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Yes, you can sue your internet service provider, but almost all ISP subscriber agreements require you to file any lawsuit in small claims court. If your dispute is over more than the amount that your local small claims court handles, you have to resolve it outside of the courts using a process called arbitration. In either case, your damages are limited by the terms of your broadband service agreement.
Although you may be able to handle a small claims case by yourself, you may want to consult a consumer protection lawyer if your claim is substantial or you need to go to arbitration.
But sometimes it’s not all about the money. If those options don’t satisfy you, you can file an informal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). If you aren’t pleased with the outcome, you can then file a formal complaint with the FCC. That process has specific procedural rules, so if you choose to go this route you would want to consult an experienced communications lawyer.
The Internet Changed the World
The internet has come a long way. Not too many years ago, the best folks could hope for was dial-up using the phone lines and a modem. Now we have high-speed broadband services with Wi-Fi. We also have wireless access on our smartphones.
Here are some statistics:
- More than half of the world’s population (about 4 billion people) are connected to the internet
- People spend nearly 170 minutes (almost 3 hours) per day online
- People spend about 140 minutes (more than 2 hours) per day on social media
- Facebook is the most popular social media network
- Mobile internet accounts for more than half of internet traffic
- Nearly 70% of households in the United States have internet access
Net Neutrality in the United States
As the internet has grown, so has government involvement. The FCC (and to some extent, the Federal Trade Commission) regulates the internet. One of the major issues the FCC faces today is net neutrality.
Broadly speaking, net neutrality is the principle that ISPs treat all internet traffic the same. With net neutrality, ISPs cannot engage in “throttling” (slowing down of traffic), blocking certain sites, or charging separately for online content. If there is no net neutrality, however, ISPs can prioritize certain types of traffic (like Netflix, YouTube, or other big companies) and charge consumers for differing service levels. Basically, most consumers want net neutrality; most ISPs don’t.
The federal government has gone back and forth on net neutrality. Under the Obama Administration, the FCC issued a rule requiring it. The Trump Administration repealed that rule. The Biden Administration has advocated for net neutrality, but the FCC hasn’t acted yet because the FCC chair is vacant and the remaining four commissioners are split (two for, two against).
Some states, including California, Colorado, Maine, Washington, and Oregon, have stepped in with their own net neutrality rules. Most have not, effectively leaving regulation largely to market forces. That may change.
Disputes With Your ISP
As a practical matter net neutrality doesn’t help you if your internet service goes out or your ISP overcharges you. We all have heard stories or have one of our own.
For example, you may be watching the Superbowl, and right before the final play of a close game your picture freezes. Your Wi-Fi seems to be working fine, and you are sure you paid your exorbitant monthly service bill, so you call your ISP. You hear a recorded message saying that they are aware of an outage and will update you by text or email when service is restored. Thank goodness for mobile hotspots.
Episodes like this can be frustrating. But losing your internet can be a real problem for people who work from home or for small businesses. According to the Census Bureau of the United States Department of Commerce, the estimate of U.S. e-commerce sales for the third quarter of 2021 totaled nearly $214.6 billion. Even a temporary service outage on, say, Black Friday can be devastating for some salespeople.
What Are Your Options?
When you signed up for internet service with an ISP, you entered into an agreement with them. That agreement defines your rights and responsibilities. Your ISP wrote your subscriber agreement, not you, so you won’t be surprised to learn that they are typically very one-sided and favorable to the ISP. Your options are limited.
Before you decide what to do, however, you need to think about whether it’s even worth the fight. These are hard cases to win. Virtually all ISP agreements contain limits on liability (many to the cost of a month’s bill) and essentially excuse any bad service issues that may arise on their end whatsoever. You should make sure you understand your service agreement before you act (and consider bringing a consumer protection attorney in if you have questions).
Option One: File a Lawsuit in Small Claims Court
Depending on your ISP and the amount in dispute, you may be able to bring a lawsuit, but only in small claims court. Almost all major ISPs (e.g., Verizon, AT&T Inc., Frontier, Optimum, Spectrum, etc.) include such a restriction in their terms of service. The upsides are that you may be able to recover something if your dispute is small and that you might be able to handle the matter yourself, without an attorney.
The major downside is that small claims courts can only handle cases up to a limited amount. In Kentucky and Rhode Island, the most you can recover is $2,500. In Delaware and Tennessee, that amount is $25,000. The other states fall in between, with many at $10,000. That may be fine for you if you are suing over a small billing dispute, but if you lose a day of online sales because your internet connection is down, the amount at issue may be much more.
A footnote here: Comcast (Xfinity) is different. According to its terms and conditions of service, virtually all claims must be arbitrated (which we discuss below), but you can opt out of arbitration if you notify the company of your choice within 30 days of when your service starts. So you still have a way to preserve your right to go to court as long as you act quickly.
Option Two: Pursue Arbitration
Arbitration may be your best (or only) option, particularly if your claim is large. Arbitration is a process by which the parties to a dispute hire an impartial third party (an arbitrator) to resolve it without a judge being involved. Arbitration can arguably be a cheaper, simpler, and faster way of getting a final decision. Some lawyers really like it.
Others don’t. In practice, arbitration can sometimes be expensive (sometimes just as expensive as a lawsuit) and lengthy. The rules may help you, but they can also complicate things, result in seemingly arbitrary decisions, or even make it harder for you to win (the ISP drafted the arbitration agreement, after all). There is no jury and you typically lose any right to appeal (which again may help you or hurt you, depending on the dispute).
If you are considering bringing an arbitration against your ISP, you should strongly consider consulting with an experienced consumer protection attorney.
Option Three: FCC Complaints
You may not get satisfaction in either a small claims court or through arbitration. You have another option: You can file a complaint with the FCC.
The process starts with an informal complaint. You can file that for free online by filling out a form on the FCC’s website. The FCC will take your complaint and forward it to your ISP. Your ISP has 30 days in which to respond to both you and the FCC (in the interim you likely will be contacted by your ISP to try to work out the matter). If the FCC determines that the response is sufficient, it closes the case.
If you believe your ISP’s response does not solve the matter, you can submit rebuttal information to the FCC. The FCC will review that information and, if it believes it appropriate, it will forward that information to your ISP, triggering a new obligation to respond.
If you’re not happy with the outcome, you can file a formal complaint with the FCC. A formal complaint must be brought within six months of the date of the response to your informal complaint.
Be warned: The formal complaint process isn’t cheap. The filing fee itself is more than $500. And filing starts a process that is similar to court proceedings with specific procedural rules. You typically would want to be represented by an attorney experienced in communications law.
What Should You Do?
If you have a dispute with your ISP, the first step is to try to work it out with them. Who knows? They might surprise you.
If you can’t work it out, you then have a choice, depending on what’s you believe is at stake. You may be able to sue or arbitrate. If you want, you can file a complaint with the FCC.
An experienced consumer protection lawyer can help you better understand your options, advise you about your rights and responsibilities under your ISP subscriber agreement, and help you determine what makes the most sense in your situation.