FCC complaints data falls short of fully informing the public



The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) release of consumer complaint data is a step in the right direction, but it falls far short of the transparency and accountability full disclosure would bring. Giving consumers more insight into what other consumers are telling the regulator about telecommunications providers is the right thing to do. Sunlight generally has celebrated when regulatory agencies disclose open data and has worked hard to play a useful role in informing the public about what’s in them. As always, however, the devil is in the details.

What the FCC is disclosing — and touting as a move towards greater transparency — is information that consumers have submitted that has not been verified. Those complaints are being published in machine-readable formats, for developers, on a website that enables consumers to map them, filter by location or create charts and graphs.

So far, so good.

As The Hill reported, however, what the FCC is not disclosing in this data is the text of complaints, the names of the people who filed them or, most disappointingly, the companies that are the subject of complaints.

That’s a mistake.

What the FCC is doing here isn’t quite openwashing, but it’s something well short of full transparency, too. After all, full consumer complaints filed to the FCC are already available to anyone who files a Freedom of Information Act request for them. The FCC shouldn’t need to be nudged or sued to release these records to the public.

By publishing the subjects of complaints and pairing it with data on the status of resolution for consumers — something FCC commissioners have indicated they have interest in — the FCC could provide a much more valuable consumer resource. For instance, the data the FCC released shows that the agency has received more than 21,000 complaints from consumers about net neutrality violations. Why shouldn’t consumers know which ISPs are throttling or limiting other consumers, or which are the quickest to resolve issues?

Moving in this direction isn’t without precedent, and it’s worth noting that other federal agencies are providing a useful model. The Consumer Product Safety Commission discloses open data about recalls, including an API that enables third parties to inform and protect consumers at the point of purchasing decisions.

Last year, we hailed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for releasing a database of consumer complaints. While we critiqued the ways interface choices affect that data, the CFPB’s decision to publish narratives of complaints along with metadata around them has public interest value. Despite industry pushback about data quality, the regulator continues to publish them today.

The FCC should embrace its role as a clearinghouse of consumer complaints and publish the subjects of the complaints themselves. Redacting the names of consumers, as the CFPB does, is consumer-friendly. We hope the FCC will continue to do so. Redacting the names of companies from this data shields companies from embarrassment while reducing the impact of the invisible hand of government data in the marketplace.

Consumers, governments and corporations are all already living in the age of transparency, where social media enables the users of services, owners of products and residents of cities to share their good and bad experiences with the world with the snap of a smartphone camera and tap of a screen.

Disclosing a more complete dataset will provide valuable context for consumers and policy makers regarding any regulatory action the FCC takes and empower the public to make more informed decisions. We hope the agency agrees and does so.


UPDATE: The FCC responded to Sunlight but has made no commitments nor actual changes to its disclosure policy or practices.

“The release of the consumer complaint data was a significant first step in providing greater access to the data in the Commission’s consumer complaint database,” said Kim Hart, the FCC’s press secretary. “The FCC is working toward releasing additional and more granular data in the near future. However, we want to be sure that we are thoughtful in how we release future data so as to provide the most public benefit and protect consumer privacy. We are currently working to improve our complaint collection systems, which will allow us to provide additional information to the public.”


UPDATE II: An FCC spokesman responded to Sunlight’s followup questions. We’ve posted the response below and look forward to seeing the agency’s next steps.

Sunlight: The substance of this critique is that the FCC did not release raw data. What is now online has been scrubbed of author, subject and narrative text. 

FCC: “Every field that is made public is done so without editing, allowing release within 24 hours of receipt of complaints. This is a first step, not the final iteration.”

Sunlight: Whose privacy is the agency protecting if it releases data that includes the text and subject of complaints?

FCC: “We have an obligation to protect consumer privacy and that includes being sure personally identifiable information that might be included in the text of a complaint is not released. This is the same privacy process used in our responses to FOIA request. At this time, we do not have the automated redaction or opt-in capabilities. Due to the very high volume of complaints we receive, an automated redaction system would be needed before we could release complaint narratives in a timely manner.”

Sunlight: Why isn’t the FCC meeting the standard that the CFPB has set?

FCC: “The Commission has made a significant first step forward in releasing this information proactively for the first time. Like CFPB, we are following an iterative process of which this is the first step.”

Sunlight: What specific improvements to collection systems is the FCC making?”

FCC: “The Commission hopes to improve its collection systems to allow consumers to more accurately differentiate between a specific complaint that should be served on the carrier and a general concern. Greater detail as to the nature of consumer concerns will provide everyone a more clear picture. Looking ahead, improving the level of detail is one of our goals for the next steps in this process.”