Friday, May 29, 2015

POSTED: Wednesday, May 27, 2015, 2:34 PM
File: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. (ANDREW HARRER / Bloomberg)

Sick of out-of-control robocalls - even to your cellphone?  So is FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who today announced plans for a crackdown that would enable phone companies to help by offering robocall-blocking technologies similar to spam-email filters. Under a proposal Wheeler plans to bring to a vote by the Federal Communications Commission on June 18, consumers would have clearer rights to block robocalls and phone companies would have a clear legal path to helping them.

Among Wheeler's proposals:

  • Consumers would be empowered "to say 'Stop.’" According to the FCC, "consumers would have the right to revoke their consent to receive robocalls and robotexts in any reasonable way at any time" - a protection the agency says would apply to both wireless and landline home phones.
  • Carriers would get "a Green Light for ‘Do Not Disturb’ Technology."  Carriers and 39 states have raised questions about whether call-blocking could run afoul of their common-carrier obligation to complete calls. Wheeler's proposal "would give the go-ahead for carriers to implement market-based solutions that consumers could use to stop unwanted robocalls" to either landline or wireless numbers..
  • Clarify that "reassigned numbers aren’t loopholes."  FCC officials say some marketers use consent that dates to the previous owner of a number. No longer.  "Consumers who inherit a phone number would not be subject to a barrage of unwanted robocalls to which a previous subscriber of the number consented. If a phone number has been reassigned, callers must stop calling the number after one call."
  • Allow "limited and specific exceptions for urgent circumstances."  Wheeler's proposal would still allow, for example, free calls or texts to wireless lines to "alert consumers to possible fraud on their bank accounts or remind them of important medication refills would be allowed." But the exceptions would not extend to calls for purposes such as marketing or debt collection. "In addition, consumers would have the ability to opt out of even these permitted calls and texts" on wireless phones, the FCC says.

In a call with reporters, a senior FCC offical said one complication of the proposal is differing rules for cellphones and landlines, and special protections for numbers on the national Do Not Call registry - a decade-old system that has been foiled by so-called "spoofing" - electronic systems that block the true source of a call.

Jeff Gelles @ 2:34 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Tuesday, May 19, 2015, 3:37 PM
A logo of Takata Corp is seen with its display at a showroom for vehicles in Tokyo, Japan, May 8, 2015. (REUTERS)

Last year's Takata airbag recall, initially limited to especially hot and humid areas and then nationally to driver's-side airbags, now covers all U.S. cars that include the suspect safety devices, which can injure or kill people when their inflators break apart as they are triggered.

The Department of Transportation said that Secretary Anthony Foxx "announced that at the Department’s insistence, air bag manufacturer Takata has acknowledged that a defect exists in its air bag inflators. Takata has agreed to a national recall of certain types of driver and passenger side air bag inflators. These inflators were made with a propellant that can degrade over time and has led to ruptures that have been blamed for six deaths worldwide. The action expands the number of vehicles to be recalled for defective Takata inflators to nearly 34 million."

The agency said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would begin a process "to organize and prioritize the replacement of defective Takata inflators." Under a consent order, Takata has agreed "to cooperate in all future regulatory actions that NHTSA undertakes in its ongoing investigation and oversight of Takata," the DOT said. More information is available at this DOT website.

Jeff Gelles @ 3:37 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Friday, May 15, 2015, 3:50 PM
A lot has changed since 2000, when Philadelphia last negotiated its cable franchise with Comcast. (DAVID MAIALETTI/File Photograph)

Last week, I wrote here about a Philadelphia-area couple, John and Carol Lehman, who'd been overcharged $600 by Comcast for a returned cable box, but were told they had to sign a strict nondisclosure agreement simply to get their money back. For a company that had just announced big plans to address customer dissatisfaction, evidence that Comcast might be trying to hide evidence seemed a bad sign.

I'm late with an important update: a response to my question about whether demanding customers' silence was now an ordinary practice or policy. Comcast says that particular use of an NDA was a mistake.  A company official said the form a service rep tried to require the Lehmans to sign, which you can read here, was intended for use in settling some of the more complicated cases that can arise in the cable business, such as claims of property damage.

