The FCC is Ignoring 50,000 Consumer Complaints as it Moves Forward to Repeal Net Neutrality

NHMC used natural language processing to analyze the Net Neutrality consumer complaints submitted to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) between 2015 and 2017. NHMC obtained the documents through a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the FCC.

These past few weeks we have been bombarded with information about the looming repeal of Net Neutrality — and for a good reason, keeping the Internet an open platform has direct impact not only on how we access the Internet, but also how we use it.

The integrity of the FCC’s record on Net Neutrality has come into question for several reasons. NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman estimated that hundreds of thousands of identities were stolen and used to support repeal of Net Neutrality, and Data Scientist Jeff Kao showed through natural language processing techniques that at least 1.3 million fake pro-repeal comments were submitted into the FCC docket. And as if it this weren’t enough, the FCC’s record is missing key evidence: over 50,000 Net Neutrality consumer complaints submitted to the FCC between 2015 and 2017. NHMC commissioned an expert report analyzing these documents and outlining why the documents represent key evidence that the FCC must incorporate as part of its official record.

The FCC Intends to Deny NHMC’s Motion to Incorporate the Consumer Complaints and Set a New Comment Cycle

In the draft Order released on November 22 (the day before Thanksgiving), the FCC included a denial of NHMC’s Motion requesting that (1) the FCC incorporate the Net Neutrality consumer complaints and related documents as part of the record, and (2) that the FCC set a new comment cycle to allowing stakeholders adequate time to analyze and comment on the evidence disclosed by the FCC.

The FCC went further than just denying the Motion, and also stated that they would not consider the documents in the proceeding. To be clear, the documents that NHMC obtained as part of the FOIA request show consumers experiencing harms remedied through Title II protections. Yet, the FCC staunchly refuses to consider its own evidence, which it has had in its possession all along, as it moves to repeal the rules that protect American consumers from experiencing further harms. As stated in paragraph 338 of the draft Order, “Since we do not rely on these informal complaints as the basis for the decisions we make today, we do not have an obligation to incorporate them into the record.” This is not only ironic, but a fatal procedural flaw in this proceeding.

Tracking Down & Analyzing the Net Neutrality Consumer Complaints

Back in May 2017, NHMC filed a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the FCC seeking documents relevant to the FCC’s enforcement of the open Internet rules. In August, after prolonged stalling, the FCC agreed to provide NHMC with the text of all Net Neutrality consumer complaints between 2015 and 2017, as well as other documents related to enforcement of the rules. But it was not until the FCC’s final production of documents on September 14th, two weeks after the reply comment deadline closed, that NHMC became aware that the agency did not intend to hand over the 18,000 carrier responses showing if and how the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) resolved those consumer complaints. Despite the missing evidence, NHMC has been reviewing the documents and also commissioned an independent expert analysis, written by Reza Rajabiun, LLM, PhD.

Key Findings in NHMC’s Expert Report

  1. Determined that consumers are being limited in their ability to access Internet content and applications, ISPs are not acting as neutral conduits to the Internet.
  2. Analysis of the consumer complaints reveals that consumers perceive broadband Internet access service to be a stand-alone basic telecommunications service.
  3. Based on responses by their carriers, ISPs also view broadband Internet access services they offer as a basic telecommunications service.

Consumer Complaints and Related Documents Show that ISPs are not Neutral Conduits to the Internet

Using natural language processing techniques, the expert report of the FOIA documents demonstrates that consumer access to the open Internet is restricted. Most commonly, consumers experience speeds lower than what was promised by their ISPs. Responses by carriers to consumer complaints reveal that a common excuse for their failures to deliver what they promised are their network management practices. A fundamental fact that can be derived from the consumer complaints is that consumers are experiencing barriers to accessing the open Internet and that the FCC process already offers a relatively “light touch” way for consumer to challenge gatekeeping status of their ISPs.

Analysis Shows that Consumers Perceive Internet Access as a Telecommunications Service

The natural language processing analysis of the consumer complaints provided a systematic and concrete view of how consumers conceptualize their access to the Internet. “Service” and “Internet” emerge as the most relevant concepts. The report found that, “this [is] not surprising since we are looking at consumer complaints to the FCC about Internet access.” Then after the core concepts, the concepts that emerge are “speed” of “data” “connections” and “caps” used to restrict the ability of consumers to “use” the Internet. These restrictions and concerns are the primary issues that consumers are conveying to the FCC. “Blocking” and “throttling” that leads to less than expected data transmission speeds represent key reasons driving consumer complaints to the Commission.

