On Tuesday, October 11, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC” or “Commission”) announced the release of an Order and Consent Decree with cable behemoth Comcast Corporation (“Comcast”) in which the company agreed to pay US$2.3M to settle an FCC investigation into whether Comcast employed negative option billing to wrongfully charge for services and equipment customers never authorized.  The settlement also requires Comcast—by some accounts the largest cable company in the country with 22.3M subscribers—to adopt a sweeping, highly detailed five-year compliance plan designed to force the company to obtain customers’ affirmative informed consent prior to adding charges to their bills.  According to the FCC’s press release, the settlement amount is the largest civil penalty the agency has ever assessed against a cable operator.

What is Negative Option Billing and How Does the FCC Regulate It?

“Negative option billing” is a practice similar to “cramming” in the telecommunications context, wherein a company places unauthorized charges on a consumer’s bill, requiring subscribers to pay for services or equipment they did not affirmatively request.  In addition to the obvious nuisance of unknowingly paying for unauthorized services and equipment, the FCC’s action is also aimed at protecting consumers from “spend[ing] significant time and effort in seeking redress for any unwanted service or equipment, which is often manifested in long telephone wait times, unreturned phone calls from customer service, unmet promises of refunds, and hours of effort wasted while pursuing corrections.”  For these and other consumer protection reasons, negative option billing is illegal; it violates both Section 623(f) of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended (the Act), and Section 76.981(a) of the Commission’s rules.  Specifically, 47 U.S.C. § 543(f) explicitly prohibits negative billing options, noting also that a failure to refuse an offer is not the equivalent of accepting the offer.

As the FCC clarified in a 2011 Declaratory Ruling, while a customer does not have to know and recite specific names of equipment or service in the course of ordering those products, the cable operator must have “adequately explained and identified” the products in order for a subscriber to “knowingly accept[] the offered services and equipment by affirmative statements or actions.”

Section 76.981(b) explains that the negative billing option does not prevent a cable operator from making certain changes without consumer consent, such as modifying the mix of channels offered in a certain tier, or increasing the rate of a particular tier (unless more substantive changes are made, such as adding a tier, which then increases the price of service).

The FCC appears to have found only one violation of the negative option billing prohibition previously, and in that context, the Commission used its discretion to refrain from imposing a penalty.  More than 20 years ago, in 1995, the Commission acted on a complaint and investigated Monmouth Cablevision for allegations that the company—which had previously rented remote controls to their subscribers—violated FCC rules when it removed the leasing fee on subscriber bills and instead included a $5 sale price for the remotes.  In that case, the Commission explained that, while “in a literal sense, this is the same equipment that the customer previously rented, we cannot find that these customers affirmatively requested to purchase these remotes rather than renting them.”  The Commission went on to explain that “changing the way in which existing service and equipment is offered, e.g., from leasing to selling,” did, in fact, violate the Commission’s negative option billing prohibition.  However, due to the “de minimis difference between the $ 5.00 purchase price and the total rental price” and because of the “large number of regulatory requirements that became effective on September 1, 1993, and the associated compliance difficulties,” the then Cable Services Bureau chose not to impose a penalty.  Because state governments have concurrent jurisdiction over negative billing practices, cable companies have faced court action for these and similar allegations for decades. 

The FCC Investigation

Based on “numerous” consumer complaints, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau opened an investigation in December of 2014 into whether Comcast engaged in negative option billing.  In the course of its investigation, the FCC determined that customers were billed for “unordered services or products, such as premium channels, set-top boxes, or digital video recorders (DVRs).”  Beyond not authorizing these products, in some cases the FCC claims that subscribers specifically declined additional services or upgrades, only to be billed anyway.  In fact, the Order—which is part of the settlement but generally not subject to the non-government party’s review prior to release—details numerous complainants that claim to have been given the runaround by Comcast customer service representatives, with one customer (Subscriber A) claiming that, after three hours on the phone and multiple transfers, she was ultimately transferred to a fax machine.  Another complainant (Subscriber B) asserted that he determined Comcast had wrongfully billed him for approximately 18 months for an extra cable box he never ordered, and that he spent another year calling to request (unsuccessfully) that the company remove the charge.

The Settlement

The Order and Consent Decree are striking in terms of the level of transparency exhibited throughout.  Unlike most FCC settlements, in which facts and legal arguments are closely guarded and held confidential, this Order reads more like a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture, where the FCC explains the underlying facts and legal theories in substantially more detail.  Especially noteworthy here, is that unlike majority of the other settlements released by the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau since Travis LeBlanc took the helm, neither the Order nor the Consent Decree include a statement admitting liability.  Rather than an admission of liability by Comcast, the Consent Decree includes a lengthy discussion of the perspectives of both Comcast and the Commission.  Besides arguing that most of the services were authorized and that unauthorized services inadvertently added to consumer bills were removed, Comcast—represented by FCC regular and first Enforcement Bureau Chief David Solomon—argued that the Commission itself “has cautioned against an expansive application of the Negative Option Billing Laws, stating that a broad reading of the rule could lead to harmful consequences.”  Moreover, Comcast asserted that “the Negative Option Billing Laws are not per se prohibitions, but instead are targeted only at affirmatively deceptive conduct on the part of cable operators, and Commission enforcement requires a demonstrated pattern of violation,” rather than an erroneous charge “occasioned by employee error” that does not involve deceit or intent.  For its part, the Commission asserted that it believes “the Customer Complaints and other facts adduced during the Investigation are evidence of violations of Section 623(f) of the Act and Section 76.981 of the Commission’s Rules.”

Moreover, the settlement requires that Comcast be required to comply with the terms of the Order and Consent Decree for an uncharacteristically long term—i.e., five years instead of the three years the Bureau has normally insisted upon.

In addition to the US$2.3M civil penalty, Comcast must implement a highly detailed compliance plan.  Although in many instances, Comcast is given until July 2017 to create and implement requisite processes, the level of detail applied to the cable company’s alleged transgressions is similar to that found in certain cramming and slamming settlements.  In those instances, however, the Commission is usually acting against less sophisticated targets with decidedly fewer resources that cannot retain compliance personnel with the expertise to design, develop, and implement their own expansive compliance plans.  Among other things, and as explained in five pages of detail in the Consent Decree, the company is required to:

obtain customers’ affirmative informed consent prior to charging them for new services or equipment; send customers an order confirmation, separate from any other bill, that clearly and conspicuously describes newly added services and equipment and their associated charges; offer mechanisms to customers that, at no cost, enable them to block the addition of new services or equipment to their accounts; implement a detailed program for redressing disputed charges in a standardized and expedient fashion; limit adverse actions (such as referring an account to collections or suspending service) while a disputed charge is being investigated; designate a senior corporate manager as a compliance officer; and implement a training program to ensure customer service personnel resolve customer complaints about unauthorized charges.

Going forward, it appears that the Commission will have a substantial amount of insight into the way the company conducts its business vis-à-vis its customer service responsibilities, in the form of annual reports and extended document retention requirements.

Lessons from the Settlement

Over the past two and a half years, it has become more apparent that the FCC is willing to apply old rules in new ways, and to continue to be an aggressive enforcer of the rules in general, but particularly when it comes to protecting consumers.  Although the Commission has issued Enforcement Advisories in the past, alerting companies that it is on the lookout for noncompliance in certain areas, this US$2M+ action is proof that regulatees should not wait for FCC warnings before ensuring they are compliant with the rules.  Companies should take heed and adopt a proactive approach to understanding the rules applicable to them based on their business operations.