The FCC's Sneaky Plan To Make It Easier To Ignore ISP Complaints

from the nothing-to-see-here dept

From real news to fake news then back again. The FCC this week was slated to vote on some seemingly insubstantial changes to the way the agency fields consumer complaints, but journalists and consumer advocates appear to have derailed the plan. It began when a few Senators expressed concern that the agency was subtly changing the wording to its consumer complaint process, potentially making it easier for the agency to ignore them entirely:

"As the chief communications regulator, the FCC plays a critical role in ensuring consumers -- including families, small businesses and struggling Americans -- get fair and honest treatment from their service providers. We worry that the proposed change signals that the FCC no longer intends to play this role, and will instead simply tell consumers with limited means and time that they need to start an expensive and complicated formal legal process."

As it stands, consumers have two options if they want to file a complaint about their ISP or cable company with the FCC. They can either file an informal complaint, which is free, or they can file a formal complaint, which requires a $225 fee and begins a long, court-like process that involves oodles of paperwork and numerous hearings. For obvious reasons most consumers don't select the latter. In fact, during the net neutrality repeal fight only one consumer actually bothered to even file a truly formal complaint, though that complaint does a pretty stellar job explaining why the net neutrality repeal was terrible (pdf).

In short, subtle wording changes by the agency reduced the likelihood that the FCC would have to take informal complaints seriously, forcing consumers toward a formal filing and the costly $225 fee to begin any meaningful process. When initial news outlets reported on the story, they incorrectly implied that the $225 for a formal complaint was new. Pai's staff was quick to pounce on those incorrect headlines to insist numerous media reports were "fake news":

Berry's denial quickly got outlets like the Washington Post to issue stories "debunking" the previous stories, parroting Berry's claim that nothing was actually changing (though it's worth noting that the Post had to later walk back the headline below claiming such). Berry, as you can imagine, really liked that:

The problem: consumer advocates like Free Press then clearly spelled out precisely what language was being changed, and why the Post was wrong to believe the FCC's claims at face value:

While minor (for example the term "disposition" is fiddled with in footnotes), many of the changes did indeed reduce the FCC's obligation to take consumer complaints seriously and intervene:

As the day wore on, tech journalists were again reporting that yes, the FCC did appear to be subtly tinkering with rules surrounding complaint handling to make it easier to ignore your complaints (again, unless you're willing to pay $225, file lots of paperwork and attend hearings). By day's end, the Washington Post received leaked word from the agency that it would be scrapping the change-that-supposedly-wasn't-a-change after "political backlash":

"The Federal Communications Commission has dropped the parts of its proposal dealing with informal complaints, according to multiple people familiar with the matter. The move comes after Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel requested the provisions be struck. Several officials cited the political backlash over the issue as a reason the FCC will not vote on those provisions Thursday, with one official saying the proposal on informal complaints was never a “conservative plot” intended to harm consumers. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal agency deliberations."

But this morning, the Post was then told that the agency might be including the language after all:

Whatever the outcome, it highlights how paying attention to often wonky policy really does matter. Pai, a telecom policy wonk since his days working at Verizon, has spent the last year building the agency he envisions: namely one that sits on its hands while giant ISPs dictate most major policies, leading us down the miraculous path to supposed telecom Utopia. Pai's Title II repeal already gutted much of the FCC's authority over ISPs, and it's unclear how many other revisions and rule changes he's shoveled through for similar effect. Whoever winds up replacing Pai will have their work cut out identifying and reversing many of these changes, if they're reversed at all.

Meanwhile, it should probably go without saying that an agency that has completely made up supporting data for its net neutrality repeal, and made up a DDOS attack in an incredibly bizarre attempt to downplay the "John Oliver effect," probably shouldn't be giving lectures on "fake news" (whatever the hell that means) anytime soon.

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  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 12 Jul 2018 @ 11:40am

    Pay to Play (or complain)

    This fits perfectly with the earlier TD article about Ajit Pai's "middle finger" to the "digital divide".

    Poor people are going to be the worst served. The most likely to complain. This seems like a great way to silence their voices in the truest spirit of free speech. Free speech -- which is that ISPs can "edit" the internet. Wow, it all seems to come together under this administration.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 12 Jul 2018 @ 12:46pm

      Re: Pay to Play (or complain)

      Free Speach = $$$$

      That was the justification for Citizens United. We're just seeing more of that justification being implemented here.

      Never assume they work for you. That's the first trick they make you fall for.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        drew (profile), 13 Jul 2018 @ 5:39am

        Re: Re: Pay to Play (or complain)

        As a non-american, the fact that you have to pay $225 to formally complain about one of the most disliked industries in the country just shows how far regulatory capture has gone. If the UK's Ofcom (a similar regulator) tried to introduce that they'd be given a thorough kicking by all parties.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 12 Jul 2018 @ 12:30pm

    Confusion reins..

    What is the FCC supposed to do, if they Dont protect the Communications of this country??

    "Perspective: Why the FCC should die (by Declan McCullagh, CNet)" I think I found it..

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2018 @ 3:22am

    But the FCC already ignores complainants. Lest we forget, the FCC claimed there were no formal complaints when arguing that net neutrality was useless. They later corrected to say there was one after being called out. As for the thousands of informal complaints, I never saw any of those getting anywhere either.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jul 2018 @ 3:23am

    Ah the slightly-less shitty sandwich gambit.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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