Consumer Perspectives on Barriers to Accessing the Open Internet: Natural Language Processing (NLP) content map of primary concepts emphasized in Net Neutrality consumer complaints.
“The content of the complaints suggests consumers tend to perceive their access to the Internet primarily in terms of the speed/quality and the quantity of data services that enable them to utilize content and application services….This is consistent with the conceptualization of Internet connectivity as a basic stand-alone telecommunications service distinct from the variety of information services consumers can procure on top of multipurpose broadband telecommunications networks.”

This perception of internet access is also consistent with the FCC’s classification of broadband as a Title II telecommunications service in 2015. The emphasis by consumers on quality and capacity of data delivery clearly illustrates that Americans are buying an “on ramp” to the Internet from their ISPs and do not perceive their access to be an enhanced information service.

ISPs Also Perceive That They are Providing Consumers with a Telecommunications Service

Concepts extracted from the limited sample of carrier responses to the Net Neutrality consumer complaints also reveals that carriers perceive Internet access to be a telecommunications service. The most prominent themes that emerge in these visualization clusters are the terms of the contractual agreement relating to “price” and “quality” of the service the carrier delivers.

“More fundamentally, the evidence suggests carriers commonly conceptualize their ‘offer’ as a basic data delivery service that connects the subscriber to the open Internet at potentially sufficient speeds.”

Although NHMC received only 823 pages of the 18,000 carrier responses identified by the FCC, the evidence suggests that both consumers and carriers commonly conceptualize broadband as a basic “telecommunications service.” This is in sharp contrast to the FCC’s draft Order repealing Net Neutrality regulations and classifying Internet access as a Title I information service.

Net Neutrality Consumer Complaints Have Been Submitted to the FCC from All Across the United States

In its release of the FOIA documents, the FCC provided NHMC with ten Excel spreadsheets on August 24, 2017 documenting over 50,000 Net Neutrality consumer complaints. The following is a breakdown of those consumer complaints by issue, and then by geographic region — showing how Net Neutrality regulations help consumers all across the United States.

Breakdown of Net Neutrality consumer complaints by issue.
Breakdown of Net Neutrality consumer complaints by geographic area.

NHMC Attempted to File the Documents Into the Record

On Friday, December 1, 2017, Gloria Tristani and I went to the FCC’s office in Washington, DC to hand-deliver a cover letter and USB flash drive with all the documents NHMC has received thus far through its FOIA requests.

Copy of USB flash drive handed to the FCC on December 1, 2017, along with the FCC’s official date stamp.

We explicitly asked in the cover letter that the documents in the USB flash drive be incorporated into the record. For further clarification we were directed to speak with an FCC staffer, who explained that the documents would not be uploaded to the record and instead a note would be provided stating that the USB flash drive is available at the FCC for inspection. NHMC reiterated its ask to have the documents uploaded as part of the record in an email on Monday, December 4th, or in the alternative asked the FCC to include a link to its own website where it is hosting all documents produced to NHMC. On December 6th, NHMC’s filing was posted into ECFS with the “note” below from the FCC saying that “for one reason or another [the documents], could not be scanned into the ECFS system.” The note also incorrectly states that NHMC dropped off a CD-ROM instead of the pictured USB flash drive.

Note provided at the end of NHMC’s filing on December 1, 2017 in the FCC’s WC Docket №. 17–108.

Note: NHMC filed an ex parte on December 7, 2017 to correct the errors documented in the above note.

I am troubled, and you should be too by the great lengths to which the FCC has gone to exclude these documents as part of the official Net Neutrality record. But in many ways this is not surprising — as the expert report shows, the Net Neutrality consumer complaints and related documents reveal a narrative that runs contrary to the FCC’s proposal to reclassify broadband as an information service.

Instead of ignoring this relevant evidence, the FCC must incorporate and consider it before it moves forward on December 14th to repeal Net Neutrality. Anything less flies in the face of the law and consumers who looked to the FCC to protect their access to an open Internet.

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