They’re a bunch of unelected bureaucrats who control every device you want to own. If that doesn’t make them seem like evil overlords, it’s hard to know what will. Seriously though, the FCC is the US government agency tasked with approving and licensing anything that puts out any sort of electronic signal. Basically, everything.
The FCC has been around since the early days of radio. It is not a lawmaking group — that’s Congress — and it’s actually a fairly small agency. The commissioners who oversee the operation are appointed by the US President.
Until the 1970s or so, the FCC didn’t have a lot to do. They regulated radio and television, kept the phone company (in most cases there was only one company) in line and probably played a lot of golf.
Then things started to get interesting. In addition to home computers and that sort of device, all of a sudden there were microwave ovens and other non-techie things putting out a lot of radiation. The FCC stepped in to legislate that too.
The FCC got busy toward the end of the 20th century. First they dipped into pagers (remember those?) and cell phones, then all sorts of things like wireless mice, remote controls, GPS’s, pretty much everything you put a battery into.
The FCC does not “regulate” technically, since they don’t make laws. They “administer.” They set rules for how you can broadcast, what you can broadcast, and at the end of it all, pretty much who can do the broadcasting. They issue license to every TV station and radio station as well as anything else that puts out a signal. If your remote, microwave, bluetooth, or other device has an “FCC ID” on it, that’s a license.
For those companies that don’t follow the rules, the FCC can levy fines. Probably the most public case of this happening was in the last decade when CBS was fined for showing the somewhat naked Janet Jackson during the Super Bowl. If you don’t pay the fines, you lose your license.
The FCC gets a lot of negative publicity because they don’t always make common-sense decisions. Rather than forcing all cell carriers to use the same technology (which would mean you could walk into any store with your cell phone and activate it) they let the carriers decide. They picked standards for HDTV, HD Radio and satellite radio that aren’t any better… except that they are patented so anyone who makes one of those things has to pay a royalty. Still, the FCC gets picked on pretty much the same by both sides so they are probably doing a fair job.
Every five years or so, the FCC gets a new chairperson. The new nominee is Tom Wheeler, who served at various times as the head of the cable industry lobby and of the cell phone industry lobby. Gee, will he be more friendly to cell carriers or cable companies? Seems like he’ll probably be a little bit beholden to both. Still, he does know a lot about communications and that’s a plus.
If you want to get really down and dirty about the FCC, read the more informational but less entertaining Wikipedia article.