The FCC needs a new, expanded Bureau of Consumer Protection
© Greg Nash
The communications industry continues to change at a breakneck pace, and to best protect consumers in modern times, so must the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). As two distinct and diverse policy advocates, we join together to find common ground in support of strong and effective consumer protections. It’s a new day at the FCC and Chairman Ajit Pai is committed to agency reforms that will modernize the Internet age. The new chairman’s ambitious agenda and early actions are making sure we are on the right path to addressing the digital divide and modernizing the agency set up in 1934. Now, an emphasis on expanding consumer protections should also keep pace with the evolving industry.
 
The need for consumer protection in a competitive marketplace
 
Consumer protection is defined by a group of laws and institutions that ensure the rights of consumers, competition, and accurate information. These laws prohibit firms from engaging in fraudulent, unfair, or deceptive practices as well as protecting the vulnerable, including children, the elderly, the disabled, minority groups, and low-income consumers. Consumer protection is important in both regulated and competitive markets, as competition alone does not necessarily protect consumers.
 
There are a whole host of problems that consumers experience on a daily basis with their communications services, including unwanted calls, deceptive billing practices, “cramming,” spoofing,” “spam,” and indecency. These sorts of headaches could be reduced, or eliminated, if the FCC were properly equipped with a more emboldened consumer protection arm.
 
Robocalls, the unwanted, unsolicited automated sales calls to homes and personal mobile numbers, drives more complaints than any other issue at the FCC, 200,000 annually and growing. This should be the top consumer protection priority for the FCC’s bipartisan agenda. During his first week in office, robocalling was the first issue the new chairman addressed at the gathering of the Consumer Advisory Committee (CAC) with some solutions to confront the problem. See the recent webinar on how consumers can combat robocalls.
 
Consumer education also plays an important role in mitigating problems. The FCC’s Consumer Help Center is a resource with details on how to file complaints, information on a series of important communications issues, and a link to the Do-Not-Call list. Taking it a step further, the agency should work with consumer organizations and the industry to extend the value of this site to other federal, state, and local government agencies and the general public. The FCC can consider other creative avenues including partnerships with consumer organizations and industry for education and awareness programs on the evolving communications issues consumers continue to confront.
 
Inside the FCC, targeted reforms will also go a long way towards enhancing consumer protections. For example, the FCC’s current Consumer & Government Affairs Bureau needs to be elevated. A new Bureau of Consumer Protection with the appropriate staff and expertise would be a good step to enforce violations and measure outcomes. This model would be similar to that of the Federal Trade Commission, which already has the proper bureau structure in place, the authority to recover damages for consumers, and no statute of limitations to police violations.
 
The FCC is already making improvements
 
In less than two months, Pai has already taken great strides towards prioritizing consumer protection and ensuring consumers from all walks of life have better access to today’s robust Internet ecosystem. He outlined a Digital Empowerment Agenda to close the digital divide by removing regulatory blockades that hinder market forces and announced the creation of a Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee to allow stakeholders a seat at this table. 
 
The commission has also re-prioritized transparency in its decision-making process. In the past, the FCC voted on major items before sharing information with the public. Going forward, the Agency will publish all items at least three weeks before voting, giving the public increased engagement and participation in FCC rulemaking. Providing an opportunity for anyone to participate in the FCC process, not just parties with the best resources or connections, levels the playing field for all. The FCC has taken a great step – and it’s an important one for consumers.
 
Today’s political climate grows more polarized and partisan by the day, but Chairman Pai should be applauded for his commitment to consumer protection. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle should support these important FCC actions. 
 
Debra Berlyn heads Consumer Policy Solutions and has served on the FCC’s Consumer Advisory Committee for over 10 years. Roslyn Layton served on the President-Elect Transition Team for the FCC.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.