Will your favorite Netflix show be interrupted by shrill noises and then urgent news from the country’s leaders in the future? It’s a possibility Congress may soon hear when the FCC reports on the feasibility of pushing streaming services through the emergency alert system.
In the 1960s, a predecessor system of EAS was put in place to warn Americans of entering bomb shelters in the event of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Later, all broadcast stations and cable and satellite operators were required to install and maintain the system. These days the EAS has shown some rust.
Notably, in January 2018, the citizens of Hawaii woke up to the ominous alarm of a ballistic missile threat that turned out to be a mistake. As a result of this erroneous message and within the framework of defense credit laws, the FCC was tasked with investigating improvements. “As climate change increases the frequency and severity of weather emergencies, it has never been more important to maintain an effective emergency warning system,” said FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks.
But what about streamers? How to ensure that those who force-feed Bridgerton get the message, say, of an incoming tornado?
In battling the possibility of imposing emergency alert obligations on streaming services, the tech and entertainment lobby (even the Motion Picture Association filed a comment) are making two important points. First, they argue, this is unnecessary given the prevalence of mobile phones, which receive wireless emergency alerts. Second, it would be very expensive to get out of it. And, in the engineering community, there is debate about the challenges of focusing emergency alerts given the large geographic footprint of streaming services.
But perhaps the bigger issue is whether the FCC will start to take a more active role in controlling Netflix, Hulu, Disney + and others like broadcasters. A regulatory proposal notice notes that the agency has not even defined “streaming services” yet, with an invitation to comment.
“While it is interesting that the FCC is looking into streaming EAS, this is not a case where the FCC seeks to push its jurisdiction to regulate Internet content,” warns David Oxenford, expert in communications law. at Wilkinson Barker Knauer. He points out that the FCC is simply studying the matter and will not decide one way or the other, but will simply report its findings to Congress. Still, there is the possibility of new legislation that will force streamers to comply with government priorities – especially as politicians are talking about a big game over regulating Big Tech.
This story first appeared in the July 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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