SPOILER ALERT. “Will they or won’t they?” This week, we weren’t asking that question about some fictional couple on a TV drama. No, the “they” in question was the Federal Communications Commissions (FCC), the agency tasked with regulating radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable companies on an interstate and international level.
No one was sure if the agency would vote “Yes” on a proposal some argued would make it harder for consumers to complain about their communications providers. After much back and forth (“They will!” “No, they won’t!“), we got our answer on Thursday: They did.
FORMAL VS. INFORMAL. One of the FCC’s duties is addressing complaints from consumers about the companies it regulates. For example, a person might complain to the FCC that their internet service provider (ISP) won’t refund a charge for a service the consumer never ordered. Consumers can choose to file these complaints as either “informal” or “formal,” and the FCC handles the two in very different ways.
Traditionally, the FCC reviewed informal complaints, stepping in when necessary to help consumers get them resolved. The agency would contact the company about the complaint, and the company would then have a deadline to respond to the FCC, sending a copy of the response to the consumer. For consumers, it’s basically like tattling to the government, but it could help them get results and it was free. The FCC might even choose to open an investigation if it saw a significant number of similar complaints.
Filing a formal complaint begins a court-like process in which both parties — the consumer and the subject of the complaint — must appear before the FCC and file various documents. Typically, both parties enlist the services of a lawyer. Filing a formal complaint costs $225, but between the cost of the lawyer and other expenses, it can end up costing the consumer even more.
SLIGHT CHANGE. BIG IMPACT. On July 12, the FCC passed a proposed update to its process for handling complaints, and it included a slight wording change (as The Washington Post pointed out) that could have a big impact:
Original version: “The Commission will contact the complainant regarding its review and disposition of the matters raised. If the complainant is not satisfied by the carrier’s response and the Commission’s disposition, it may file a formal complaint.”
New version: “[T]he Commission will notify the complainant that if the complainant is not satisfied by the carrier’s response, or if the carrier has failed to submit a response by the due date, the complainant may file a formal complaint.”
The rules no longer include the line about the FCC’s “review and disposition” (disposition means “resolution” in this context). It’s a subtle change that could have a big impact. Critics argue this absolves the FCC from its responsibility in handling informal complaints. Essentially, it can now just act as a third-party messenger, passing the complaint from the consumer to the service provider. If consumers aren’t satisfied with a service provider’s response (assuming they even get a response), they have little recourse but to file a formal complaint.
In other words, the FCC isn’t really interested in hearing what consumers have to say and helping them out… unless the agency is getting paid to listen.
READ MORE: It Just Got Easier for the FCC to Ignore Your Complaints [Wired]
More info on the FCC: The FCC Just Killed Net Neutrality