Communications policymaking increasingly relies upon large-scale databases manufactured and marketed by commercial organizations. Data providers such as BIA Research, Nielsen Media Research, and Arbitron play a vitally important role in aggregating the data that policymakers, policy analysts, and policy advocates rely upon in policy deliberations. In many ways, these data providers supplement the limited data gathering capacity of government bodies such as the FCC and NTIA and thereby help to bring a greater quantity of relevant data to bear on policy issues than would otherwise be possible. Indeed, these data are utilized extensively by stakeholders with an interest in policy outcomes to conduct and submit studies that policymakers rely upon in their deliberations (often in lieu of conducting such research on their own).

One unfortunate byproduct of this situation, however, is that, to the increasing extent that the data relied upon in policymaking, policy analysis, and policy advocacy are provided by commercial organizations, substantial inequalities in access to these data inevitably arise. Specifically, significant actors in the policymaking process, such as academic researchers and public interest organizations, lack the financial resources of communications firms and industry associations to gain access to the data that are vital to conducting thorough, reliable, and persuasive policy research. Policymakers themselves often find their research objectives inhibited by the enormous expense associated with the relevant large-scale commercial datasets, and thus find themselves increasingly reliant upon the analyses conducted by those stakeholder groups with the resources necessary to gain access to such data. As a result of these information asymmetries, policy decision-making is likely to suffer, as the research inputs inevitably fail to reflect the full range of considerations across the full range of interested stakeholders. This paper illustrates these issues via a case study of the FCC’s 2003 media ownership proceeding and offers suggestions for how the existing disparities in access to policy-relevant data might be addressed.

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