Federal Communication Commission Chairman Ajit Pai prepares to testify before the Senate Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee about his FY2020 budget requests in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill May 07, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty

The death of federal net neutrality protections in the United States didn’t only give ISPs license to penalize customers who don’t agree to buy their services. It also pointlessly mystified the process whereby consumers acquire the most basic, unsimplified details about their home internet’s price, speed, and capacity.

Case in point: In April 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rolled out new labels for mobile and fixed broadband providers to help consumers find specifics about the prices and performance offered by U.S. broadband companies. They mimicked the Nutrition Facts Label, to which consumers were already accustom and were chiefly designed to help consumers make informed decisions about which broadband provider best suited their needs.

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A blank “Fixed Broadband Consumer Disclosure” label designed by FCC’s Consumer Advisory Committee circa 2016.
Screenshot: FCC

In 2018, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai successfully overturned Open Internet Order and did away with the labels, replacing them instead with a system unfriendly to the average user, that needlessly disperses the information across the internet.

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Today, broadband providers are permitted to choose where online to publish their own transparency reports. One option is to disclose on their own websites; not a terrible idea, at first blush. AT&T, for instance, links to its reports in the fine print at the bottom of its home page. Comcast’s, which is buried among more than 40 other links, is called “Xfinity Internet Broadband Disclosure.” Verizon’s is amusingly labeled simply “Open Internet.”

The details of Verizon’s network practices, unlike its major competitors, whose pages are excessive with distracting text, are entombed under an over-sized ad, which praises its own “[commitment] to an open internet.”

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Scroll down to find the information you’re actually looking for.
Screenshot: Verizon

AT&T’s “broadband information” site includes five separate pages, what seem to be nearly a hundred different links, and dozens of thick paragraphs full of irrelevant information; touting, for example, how much money the company spends managing its networks. One paragraph reads: “As you would expect, our network management practices and our service offerings have evolved over time to benefit our customers and take advantage of the billions we have spent to expand and augment our networks.”

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But advertising, of course, is not the purpose of these legally required transparency reports.

And here’s where it gets even worse: ISPs aren’t actually required to display this information on their own websites, even though doing so apparently offers the advantage of being able to obscure it under a mountain of Lorem Ipsum-esque self-laudatory text. Companies may also submit their “transparency disclosures” directly to the FCC.

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But whereas the Open Internet Order—the now-repealed FCC rules that established net neutrality—required ISPs to offer consumers quick access to information in a format that’s easy to digest, the method devised by Chairman Pai all but ensures that some consumers will never find it.

“Not only did the FCC’s misguided net neutrality decision do away with efforts to give consumers easy-to-digest information about their broadband service, it left them with an ISP disclosure portal that relies on the agency’s abused and antiquated electronic comment filing system,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told Gizmodo by email.

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Saying the Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) isn’t simple to navigate would be putting it generously. First-time users of the ECFS will need to read the manual. The disclosures themselves are filed under an FCC docket number (CG Docket No. 18-142), which means essentially nothing to anyone who’s not learned in the commission’s notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures.

The ECFS itself wasn’t even designed for this purpose. Certainly, it was not built to be easily navigable for average consumers. In fact, it was created to be mostly used by lawyers. The actual “ISP Transparency Disclosures Portal” page (below) does not even provide the average user with enough information to locate the ISP disclosures themselves.

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The FCC’s ISP Transparency Disclosures Portal
Screenshot: FCC

While the portal page does list the docket number, the search page doesn’t include a field labeled “docket number.” Among the more than a dozen fields is one that reads: “Specify Proceeding (Optional).” And this is where users are supposed to know to type in the docket number, “18-142.”

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The only way for a user to know this is by visiting a third page on the FCC’s website that offers them some clarifying instructions:

Screenshot: FCC

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The instructions note, of course, that ISPs aren’t required to file their transparency disclosures with the FCC. If they can’t find their ISP listed in the ECFS, it instructs them to “look for your ISP’s disclosure by visiting the ISP’s website, by contacting its customer service, or by conducting a web search.” (At time of writing, 58 ISPs are using the system.)

The search function itself is also rather obnoxious. In some cases, the actual names of the ISPs aren’t visible; some of them, like Packet Layer, which serves an estimated 1.8 million customers in Kansas and Missouri, prefer to use their initials.

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Moreover, the filings are all different. Some contain information that others do not. Some are lacking essential information. As opposed to AT&T’s page overflowing with superfluous text, some companies, like Packet Layer, file only a one-page document that includes no details whatsoever about the actual prices or speeds of its broadband service. And there’s no consistency around file format, either. Some of the ECFS documents are PDFs and can be viewed in a browser, while others have to be downloaded and read in Microsoft Word or its equivalent.

“Customers deserve to know the price they will actually pay for a service and to be fully aware of other components such as data limits and performance factors before they sign up for service,” former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said when his office first rolled out those handy FCC “nutrition labels.” Today’s FCC does not share this view.

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As with most decisions over the past two years, Ajit Pai’s FCC apparently now aims mostly to help ISPs do the bare minimum to serve consumers; allowing them, for instance, to hide information from consumers might need to make an informed purchasing decision. Ultimately, this easy access to knowledge is just another casualty of the FCC’s war against a free and open internet.

The FCC chairman did not respond to a request for comment.

“[T]he FCC is telling consumers ‘you are on your own’ when it comes to learning more about just what their broadband service can deliver,” Rosenworcel told Gizmodo. “It’s not right that the agency sells consumers short like this—they deserve better.”

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