FCC Retracts a Plan to Discourage Consumer Complaints

A proposal that critics said would have forced consumers to file formal complaints, at a cost of $255, appears to have been dropped from Thursday’s agenda.

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The Federal Communications Commission has reportedly dropped a proposed change in how it handles complaints that critics argued could have left consumers with fewer avenues to resolve problems with telecommunications carriers like AT&T and Verizon.

The agency is scheduled to vote Thursday on proposed changes to the complaint process, but according to the Washington Post, the most controversial changes have been removed from the draft.

The FCC offers two ways for people to complain about billing problems, privacy concerns, and other issues with telecom carriers. Formal complaints cost $225 to file and work a bit like court proceedings. But the commission also offers an informal complaint system, which is free.

Critics said that the proposed change would have left the informal complaint system toothless, forcing consumers to spend the time and money of the formal review process if they wanted to the FCC to take action on their complaints.

One reason the critics saw ill will behind the proposal: The FCC last year declined to release the full text of informal complaints it received about net neutrality ahead of the agency’s vote to jettison those rules in December. The Obama-era rules banned broadband providers from blocking or discriminating against particular internet content. The FCC highlighted the lack of formal complaints about net neutrality in support of its decision to roll back the rules, but did not address the informal complaints.

In a statement, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC’s only Democratic commissioner, called the proposed change to the informal complaint process “bonkers.”

“No one should be asked to pay $225 for this agency to do its job,” she said. “No one should see Washington close its doors to everyday consumers looking for assistance in a marketplace that can be bewildering to navigate.” A spokesperson for Rosenworcel said earlier Wednesday that she was talking with other commissioners about changes to the proposal ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

On Tuesday, Representatives Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-New Jersey), and Mike Doyle (D-Pennsylvania) sent a letter to FCC Chair Ajit Pai arguing that the proposed changes would “direct FCC staff to only pass consumers’ informal complaints on to the company and then advise consumers that they file a formal complaint for a $225 fee if they are not satisfied with the company’s response.”

An FCC spokesperson told WIRED that the changes were only meant to clarify existing policy. The FCC’s website explains that it does not take action on individual informal complaints, but “the collective data we receive helps us keep a pulse on what consumers are experiencing, may lead to investigations and serves as a deterrent to the companies we regulate.”

“If the [FCC’s] Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau spots a troubling trend on any issue, it can refer the matter to the [FCC’s] Enforcement Bureau, which can launch a broader investigation,” the spokesman said.

But critics argue that the changes could have discouraged FCC staff from doing even that. The proposal would have removed language from the FCC’s rules specifying that the commission could contact a complainant about its “review and disposition.”

In this context, “disposition” means “resolution.” Critics of the change worried that unless the agency’s rules explicitly allow for review and action on complaints, the FCC wouldn’t have the authority or obligation to do so.


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