WASHINGTON — The nation's top telecom and cable regulator voted Thursday to change the rules that govern its handling of consumer complaints, amid a last-minute firestorm of political opposition.
Among the changes is a deletion of language referring to the Federal Communications Commision's active involvement in so-called "informal" consumer complaints — the submissions commonly used by consumers to report billing or privacy problems with their telephone company, or indecencies on radio or television.
The revisions come amid a wider revamp of the FCC's formal complaint process, a separate $225 court-like proceeding that is used to address alleged violations of FCC regulations.
The changes were made to "streamline" the FCC's rulebook, according to agency chairman Ajit Pai. But critics said the decision would undercut the FCC's role in protecting consumers, who submit as many as 25,000 informal complaints a month. The FCC often reviews those submissions and contacts companies on consumers' behalf, in order to help resolve the complaints.
The new FCC rules approved Thursday did preserve language that indicates the agency may forward consumer complaints directly to the companies in question.
The changes amount to "cut[ting] the FCC out of the process" by turning the agency into "merely a conduit for the exchange of letters between consumers and their carriers," said Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.
Earlier this week, House Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Pai warning that the changes would simply mean that consumers' complaints would no longer be resolved to their satisfaction. Their only other recourse, the lawmakers said, would be to pay the $225 fee to file a formal complaint.
FCC officials insisted on Wednesday that despite the textual changes to its rules, the agency's real-world approach to informal complaints would not change.
"It would simply align the text of a rule with longstanding FCC practices that have been in place for years under prior Chairmen and Commissions," said FCC spokesman Brian Hart.
Thursday's vote on the rule change came after hours of backroom negotiations between Rosenworcel and Pai.
Rosenworcel on Wednesday pushed to have the provisions on informal complaints removed from the proposal; late in the afternoon, Pai had agreed, according to multiple people familiar with the matter who spoke anonymously to discuss internal agency deliberations.
But Thursday morning, Pai decided to include those provisions in the vote after all, the people said.