The FCC reminds ISPs they can’t mess with broadband without telling the consumer

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler listens during an open meeting to receive public comment on proposed open Internet notice of proposed rulemaking and spectrum auctions May 15, 2014 at the FCC headquarters in Washington, DC. The FCC has voted in favor of a proposal to reform net neutrality and could allow Internet service providers to charge for faster and higher-quality service. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Federal Communications Commission issued a reminder today to ISPs that they are supposed to be open and transparent about anything they do that might impact a consumer’s broadband experience. Presumably this also includes notifying them if they can’t stream Netflix because the network is congested, letting them know if their data caps are not accurate and making sure their terms of service are intelligible.

A spokeswoman at the FCC explained that the notice was not directed at any one practice but was issued in response to complaints that the agency has received from consumers related to their broadband. “We’ve received hundreds of complaints in the last year where consumers are concerned that they are left in the dark in terms of what they are receiving, so this is a reminder to ISPs to disclose all of the aspects of the services they provide.”

The transparency rule is the one element of the 2010 Open Internet Order that wasn’t struck down by the courts, so it has been and will continue to be in effect no matter what happens with network neutrality. The FCC has the power to censure and fine a company that violates the transparency order.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler issued this statement on the Enforcement Advisory:

“Consumers deserve to get the broadband service they pay for. After today, no broadband provider can claim they didn’t know we were watching to see that they disclose accurate information about the services they provide. The FCC’s transparency rule requires that consumers get the information they need to make informed choices about the broadband services they purchase. We expect providers to be fully transparent about the details of their services, and we will hold them accountable if they fall down on this obligation to consumers.”

While the rule does say that ISPs must provide the details of their network management plans, I’m not sure the FCC could successfully say actions like Verizon not providing enough open ports onto its network would qualify as a problem. However, concerns about poorly worded service offers or inaccurate counts of data against a data cap would certainly apply, as would blocking or slowing certain types of traffic without explaining that to the consumer.

Of course, in many areas of the country, even if an ISP were to stand up and say, “I am blocking Netflix and my data cap measurements are a bit off,” consumers don’t have much choice in switching providers.


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