the exact same ownership information over and over again for each station in a group rather than just reporting the ownership of that group (once) and the stations that are in it. Because of this, even a relatively small broadcast group can find itself filing well over a hundred ownership report forms.

The irony is that even media researchers--the very group for which this unwieldy reporting system was created--have begun to complain that the sheer volume of filings makes it difficult to sort through the mass of repetitive data. Many communications lawyers seem to agree, finding the "old" ownership reports far more useful in understanding a station's ownership than the current edition.

Still, broadcasters and the FCC seemed to have reached a detente over the reports, with broadcasters quietly grumbling to themselves about the mind-numbing repetitiveness of drafting and filing the reports, but (having seen in the earlier iterations of the "new" report) knowing how much worse it could be. That detente may have ended today when the FCC released the Sixth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which tentatively concludes that the need to uniquely identify each person connected with a broadcast station is so strong that it must end the availability of SUFRNs and require that all reported individuals get an FRN based upon their SSN or TIN.

While the FCC's conclusions are "tentative", and it requests comment on these and many other questions relating to the ownership report, you can feel the collective chill go down broadcasters' spines as the FCC proceeds to suggest that it could fine individuals who fail to provides an SSN/TIN-based FRN, and queries whether broadcasters should be required to warn their shareholders of that. Telling shareholders or potential shareholders that they face fines for electing to invest their money in broadcasting is not exactly the best way to attract investment to broadcasting, including investment by the minority and female investors the FCC so clearly wants.

But it is that last issue that raises the most curious point of all: to get minority and female ownership information, the FCC seeks to implement an awkward, intrusive, burdensome, privacy-insensitive ownership reporting regime premised on the need for both massive ownership filings and the tracking of individuals by their SSN to determine minority and female ownership trends in the industry. Wouldn't it be far simpler, less intrusive, and less burdensome to just ask broadcasters to provide in their ownership reports (or elsewhere) aggregate data on their minority and female officers, directors, and shareholders? Researchers could then just utilize that data to create industry totals rather than having to wade through mountains of unrelated ownership data to derive it themselves.

Instead of this simplified approach, the FCC seems intent upon using the clumsy mechanism of ownership reports to assess minority and female representation in the industry, stating in the Sixth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that "Unlike many of our filing obligations, the fundamental objective of the biennial Form 323 filing requirement is to track trends in media ownership by individuals with particular racial, ethnic, and gender characteristics." For those of us who have been in the industry for quite some time, that claim is surprising, as the very first sentence of Section 73.3615, the FCC rule that governs the filing of ownership reports, states: "The Ownership Report for Commercial Broadcast Stations (FCC Form 323) must be electronically filed every two years by each licensee of a commercial AM, FM, or TV broadcast station (a "Licensee"); and each entity that holds an interest in the licensee that is attributable for purposes of determining compliance with the Commission's multiple ownership rules."

In attempting to convert a reporting obligation designed to ensure multiple ownership rule compliance into an academic research tool on minority and female broadcast ownership, the FCC undermines both goals. Broadcasters have routinely provided the minority and female ownership data the FCC seeks without fuss, and can hardly be faulted for wishing to do so in a straightforward manner that: (a) doesn't require unnecessarily complex and redundant filings; and (b) doesn't require them to badger their shareholders for private information while threatening their shareholders with federal fines for failing to comply. Rather than "doubling down" on a flawed approach, perhaps it is time for the FCC to step back and reassess the most efficient way of obtaining the desired information--more efficient for broadcasters, more efficient for the FCC, and more efficient for media researchers.

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