"Linguistic engineering" and the FCC computer inquiries, 1966-1989

Access full-text files




Lentz, Roberta G.

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



This study applies a critical discourse analysis framework to an examination of the constitutive effects of three regulatory proceedings, called “The Computer Inquiries,” on contemporary notions about communications infrastructure policy. The Computer Inquiries are a trio of interrelated U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) dockets focused on problems posed by the convergence of regulated telephony with unregulated computing services. The Inquiry docket texts, which date from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s, are a basis for the liberalization of common carrier1 regulation and are the empirical evidence that the dissertation draws upon to trace the incremental evolution of terms used to define the boundaries between these converging services. Datasets include the 23 documents contained in three case studies: Computer Inquiry I (FCC Docket 16979), Computer Inquiry II (FCC Docket 20828), and Computer Inquiry III (FCC Docket 85-229). The first case study traces the incremental construction of a concept called “hybrid” services as the foundation for an FCC policy of “maximum industry separation” between common carriers and data processing companies. The second case study illustrates how the FCC subsequently re-engineered the hybrid concept into regulatory categories of “basic” and “enhanced” services. This definitional shift justified liberalizing the FCC’s maximum separation policy into a “modified” policy based upon a resale structure. The third case study demonstrates how the FCC further relaxed the resale policy by implementing accounting controls to distinguish between regulated common carriers providing the telecommunications infrastructure (conduit) used by unregulated information services (content) companies. Research reveals the malleable and somewhat arbitrary nature of regulatory distinctions between content and conduit as a basis for the FCC’s shifting jurisdictional authority over common carriers. During the course of the Inquiries, the FCC transitioned from a proactive to a reactive regulator with a discursive strategy involving what the dissertation calls “linguistic engineering.” Finally, the study notes the lack of attention to First Amendment and democracy concerns in all three Inquiry dockets. The dissertation concludes by calling for a Fourth Computer Inquiry to reconsider the legacy of the Computer Inquiries through which the principle of nondiscriminatory carriage of information by telecommunications providers has been eroded.