Thirteen Democratic members of Congress on Friday asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Verizon’s recent throttling of the Santa Clara County Fire Department while it was fighting California’s largest-ever wildfire.
“Throttling directly violates core net neutrality principles,” the letter, led by US Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), said. “In light of the repeal of net neutrality, we urge you to investigate whether Verizon’s practices were ‘unfair or deceptive’ pursuant to Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.
NEW: I sent a letter today with @NancyPelosi and 11 Northern California Members to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), urging them to investigate Verizon’s throttling of Santa Clara County Fire Department’s data. pic.twitter.com/joCNBcBoey
— Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (@RepAnnaEshoo) August 24, 2018
The House members wrote to the FTC instead of the Federal Communications Commission because the latter agency ceded regulatory power to the FTC when it deregulated broadband and eliminated net neutrality rules.
Eshoo and fellow Democrats wrote:
We believe the Federal Communications Commission, as the expert regulatory agency, should be responsible for the oversight of public safety networks and communications networks as a whole. Unfortunately, with its repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order, the FCC has abdicated its jurisdiction over broadband communications and walked away from protecting consumers, including public safety agencies. We, therefore, call on the FTC to protect consumers from unfair or deceptive acts or practices stemming from this incident.
The FTC doesn’t enforce any rule against throttling, but it can sue companies when they deceive consumers about the terms of their service.
“It is unacceptable for communications providers to deceive their customers,” the Democrats wrote. “But when the consumer in question is a government entity tasked with fire and emergency services, we can’t afford to wait a moment longer. The FTC must investigate whether Verizon and other communications companies are being unfair or deceptive in the services they’re offering to public safety entities, and if so, to determine what remedies are appropriate to ensure our first responders have adequate service when lives are on the line.”
When contacted by Ars, an FTC spokesperson confirmed that the agency received the Democrats’ letter but said the FTC had no further comment.
Besides Eshoo, the letter was signed by Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Reps. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), John Garamendi (D-Calif.), Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.), and Doris Matsui (D-Calif.).
FTC authority is limited
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has claimed that the FTC will protect consumers from unfair practices now that the FCC has given up its ability to regulate ISPs as common carriers.
But the FTC has faced a long, difficult process in trying to punish AT&T for throttling Internet service on unlimited data plans. The FTC sued AT&T over the practice in 2014, but AT&T avoided a trial by claiming that the FTC has no authority over AT&T’s business.
AT&T finally gave up its attempt to cripple the FTC’s authority in May when it said it would not appeal to the US Supreme Court, and the company signaled that it wanted to settle with the FTC. It isn’t clear whether the case will be settled or go to trial. But after nearly four years, no consumers have received the refunds sought by the FTC.
Throttling of fire department
As we reported last week, a crucial device used by the Santa Clara fire department had an “unlimited” plan that was throttled to unusable speeds after 25GB of usage each month. The throttling came to light in a filing made by Santa Clara in the lawsuit that seeks to restore net neutrality rules.
The device was throttled at disaster responses in December 2017 and June of this year, leading to some frantic conversations between Verizon and the department. Emails submitted in court show that fire department officials thought they had worked out a solution with Verizon to remove throttling after similar incidents in December and June. They were caught by surprise when the device was throttled again in July while fighting the Mendocino Complex Fire.
Eshoo and fellow Democrats described the events as follows:
According to the [court] Declaration, County Fire contracted with Verizon for an “unlimited” data plan but experienced heavy throttling when they had reached their “cap.” These reduced speeds severely undermined department personnel’s ability to function in the midst of the largest wildfire in California history. When County Fire contacted Verizon directly about the reduced speeds and asked it to restore speeds to essential transfer speed, County Fire was told it would have to switch to a new data plan at more than twice the cost.
Verizon acknowledged that it “made a mistake in how we communicated with our customer about the terms of its plan.” Verizon also said it failed to follow its own policy of “remov[ing] data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations.”
Verizon also apologized at a hearing held by the California state legislature on Friday. On the same day, the company said it has temporarily stopped throttling the data of firefighters and other first responders on the West Coast and in Hawaii and will soon introduce a new unlimited plan “with no caps” and with priority access for first responders.