Public Knowledge Probes Unseating Officials

Group says email was not targeted at FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON — According to multiple sources familiar with the communication, Public Knowledge president Gene Kimmelman emailed some members of the public interest community asking about the mechanics of launching a “We the People” petition to urge the White House to withdraw a nomination, and whether there was any precedent for that.

Those sources, who had seen a copy of the twoline email, concluded it referred to the renomination of Democratic Federal Communications Commission member Jessica Rosenworcel and was tied to her ongoing issues with FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s set-top box initiatives. Kimmelman said that was not the case.

One person in the public interest community who had presumed the email targeted Rosenworcel said he wanted set-top box competition, too, and thought the FCC proposal was the best chance in a couple of decades to achieve that consumer-friendly goal. But he also said that to target Rosenworcel’s re-nomination over it would be an overreaction.


Public Knowledge, though, has been urging the public to support Wheeler’s “unlock the box” efforts at the FCC and in Congress and taking aim at opponents and questioners of the plan.

Kimmelman would not address the email specifically — which did not mention any nominees by name — but said he was making a general inquiry into how such petitions worked.

A Hill source said some of Public Knowledge’s allies had assumed the email targeted Rosenworcel, given how strongly the group has been pushing back on the plan’s critics, including Democrats.

“Sorry for the confusion, but I’ve been gathering information in preparation for the next administration,” Kimmelman said, which could include asking current officeholders to make way for new people. “That includes the Copyright Office (we have many beefs with them). It could ultimately include others, but Copyright has been our immediate focus.”

“I’ve been asking what mechanisms there may be once an administration nominated — whether confirmed or not — to reconsider or once leaving office to ask current officeholders to step down, or withdraw their support,” Kimmelman told Multichannel News. “My main focus has been the Copyright Office, but in general about what we do about people who are not serving the public interest.”

One source said that a Copyright Office focus makes more sense than going after a sitting FCC commissioner. One of Public Knowledge’s “beefs” with the Copyright Office was over the office advising members of Congress recently that the “unlock the box” proposal “could interfere with copyright owners’ rights to license their works as provided by copyright law, and restrict their ability to impose reasonable conditions on the use of those works through private negations.”

“[W]e are considering a variety of approaches to restructuring that [Copyright] Office and bringing in less-biased leadership, including tools like a grassroots petition,” Kimmelman said.

Rosenworcel’s renomination has been a hot topic of late. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has held up a confirmation vote in the Senate. Ranking member Harry Reid (DNev.), during a stinging floor speech, called out McConnell for breaking an agreement the Democrats made to approve Michael O’Rielly as Republican commissioner on a standalone basis as long as Rosenworcel would get her vote separately, which has not happened.

Public Knowledge is a big backer of Wheeler’s effort to create set-top box competition and easier access to online content alongside traditional fare as a way to boost the attractiveness of leased-box alternatives.

While the group has been pushing hard for the FCC’s set-top box revamp, Rosenworcel has had issues from the beginning.

She said the first “unlock the box” proposal had “real flaws” and that “another way forward” was needed.

Pay TV providers, led by NCTA: The Internet & Television Association, proposed an app-based alternative. Wheeler’s “another way forward” was to pivot toward that approach, but not sufficiently to gain MVPD and studio support due the inclusion of an app licensing body with FCC oversight.

Earlier this month, Rosenworcel said she didn’t think the FCC should get into licensing and does not believe it has the authority to do so, echoing the concerns of cable operators and Hollywood studios.

Rosenworcel has said all along she favors competition in the set-top market, saying personally and professionally that leased boxes are clunky and expensive. She even voted for the “unlock the box” proposal, though she said it needed work and committed to working toward that goal.

The set-top box fight has morphed into a pitched battle with some prominent Democrats joining Republicans, MVPDs, app developers, studios and most creative unions in calling for the FCC to delay, adjust or rethink the proposal.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a harsh critic of the cable industry, has said that she has never seen such unanimity against a proposal.


Kimmelman has been talking about cable and Hollywood pressure to delay an “unlock the box” vote, which also led some to conclude his email might be targeted to Rosenworcel.

In a Sept. 16 blog post, he cited the “clever political strategies” the powerful cable and Hollywood interests were employing to block the effort.

“Why would cable and Hollywood repeatedly call for a delay? Because then any FCC commissioners still debating the merits won’t have to risk voting to anger the cable monopolies or Hollywood giants,” he said in the post.

“My blog was designed to show many of the industry sponsored delay tactics designed to prevent a vote,” Kimmelman said.

He said he is not sure where Rosenworcel will come down, but added: “I have every expectation that she will vote to prevent the ongoing price gouging of consumers through today’s outrageous set-top box prices.”