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Changes to FCC rules could make more people pay $225 to file a formal complaint

Published Jul 11th, 2018 8:18PM EDT
FCC Complaint: internet service provider fee
Image: Jacquelyn Martin/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The Federal Communications Commission under the leadership of Ajit Pai has shown a studied disinterest in acting as a consumer watchdog on communications companies. It already outsourced net neutrality enforcement (or what’s left of it, anyway) to the Federal Trade Commission, and the commission is now set to vote on a new rule that would formally remove the FCC’s discretion from the informal complaint process, leaving the formal complaint process — which involves paying a $225 fee — as the only way for disgruntled consumers to guarantee scrutiny from the FCC’s staff.

Two Democrat Congressmen on the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to Pai asking him to reconsider the rule, which some people say would change how informal complaints are handled. The rule is set to go to a vote tomorrow during the commission’s Open Meeting.

Under the existing system, FCC staff review informal complaints — which are passed on to the communications company — and will sometimes mediate disputes or pass unresolved cases over to the FCC’s enforcement division. Language changes in the new complaint-filing rules — which the FCC say are supposed to streamline the process — would remove that option. Filing a formal complaint with the FCC, which entails paying a $225 fee, is the only way to ensure the complaint will be reviewed by FCC staff.

“At a time when consumers are highly dissatisfied with their communications companies, this abrupt change in policy troubles us,” Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) wrote in their letter to Pai.

Not everyone agrees that the rule changes will reduce the effacity of the informal complaint process. “The item would not change the Commission’s handling of informal complaints,” the FCC said. Washington Post reporter Brian Fung came to the same conclusion on a review of the current and proposed rules. “The proposed changes alone do not rule out the possibility of the FCC cutting back on its staff’s involvement with consumers who file informal complaints,” Fung wrote. “But the changes do not appear to push consumers toward filing formal complaints any more than the current policy does.”

Matt Wood, the Policy Director for Free Press, agreed with the Congressmen. In a Twitter thread, Wood points out that while current rules don’t guarantee any FCC intervention in informal complaints, the new rules appear to remove that option altogether.