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FCC changes consumer complaints process as Commissioner calls move ‘bonkers’

After a strange series of events

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The Federal Communications Commission voted 3–1 today to change how it handles consumer complaints, but questions over what those changes mean turned into a heated exchange among the agency’s commissioners.

Earlier this week, House Democrats said in a letter to the agency that a proposed change could lead consumers filing free informal complaints with the agency to file formal ones instead — a process that costs $225.

The Republican leadership at the agency disputed the letter, and said during the vote today that changes in language had no practical effect on how the agency handles informal complaints, only formal ones. But Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the agency’s lone Democrat, agreed with the lawmakers, and today voted against the proposal.

According to the Democrats, the proposal removed language that directed the Commission to advocate on behalf of consumers if their informal complaints were not satisfied. In the new wording, they said, unhappy consumers are directed by the FCC to file a formal complaint if their issues are left unresolved.

“This is bonkers,” Rosenworcel said. “No one should be asked to pay $225 for this agency to do its job. No one should see this agency close its doors to everyday consumers looking for assistance in a marketplace that can be bewildering to navigate.”

After the vote, Rosenworcel told reporters that commissioners had reached an agreement last night to not remove any language about the informal complaints process. Rosenworcel said she was then poised to vote to approve the rule — which the agency said was meant to “streamline” the formal complaints process — but was presented with yet another draft an hour into the meeting. The latest draft had again removed the language, she said.

The Commission receives over 25,000 informal complaints every month. These complaints are commonly submitted by consumers over billing and privacy issues involving their carriers.

“The Commission distinguishes between formal and informal complaints,” the FCC said in a statement. “The new rules make no changes to existing, long-standing procedures for handling informal consumer complaints.”