Ajit Pai and the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission successfully rolled back Barack Obama-era net neutrality guidelines earlier this year, but they’re not done screwing with consumers yet. According to the Verge, the FCC is now mulling a plan that could ensure its staff will only review complaints against telecoms after the complainant has paid a $225 fee. It could be pushed through as soon as Thursday.
Per the Verge, Democratic Sens. Frank Pallone and Mike Doyle of the House Energy & Commerce Committee have penned a letter to Pai saying they are “deeply concerned” with the proposed rules change, which would allow the FCC to route free informal complaints directly to service providers’ customer service departments without being viewed by FCC staff. (The FCC says this is “streamlining” the process.) A separate, formal complaint system that is routed to FCC employees would remain in place, but it costs $225 to use.
The senators wrote that informal complaints were often previously reviewed and acted on by FCC employees. Watering down this option and potentially requiring consumers to pay a $225 fee to reach the FCC at all, they wrote, is particularly egregious “at a time when consumers are highly dissatisfied with their communications companies.”
The Verge writes:
If the consumer isn’t happy with the outcome of the informal complaint, their only other option would be filing a formal complaint and paying the $225 to do so. The fee for a formal complaint isn’t new, but under these rules, it’s the only option to get your opinion to the FCC’s staff. The Commission’s docket called this move an attempt at streamlining and consolidating “the procedural rules governing formal complaints.” But the procedure has the potential to shut out the voices of consumers when it comes to telecommunications-involved issues.
To put it another way, the senators allege that if the proposal passes, Pai’s FCC will have ensured that customers will either be at the mercy of their service providers—which are hated by consumers specifically because of their terrible customer service—or pony up $225 and start what the senators referred to as a “complicated formal legal process.”
According to CNET, the FCC denies this is what the order would do:
“The item would not change the Commission’s handling of informal complaints,” an FCC spokesman said in an email. “The Democrats’ letter is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the draft order.”
However, as the Hill noted, the order does allow direct routing of informal complaints to telecoms.
There’s ample room to be skeptical of the FCC’s intent here. Under Pai’s tenure, the FCC has not only rolled back net neutrality guidelines, but scaled back subsidies to native populations, scrambled to remove regulatory barriers to conservative media giant Sinclair Broadcast Group’s takeover of local media, spread misinformation about supposed cyberattacks on its comment systems, and charmingly refused to release records related to a video it produced showing Pai joking about being a Verizon shill.