On Thursday, July 12, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote on a new rule that may make it more difficult for consumers to file complaints and get their grievances resolved against an offending telephone, internet service, or cable provider. Critics argued that the new rule, if approved by the commissioners, goes contrary to the purpose of the FCC to regulate communications and hear complaints when they arise.
The commissioners will vote on new changes to how informal and formal complaints are handled. Under 1.717 Procedure, informal complaints filed with the agency will be sent back to the original company for investigation. Critics argue that consumers often file a complaint with the FCC as a last resort because they couldn’t get a satisfactory resolution with the offending company, and sending the complaint back to the original company without any intervention essentially removes the FCC from the equation. The FCC said that it was simply misunderstood, and spokesman Brian Hart told The Washington Post that the agency will continue to review informal complaints. In fact, the proposed new wording for 1.717 Procedure appears very similar to the one it will replace. Like the old language, the FCC said that even though it may investigate, consumers who file informal complaints may not necessarily receive a direct response from the agency.
“Complaints about privacy and billing can result in an FCC staffer getting involved,” The Washington Post reported. “Complaints about robocalls and the Do Not Call list are shared with various departments within the FCC and can result in investigations and fines against companies, but they do not generally lead to an FCC staffer contacting individual consumers.”
If a consumer could not get the issue resolved by filing an informal complaint, they could also escalate the issue by filing a formal complaint. “In all other cases, the Commission will contact the complainant regarding its review and disposition of the matters raised [in an informal compaint],” the proposed wording for 1.717 Procedure reads. “If the complainant is not satisfied by the carrier’s response and the Commission’s disposition, it may file a formal complaint in accordance with 1.721 of this part.”
Under the new rule, there will be a $225 filing fee for the commissioners to consider the formal complaint. The agency argues that the fee will help it streamline complaints, but the new rule may make it cost prohibitive for some. The new rule could also free the agency from having to read public comments. While the agency was required to read the more than 20 million comments last December when it rolled back net neutrality rules, under the new rules, the commissioners would not have to read through public comments at all, TechSpot reported.
Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Congressmen Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Frank Pallone, D-N.J., from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce wrote a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai urging him to reconsider the vote. The congressmen noted that the FCC’s role is to ensure that consumers receive fair and honest treatment from their service providers.
“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 letter stated. “We worry that the proposed change signals that the FCC no longer intends to play this role, and will instead simply tell consumers with limited means and time that they need to start an expensive and complicated legal process. Such an outcome is neither compelled by statue nor a wise public policy decision.”
However, The Washington Post argued that changes to the languages of 1.717 Procedure “do not appear to push consumers toward filing formal complaints any more than the current policy does.”
Updated on July 11: Added FCC response from The Washington Post report.