from the from-bad-to-worse dept
The latest case in point is Phoenix-based cable provider Cable One (formerly owned by the Washington Post), whose CEO crowed to attendees of an investor conference last month that the company has figured out a way to identify poor credit customers and somehow provide them with even worse customer service than the cable sector usually provides:
"According to company CEO Thomas Might, the Phoenix, Ariz.-based MSO has deployed a "very rigorous FICI credit scoring process" on its video customers since 2013. "We don't turn people away," Might said, but the cable company's technicians aren't going to "spend 15 minutes setting up an iPhone app" for a customer who has a low FICO score. "What we found is that through lifestyle and billing analysis, we could start to pinpoint where churn and bad debt was coming from, and credit scoring started to be a really good test," Might said.Again, that's a cable executive bragging that he's now identifying you based on your credit score, and then refusing to give you quality support if you score doesn't meet an entirely non-transparent standard at the company. While the CEO failed to detail just how deep the practice goes at CableONE, there's several problems with this, not least of which is the fact that many people with bad credit scores may be born into such scores by no fault of their own. And many of those customers may pay their bill every month -- yet under such a system would still find themselves being treated as a second-class citizen, refused even a standard level of customer service.
I spoke to several telecom sector lawyers that had mixed opinions on whether or not this is illegal. I came away with the general impression that while you might be able to hold a company to legal account for targeting customers in this way, such a case would be a steep uphill climb. Still, many of them argued that the practice was no less ugly, in that it could tend to unfairly single out communities of color:
"The use of credit score to screen potential customers is already a barrier to home internet adoption that disproportionately impacts communities of color," says Free Press Research Director S. Derek Turner. "But what Cable ONE is apparently doing takes this to a much more dangerous territory. Because there are systemic biases that impact the credit scores of communities of color, Cable ONE is in essence adopting a policy that will result in inferior service for customers based solely on the biased credit score metric, and as a consequence, people of color will disproportionately receive this inferior service," he added."Consumer advocate and telecom lawyer Harold Feld notes that as the FCC pursues new privacy rules for broadband customers, it's possible that the rules could cover potential discrimination of this type:
"The FCC has an ongoing proceeding to apply Section 222 (47 U.S.C. 222) to broadband. For those unfamiliar with the statute, Section 222 prohibits a provider of a “telecommunications service” from either disclosing information collected from a customer without a customer’s consent, or from using the information for something other than providing the telecom service. While most of us think this generally means advertising, it means a heck of a lot more than that — as illustrated by this tidbit from Cable One.ISPs opposing the FCC's broadband privacy push have tried to argue that the FCC is unfairly singling out ISPs while ignoring the data collected by the likes of Google and Facebook, which companies like Verizon and Comcast hope to increasingly compete with on the ad front. However, this (usually quite intentionally) ignores the dramatically different, uncompetitive nature of last-mile broadband versus more competitive internet services markets. Feld argues that the CableONE efforts perfectly illustrate how broadband customers can't vote with their wallets or flee to less privacy-intrusive companies, often because the cable company will be the only competitor in town:
"While broadband providers want to make this an argument about competition with other advertisers, Cable One shows us how broadband providers can — and do — use information obtained from customers for much darker, harmful purposes. Google can certainly obtain enough information about you to get your FICO credit score. That’s certainly bad and a privacy violation. In theory, however, I can use things like encryption and flushing cookies to protect myself from Google — or even avoid Google entirely. In the case of my broadband provider, I have no choice. I must turn over to my provider information usable in obtaining a FICO credit score to my broadband provider so my provider can actually come out to my house, activate my connection, and bill me on a regular basis."So at the end of the day, a cable executive bragging about his company's plans to use credit scores to provide worse support -- may find himself a cornerstone of the FCC's broadband privacy rulemaking process. If there's a positive side to the whole affair, it's that cable customer service is so aggressively abysmal already, it might just be physically impossible for cable companies to do any worse.