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Net neutrality complaints rise amid FCC repeal

Internet users are complaining more about net neutrality-related issues since the FCC voted to repeal the existing net neutrality rules earlier this month, according to the FCC's consumer complaint data.

Why it matters: The FCC allows consumers to submit complaints about a variety of telecom-related problems, from receiving unwanted phone calls to billing fraud. After adopting net neutrality rules in 2015, the FCC added net neutrality to the list of possible gripes, such as slowed-down internet service or content being blocked. The FCC can use those complaints to spot trends or even launch investigations.

Note: Data includes all consumer complaint tickets related to "Open internet/net-neutrality"; Data: Federal Communications Commission; Chart: Chris Canipe / Axios

The details: According to the data (via the FCC's Consumer Complaint Center), people appear to file more net neutrality complaints when the topic is in the news and people are paying more attention to their internet performance. For example:

  • The complaints spiked to around 11,000 in May 2016, shortly before the DC Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the FCC's rules that the telecom industry had sued to stop.
  • Consumers filed more than 6,400 complaints in October 2016, shortly before the 2016 election. Republicans had made clear they would weaken the rules if they took office.
  • A small uptick of complaints took place in April, the same month FCC Chairman Ajit Pai released an initial proposal to roll back the rules.
  • As of Friday, consumers filed 2,388 in December, a sharp increase over the 157 complaints filed in October. The FCC voted to reverse the net neutrality rules on Dec. 14.

How it works: When a consumer files a complaint, the FCC serves the complaint to the telecom provider in question. That company is required to respond to the consumer within 30 days, and must provide the FCC a copy of that response.

  • The FCC is not obligated to act on "informal" complaints (which can be filed for free online), but can choose to look into issues as they arise.
  • The FCC has a separate process for "formal" complaints, which usually involve lawyers, filing fees and specific procedural rules. (More details on the process can be found here.)

Between the lines: It's often difficult for consumers to pinpoint the cause of internet connection issues. Net neutrality supporters will say a rise in informal complaints indicates bad behavior by internet providers without the rules. While the FCC isn't required to investigate such complaints, the agency's new transparency requirements could encourage companies to be forthcoming in their responses to them.