America's comms watchdog – the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – stooped to a new low on Thursday when it made last-second changes to a new complaints procedure just minutes after it denied the changes were necessary.
The regulator's July monthly meeting was overshadowed by reports and complaints that an effort to "streamline" its complaints procedure effectively undermined it, and would force consumers to pay $225 to have their concerns addressed by the FCC.
The watchdog pushed back against those reports – which had prompted a Congressional letter and even comment from late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel – by claiming that the new plan used the same language as the current formal complaints process. It even succeeded in persuading some journalists that that was the case.
But even as staff claimed "the new rules make no changes to existing, long-standing procedure for handling informal consumer complaints," the controversy put a spotlight on the actual wording.
And it turned out that, yes, in fact there were several critical changes that did undermine the complaint process, and would likely require Americans to pay hundreds of dollars to have their gripes with telcos and ISPs reviewed by the FCC.
Adding to the growing sense of farce, the FCC then made last-minute changes – which are currently still unavailable – using an editing process that only a few days ago its staff and FCC chair Ajit Pai were proudly arguing they had done away with.
If all of that is confusing, all you really need to understand is that the FCC has been overrun by Trump-style policy wonks who say one thing, do another and then cry "fake news" at anyone that points out they are lying.
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There were two critical changes in the wording that the FCC claimed was the same as its existing process: the word "will" was replaced with the word "may," and a phrase including the word "disposition" was removed.
Combined, the changes created a default where the FCC would simply forward complaints from consumers to the company they were complaining about, and remove any requirement for the FCC to even consider what was done with the complaints from that point on.
It was, in effect, a legal black hole. And one that the FCC claimed didn't exist even as everyone stood around it, peering in.
It now appears that after the changes were voted on and approved, FCC staff realized the jig was up and changed the wording – to what we don't yet know. When news of that change became known, the FCC was asked why it had made changes that only minutes earlier it claimed weren't necessary.
It's a law thang
The response was that "disposition is a legal word." The implication being that there was some kind of legal issue that people probably wouldn't understand that had forced them to make changes.
That wasn't all either: FCC staff tried to argue that the wording had been available for nine months and it had had no comments or complaints about it. Using the argument that "no one complained before now" as a way to justify pushing something through to formal adoption is the worst sort of policy obfuscation and one that recalls Douglas Adams' "Beware of the Leopard" sign in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
It's an ironic coincidence that the plans to build a bypass and so knock down Arthur Dent's house had also been available for nine months.
"The FCC receives 30,000 informal complaints from consumers a month. Today the agency decided to ask them to pay $225 just to get us to listen when complaints are unresolved. So many people think rules in Washington are rigged against them," railed FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel just prior to the vote. "Today’s FCC action proves them right." Afterward she called the whole process "bonkers."
The real fakes
The vote on the new streamlined process came just a few days after FCC chair Ajit Pai finally responded to questions from Congress on the extent that its public comment process had been abused during a process for scrapping net neutrality rules – something that happened a year ago.
Despite widespread and credible reports that millions of comments in favor of Pai's proposition to scrap the FCC's own rules were fake and has even stolen the identities of real Americans, Pai and the FCC refused access to its logs – even from prosecutors – refused to discuss the issue and even claimed, falsely, that it had been subject to a denial-of-service attack.
However, it's much more likely that millions of real Americans were banging on the doors of the FCC telling those inside that they knew what they were up to. ®