Boosting FCC fines to as much as $2 million, penalizing building owners and stepping up raids in major Radio markets are among the options Congress is considering for combating illegal broadcast operations under legislation unveiled last week in a House Telecommunications Subcommittee hearing. The measures are intended to protect against interference with licensed broadcasters, the Emergency Alert System and airport flight controls, as well as radiation exposure to nearby residents and workers.
The bipartisan PIRATE Act, co-authored by Reps. Leonard Lance, R-NJ, and Paul Tonko, D-NY, would employ a combination of heightened penalties to stem the growing spread of pirate radio operations in communities throughout the country. Illegal operations are being found on the AM and FM bands alike, with FCC enforcement officers discovering transmitters operating from rooftops, balconies and other properties.
My counterpart in New York, David Donovan, testified before the committee and noted that pirates often operate with complete disregard for regulations covering a wide range of concerns, from alcohol and tobacco advertising restrictions to indecent programming – behavior that could cost a licensed broadcast station its license and considerable fines.
“This is big business and a $10,000 fine is absolutely nothing,” Donovan told lawmakers. “When you look at someone who is violating the law literally for decades, this is just the cost of doing business.”
Additional Enforcement Tools Under PIRATE Act
- Increased Fines for Illegal Pirate Operations: Under current law, fines for non-licensees, including pirate radio operators, are limited to a basic fine of around $10,000 per violation which not only is considered an insufficient deterrent, but also is less than fines that licensed stations are often assessed for a given transgression. The bill would raise the fine to up to $100,000 per day, per violation – up to a maximum of $2 million.
- Liability for “Facilitators” of Pirate Operations: Because many pirate operators operate from distant locations and send signals to a radio transmitter by microwave or even satellite, it’s difficult for the FCC and law enforcement to track them down. The legislation provides a new enforcement focus on those who “facilitate” the illegal operations, including property owners who knowingly and intentionally allow illegal broadcasts on their property.
- Streamlines Enforcement Process: Under current law, the FCC must provide a full notice and hearing to an illegal operator even before a fine is assessed, a process abused by pirates to delay and evade enforcement. Under the bill, the FCC could assess the fine before providing a hearing in cases where an illegal operator is caught broadcasting in real time. Building owners or others who facilitate pirate operations would have to be properly notified before being slapped with a fine.
- FCC Litigation Authority & Equipment Seizure/Disposal: The bill would allow the FCC to go to court directly to obtain a seizure order while respecting due process, instead of relying on the U.S. Attorney’s office as currently required. The FCC would be allowed to dispose of confiscated equipment 90 days after seizure.
- Coordinating with Local Law Enforcement: For the handful of states that have enacted their own piracy penalties, the legislation would not override those policies but would make it easier for the FCC to work with local law enforcement authorities to address pirate radio operations.
- Enforcement Sweeps: The FCC would be required to conduct bi-annual enforcement sweeps in the top five Radio markets with significant illegal pirate operations.