The FCC knows that Americans hate telecoms, and it’s doing everything it can to give us reason to hate them more. On Tuesday, a proposal to kneecap the informal complaint process at the agency sparked cries of anti-consumerism. Now, the rule changes have been approved—and formal complaints will still cost you $225.
We know that this FCC is willing to blatantly lie in order to remove consumer protections. But the proposed changes to the consumer complaint system are a bit more subtle and confusing. The fact is, the complaint process was already weak, but some feared that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and his pals were trying to make it weaker.
Under its rules, there are two types of complaints: formal and informal. A formal complaint costs $225 to process and very much resembles a lawsuit in the legal process that follows. One important note about that legal process is that attorney’s fees cannot be awarded in any final settlement of the matter, and virtually anyone would require an attorney to handle the complex proceedings. An informal complaint is free, but it’s fairly ineffective.
Proposed changes to the rules for informal complaints were approved in a vote by the commission on Thursday. The Washington Post and Wired report that the changes (which were tucked away in a footnote) had been scrapped due to “political backlash.” But Pai reportedly ditched that plan and put the changes up for a vote at the last minute, the Post reports.
Exactly what effect the changes will have on the informal complaint process has become a point of controversy in the last two days. On Tuesday, Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to Commissioner Pai expressing concerns about the changes. The letter explains their fears that the rule changes would turn the FCC into a simple messenger that forwards complaints to telecoms, steps out of the process, and only gets involved if a $225 fee is paid to escalate the process. The FCC’s chief of staff, Matthew Berry, quickly called this interpretation “fake news.”
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel appeared to disagree with her colleague. In a statement supplied to Wired, she called the changes “bonkers” and emphasized that “no one should be asked to pay $225 for this agency to do its job.”
The Washington Post did its own analysis of the two sets of rules and concluded, “no, the FCC is not forcing consumers to pay $225 file complaints.” That prompted Matt Wood, policy director for Free Press, to tweet out a thread outlining why the Post is wrong. He itemizes the points in which he thinks the rule changes will harm consumers and provides a helpful redlining of the changes.
I can’t say that I’m convinced by every point that Wood cites in his analysis; I think he’s misreading a line giving the FCC the option to set a deadline. But I’m not a lawyer, and he is. And I shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to understand whether my complaint to the FCC about consumer abuse will be taken fucking seriously.
Wood told Motherboard, “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.”
I also disagree with the Post’s analysis of the situation because the FCC is already charging the public $225 to file formal complaints. It appears that the most consequential change to the informal complaint rules is the removal of a line which specifies that in cases that aren’t clearly resolved for all parties’ satisfaction, the FCC “will contact the complainant regarding its review and disposition of the matters.” The worry here is that the FCC is attempting to make it easier to simply not conduct any sort of review process with informal complaints whatsoever.
While no one is guaranteed extensive assistance from the FCC when dealing with resolving a complaint, Gigi Sohn, who served as counselor to former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler, told Motherboard, “Informal complaints can and do lead to Enforcement Bureau actions and the Commission has addressed the substance of informal complaints, though obviously not often.” The FCC claimed in a fact sheet that the new order only “streamlines and consolidates procedural rules” along the lines that it already treats complaints. Personally, I have no trouble believing that this FCC ignores informal complaints, but I see no reason it should be allowed to codify its negligence.
By sneaking the changes through a vote via complicated legalese and the use of footnotes, the FCC has at least done us a favor in bringing it to everyone’s attention that the rules are bullshit and require taxpayers to cough up more money if they want to guarantee their complaint will be taken seriously. We’ll add it to the list of changes that are needed if the political nightmare that is this administration ever ends.
Update 12:45pm: Soon after publication, the FCC surprisingly voted on the proposed changes, which passed. We’ve updated this post, including the headline, to reflect the surprise vote.