Thousands Beg FCC for Net Neutrality Crackdown

Consumers vent to regulators about slow Internet, high prices, and data caps.

Activists protest outside Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as the commission is about to meet 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. (National Journal)

In just the first month that net-neutrality regulations have been in effect, consumers have filed about 2,000 complaints to the Federal Communications Commission against Comcast, AT&T, and other Internet service providers, according to records obtained by National Journal.

And the depth of consumer outrage over unreliable Internet service and high prices is undeniable. One consumer, for example, complained about having to use the Wi-Fi at a McDonald's to take an online exam because the Internet service at home was so bad. "The Comcast modem is such crap that we can't even access the Internet," the consumer wrote. "I'm livid."

Many consumers complained about data caps — limits that providers place on customers' monthly Internet usage. When customers use more than an allotted amount of data in a month, some Internet providers throttle their Internet speeds, while others impose extra fees. "Our data should not be capped at 350 mbps!!!!" one consumer pleaded. "Please, please make data caps illegal!!"

Another consumer stopped watching Netflix and Hulu because of the "ridiculous" data caps. "I have to tell my kids to stop using YouTube and other services and stuff they need for school so we don't go over the cap," the consumer wrote, explaining that their Internet-enabled home security camera uses up a significant amount of their monthly data. "By Comcast having this data cap, I don't have a open Internet "¦ I also think this data cap is very inaccurate, it goes up without anybody being home, and sometimes by a lot."

The FCC estimated the total number of informal complaints filed in the first month of the new regulations and provided copies of 50 of those complaints to National Journal as an initial response to a request submitted under the Freedom of Information Act. Public comments on proceedings and formal complaints are available on the FCC's website, but the agency does not routinely make informal consumer complaints available.

The net-neutrality regulations, which were enacted in February and took effect June 12, are intended to ensure that Internet users are free to access whatever online content they choose. The rules bar Internet service providers from blocking websites, selectively slowing down traffic, creating special "fast lanes" for sites that pay, or "unreasonably interfering" with the ability of consumers to access Web content. The rules also require Internet providers to publicly disclose information about how they manage their networks.

The rules don't necessarily ban data caps, although the agency has said it will handle complaints on a case-by-case basis to determine if a particular data-cap policy "unreasonably interferes" with a consumer's Internet access. False advertisements about data caps or Internet speeds also could violate the FCC's transparency requirement that providers adequately disclose their practices.

Several of the complaints were about AT&T's practice of throttling the speeds of its heaviest users on unlimited mobile-data plans. The FCC already has issued a $100 million fine over the practice, saying AT&T misled consumers by calling the plan "unlimited" (AT&T is protesting the fine).

Consumers lodged the complaints using the FCC's online help center, and then selecting "Open Internet/ Net Neutrality" on a menu. According to FCC spokeswoman Kim Hart, the complaints are first reviewed by officials in the FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, who then forward the complaints to the providers in question. The companies must respond to both the FCC and the complaining consumer within 30 days (one profanity-laced complaint provided to National Journal, however, was immediately dismissed as "incoherent/unanswerable").

Officials in the FCC's Enforcement Bureau can choose whether to investigate any of the complaints for further action or penalties, Hart said. Parul Desai, the FCC's new "Open Internet ombudsperson," works with the Enforcement Bureau to identify trends in the complaints and help decide which ones to investigate, according to Hart.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the U.S. Telecom Association, which both represent major Internet providers and have sued to overturn the regulations, declined to comment on the complaints.

Harold Feld, the senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a consumer-advocacy group, acknowledged that most of the complaints probably do not identify real violations of the FCC's net-neutrality rules. But, he said, they show that regulators need to stay vigilant and go after cable and telecom companies that take advantage of consumers.

"People are angry and frustrated, and they are therefore taking this opportunity to complain," Feld said. "I would hope this would be a wakeup call, particularly for those people who continue to labor under the delusion that everybody must be happy with their broadband."