Examining consumer complaints is one of the main roles that the FCC does for American taxpayers to promote and protect consumer welfare. To this end, a recent blog caught my eye, it stating:
The FCC has a lot of catching up to do after the 16-day government shutdown…[with] a significant backlog of consumer protection issues to address, including net neutrality. (Emphasis added)
I guess the writer believes that the shutdown meant open season for ISPs, allowing them to flagrantly poke consumers in the eye with Net Neutrality violations because the cop on the beat – the FCC – had left town, leaving consumers to fend for themselves during those 16 awful, lawless days?
Consumers use the FCC’s informal online complaint process to, er, complain, about their communications providers. The simple process, which the FCC says it “takes seriously,” gives informal complaints “substantial attention and consideration,” and addresses an array of communications service issues. Consumers can also file formal complaints, but they are more involved and expensive, essentially bringing the complaint into a court-like setting for adjudication.
Receiving consumer complaints from real people (not “consumer activists” or lobbying groups) can be a pretty good indication that there’s real a problem going on. Each quarter, the FCC entertains about 90,000 informal complaints. Of late, the vast majority of these concern the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which works to prevent unwanted calls, among other abuses.
Apparently, consumers are very concerned about TPCA (whether they know it by name or not).
But what about Net Neutrality?
I’ll admit, the blog post made me wonder. Could it be true? Could consumers, as evidenced by the complaint process, really be concerned about Net Neutrality? Given all the fuss this past decade about Net Neutrality, surely there must be a gazillion such complaints from concerned, average Joe consumers, right?
So, I called over to the Commission to find out what the story was.
After several attempts to contact someone at the Media Relations Bureau for comment, I finally reached a live spokesperson and posed the question – how many Net Neutrality / Open Internet complaints is the FCC entertaining?
Part of his answer I expected. According to the official, there are no formal Net Neutrality complaints, something well known within the industry and media. So, no surprise there.
But shockingly, the FCC official said he couldn’t tell if any informal Net Neutrality complaints had been lodged because, amazingly, the FCC doesn’t break out that number.
The FCC doesn’t break out Net Neutrality complaints on perhaps the most significant rule it’s made in over a decade?
I guess I should have known.
When the FCC passed Net Neutrality in 2010, it could only cite four specific (and specious) complaints, along with a small handful of general, gossip-like business practice “allegations.” Sure, nearly 100,000 comments (not complaints) came into the agency, the majority of which urged the FCC to protect the openness of the Internet and pass Net Neutrality. Those, however, were manufactured by “consumer advocacy groups” who received substantial support from the beneficiaries of the soon-to-be rule. Their value is dubious.
The Net Neutrality Order makes little mention about consumer complaints, noting that the complaint process has always been available to consumers to address communications service issues, and that it remains open for Net Neutrality complaints should they arise. As “important” as this issue and the process are, however, three years after the rule passed the Commission, the FCC lacks any specific Net Neutrality complaint category for its online complaint form.
I passed all this by a former, high-ranking FCC official who told me:
“If Net Neutrality complaints don’t merit mention, there probably aren’t enough complaints for the FCC to bother reporting them separately.”
Stated differently – there’s no there there.
Since the invention of the web browser in the early 90’s, innumerable Internet communications have crossed our networks. Consequently, you’d think we’d have seen a tremendous amount of blocking or “discrimination” by Internet service providers if that indeed were happening. Consumers would be up in arms. But looking back to key points in the Net Neutrality debate – from the issuance of the 2005 Open Internet guidelines, to the passage of the Net Neutrality rules in late 2010, to their official effective date late in 2011, to now – the FCC has never bothered to spit out an exact consumer complaint number, even though it does so for other categories of complaints.
It’s because Net Neutrality isn’t a real consumer problem. Never has been. Probably never will be. Rather, Net Neutrality was a manufactured problem designed to justify a needless regulation – one primarily designed to subsidize powerful Silicon Valley interests instead of actually protecting consumers.
This falls in line with this Commission’s main goals – that is, to protect favored competitors and not much else. It doesn’t matter what consumers choose, or not, in the marketplace because when it comes to helping friends and making good on campaign promises, real consumer choice doesn’t even merit a footnote.
In this instance, consumers have said – by not complaining – that Net Neutrality ain’t a problem.
Shouldn’t that have ended the debate?
We know that sometimes – when it aligns with the regulatory proclivities of the agency – consumer complaints can move the ball. Like in Fire Island, when it served to kneecap Verizon and its legitimate post-Sandy reconstruction efforts.
When it doesn’t, well, the agency pulls an “I see nothing,” Sergeant Schultz.
This is the hallmark of arbitrary and capricious governing. And that’s public service we could do without.