In a formal statement emailed to me earlier this week, Comcast spokesman Jeff Alexander cited the company's plans "to significantly improve the customer experience [that] will go a long way to prevent these experiences from happening again." Then he said: "With regard to release forms and NDAs, we do not have a national policy regarding their use with customers and we don't think that confidentially agreements should be used in these situations. We are using this example to create a clear policy that will clarify this with our employees."

Jeff Gelles @ 3:50 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Thursday, May 7, 2015, 4:35 PM
View of the Comcast Center on Friday, April 24, 2015. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)

I'm guessing we haven't heard the last of this one. Just two days after Comcast's highly publicized come-to-contrition moment on how it plans to fix its customer-service failings, Philly's ABC 6 reports that Comcast demanded silence from a customer in return for a $600 refund - if true, horrible news for consumers and an embarrassment for the company. You can't totally hide your failings, but some companies go a long way toward trying to bury the evidence. Is Comcast really trying to join that club?

Consumerist's report, "Comcast Says Customer Must Sign Non-Disclosure Agreement To Get $600 Refund," builds on reporting by ABC 6's Action News Troubleshooters about three couples overcharged by the cable and broadband giant. If you take the station's report at face value, I may not get far if I call the couple to ask what happened. They played a voicemail for Channel 6 saying they would be issued the $600 refund "pending that you had signed a nondisclosure agreement." (In an earlier version of this post, I mistakenly reported that ABC 6 hadn't mentioned a written agreement.")

So far, Comcast hasn't said whether this reflects corporate policy or is evidence of another rogue employee. I don’t actually know how common or uncommon this practice is, because – guess what – these things undoubtedly work. People get refunds, or have them dangled, and the public never hears about a company’s misdeed or, ironically, its willingness to actually make amends.

Jeff Gelles @ 4:35 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Friday, April 24, 2015, 11:12 AM
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler (KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

If there were any lingering doubts that the Federal Communications Commission's staff and leadership wanted to kill Comcast Corp.'s $45 billion takeover of its second-largest not-quite-rival,  FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler set them to rest this morning - within minutes of Comcast's announcement that its deal with Time Warner and a related transaction with Charter Communications "have been terminated."

Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s decision to end Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable is in the best interests of consumers. The proposed transaction would have created a company with the most broadband and the video subscribers in the nation alongside the ownership of significant programming interests.

Today, an online video market is emerging that offers new business models and greater consumer choice. The proposed merger would have posed an unacceptable risk to competition and innovation, including to the ability of online video providers to reach and serve consumers.

Jeff Gelles @ 11:12 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Wednesday, April 15, 2015, 11:40 AM

It's long been a mystery to anyone who recognizes the power of computer algorithms and online data forms: Why can't U.S. taxpayers simply calculate their taxes online and file directly with the IRS for free? Taxpayers in other countries do so. Presidents of both parties have backed the concept.

The answer, according to a 2013 report by Pro Publica and NPR, mostly boils down to one factor: lobbying.  And in a report as relevant today as it was two years ago, the nonprofit investigative-journalism organizations largely blame Intuit, maker of the popular (and sometimes problematic) TurboTax tax-prep software, along with anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and a dose of anti-government ideology:

Intuit has spent about $11.5 million on federal lobbying in the past five years — more than Apple or Amazon. Although the lobbying spans a range of issues, Intuit's disclosures pointedly note that the company "opposes IRS government tax preparation."

Jeff Gelles @ 11:40 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Tuesday, April 14, 2015, 5:27 PM
(PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Google will face antitrust charges in the European Union even though it famously dodged them in the United States, sources have told several U.S. publications.

The good news is that I searched for this on Google via a Google Chrome browser, and I still found it - albeit below a suggested hit for "Google anti gravity." The bad news is that the European Union says Google - which avoided charges here despite a 2012 recommendation by the Federal Trade Commission's staff - has for years been manipulating search results "to favor the company’s own online services over others," the New York Times says.

The Times says: 

Jeff Gelles @ 5:27 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Wednesday, April 1, 2015, 1:29 PM

Darn, I knew I couldn't trust those pesky scientists.  (Or why it's sometimes hard to tell the pranks from the fringier news releases.)


Jeff Gelles @ 1:29 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
About this blog

Jeff Gelles, who writes the Inquirer's weekly Consumer 14.0 and Tech Life columns, takes a broad look at the marketplace of goods, services, and ideas.

Reach Jeff at jgelles@phillynews.com.

Jeff Gelles Inquirer Business Columnist