When consumers have gripes about unwanted telemarketing calls, cell phone billing rates, junk faxes, or indecent mouthing-off on broadcast television, the Federal Communications Commission is supposed to look into their complaints and respond accordingly.
But are federal regulators carrying out that duty as they should? It depends, of course, on who's doing the analysis.
A new report (PDF) released Thursday by the Government Accountability Office presents a mostly negative view, charging that the agency's processes for monitoring complaints and punishing violators is flawed.
At the request of Rep. Edward Markey, the Democratic chairman of a House of Representatives telecommunications panel, the GAO set to work analyzing multiple FCC databases of some 454,000 complaints received between 2003 and 2006. It reported finding that the FCC opened investigations on 46,000 of those complaints and concluded 83 percent of those inquiries without taking any enforcement actions, such as issuing fines--and without clear explanations as to why.
But the FCC says that key parts of the GAO's findings--including the numbers of investigations and complaints it reports--are simply incorrect.
If the GAO had bothered to comb through the FCC's paper files and "scroll through" all relevant database information, it would have discovered that the FCC actually closed only 3 percent of its investigations without enforcement actions, FCC Enforcement Bureau chief Kris Anne Monteith said in her response letter (PDF).
The GAO auditors, anticipating the FCC's disagreement, stood by their report's findings. They acknowledged that they did not sift through tens of thousands of paper case files because that wasn't its goal: They wanted to focus on how its database systems interact with its enforcement activities.
Based on that analysis, the GAO also determined that the FCC only "rarely" relied on more serious penalties and only "sometimes" assessed a fine. All told, it levied $73 million in fines and payments through negotiated consent decrees with alleged violators, but the dollar amount declined between 2003 and 2006, the GAO said.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin suggested the report gives his agency short shrift.
"Since I became chairman, the Enforcement Bureau is responding to 100 percent of consumer complaints," he said in a statement after the report's release. "Additionally, under my chairmanship, the Commission has collected a record amount of fines, forfeitures and consent decree payments."
There were, however, some areas of agreement. The GAO recommended that the FCC take certain steps to address those concerns about its setup for keeping its enforcement activities organized--that is, five separate databases and tens of thousands of paper files. The FCC said it welcomed those recommendations and had already begun making improvements.
Both Markey and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC, said the report demonstrates that enforcement at the FCC isn't enough, and state-level activity is also necessary. Markey has sponsored a bill in this session that would impose new obligations on wireless carriers and would give both the FCC and state officials the power to enforce complaints about violations.