The FCC this week was scheduled to vote on a new proposal on public feedback that Senators and consumer activists say will make it easier for the agency to ignore your complaints. But the agency retreated from the planned vote after numerous reports outlined the agency’s agenda. As it stands, the FCC currently accepts two kinds of complaints from cable or broadband subscribers: formal and informal. Informal complaints are free but often ignored. In contrast, formal complaints cost a $225 processing fee and kick off a cumbersome legal process involving hearings and paperwork most users won’t have the time for. A fact sheet circulated by the FCC this claims the agency’s proposed rule change simply “streamlines and consolidates procedural rules” involving said complaints. But a letter sent to the FCC by Democratic Senators Frank Pallone Jr. and Mike Doyle claims that under the changes the FCC would have forwarded all informal complaints to ISPs without reading them, forcing consumers to pay a $225 fee if they want to be taken seriously by the agency. “Creating a rule that directs FCC staff to simply pass consumers' informal complaints on to the company and then to advise consumers that they file a $225 formal complaint if not satisﬁed ignores the core mission of the FCC working in the public interest,” the Senators complained. If the change is approved this week, the FCC will effectively be telling "consumers with limited means” that they “need to start an expensive and complicated formal legal process” before the FCC will seriously address their complaints, the Senators said.
News outlets were quick to declare that the FCC’s rule change would now result in users being forced to pay $225 to have their voices heard. In reality, users already were forced to pay such a fee for a formal complaint. In fact, only one person was willing to pay the fine to file a formal comment during the neutrality repeal (though it’s a doozy you should probably read). The FCC, as is common in the Trump era, was quick to dismiss media reports on the changes—and the Senators’ concerns—as “fake news.”
But consumer groups quickly pointed out on Twitter that there were indeed numerous changes to the rules, several of which were subtly applied via footnotes. Free Press policy Director Matt Wood argues that the rule changes, among other things, weaken language requiring the FCC set a hard deadline for ISPs to respond to informal consumer complaints, while also using crafty legalese to weaken the likelihood that the FCC will rush to consumers’ aid during a billing or other dispute. Under the changes, users would have still been able to submit informal complaints, which would have been forwarded to ISPs that would have been mandated to respond to them within 30 days. If that didn’t work, users would have then been forced into paying the $225—and beginning the time-consuming formal complaint process—if they wanted to see their dispute potentially resolved by the agency. "The Pai FCC wanted to shirk its statutory duty to investigate and help resolve informal complaints, shrugging its shoulders instead, and telling consumers who weren't satisfied with the initial response to fork over a filing fee and head into a formal procedure rather than relying on FCC mediation and investigation,” Wood tells Motherboard.
"And the Commission's whining about fake news, when Pai's practice is to publish the orders in advance so that we could all see the proposed rule changes, is really pretty funny,” he adds. “Pai and his chief of staff Matthew Berry think they're pulling some kind of Jedi mind trick here, when really they just look like Star Wars kid."
Given that broadband providers have some of the worst customer service ratings of any companies in any industry in America, such complaints are a frequent occurrence. Former FCC lawyer Gigi Sohn told Motherboard that while the current FCC does have a nasty habit of ignoring consumers, the informal FCC complaint process has historically helped users. “Informal complaints can and do lead to Enforcement Bureau actions and the Commission has addressed the substance of informal complaints, though obviously not often,” said Sohn. “So any action that makes it more likely that the FCC will ignore such complaints is unnecessary and anti-consumer.”
Regardless, all of the media attention appears to have forced an FCC retreat from what it clearly hoped would be an overlooked rule change. Sources now tell the Washington Post that the FCC won’t vote on the rule change this week after all due to “political backlash.” Meanwhile, while FCC staffers like Matthew Berry were quick to cry “fake news” at the coverage of the agency’s latest changes, the rule shift should be viewed in full context of an FCC that seems to take great pride in ignoring consumer opinion and parroting bogus claims made by some of the least-liked and least competitive companies in America. In other words, an FCC that has spent the better part of the last year distorting reality to make Comcast, Verizon and AT&T happy, shouldn’t be particularly surprised when people naturally assume they’re once again giving consumers the short end of the stick.