DC Circuit: Verizon Can’t Try to Keep Customers

by on February 12, 2009 · 22 comments

briefcase full of cashOver the summer, I blogged about an FCC decision to ban Verizon’s practice of offering incentives to departing customers to get them to stay. Yesterday, the DC Circuit upheld that bad decision. When a customer of Verizon’s phone service decides to leave for a VOIP company, Verizon gets a notice that the number is being ported. When Verizon got notified that the customer was trying to leave, the company would offer her incentives such as “discounts and American Express reward cards” to stay.

This worked well for the customers, who got discounts if they stayed. It also worked well for Verizon, for whom it costs much more to find a replacement customer than to keep the current one. And it was really the best way to do so. If Verizon had given the incentives any time a customer threatened to leave, but didn’t start the process of doing so, then customers would just bluff to get the incentives. Verizon instead looked for a costly signal from the customer. And if Verizon had waited until after the port was already completed, it would cost the customer, Verizon, and the new carrier a lot of effort to switch back.

But the FCC banned Verizon’s efforts and yesterday the DC Circuit affirmed the Commission. I will follow with more details, once my summary of the case comes out in the March issue of Packets, the Center for Internet and Society’s publication summarizing important new internet cases. But for now, I should just note that the court hinted that the FCC’s reading of the statute it relied upon was a bit counterintuitive, but was compelled by Chevron v. NRDC to give the administrative agency great deference in its bad reading of the law. The court even noted that Verizon offered uncontroverted evidence “that continuation of its marketing program would generate $75–79 million in benefits for telephone customers over a five-year period.” Further, the court rejected Verizon’s First Amendment challenge, because the lower standard for commercial speech compelled the conclusion that Verizon’s sound marketing efforts didn’t deserve protection.

These precedents need to be revoked, or the growing administrative state will keep swallowing up more and more of our most important freedoms while preventing sensible and beneficial policies.

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