Nothing brings people together like a common enemy, and spammy, scammy robocalls are universally despised.
“If there is one thing in our country right now that unites Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, socialists and libertarians, vegetarians and carnivores, Ohio State and Michigan fans, it is that they are sick and tired of being bombarded by unwanted robocalls,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement as the FCC clarified rules around exactly how far network operators can go to block suspected spam calls by default.
Pai said that carriers “can immediately start offering call-blocking programs by default, based on any reasonable analytics designed to identify unwanted calls, so long as consumers are given the choice to opt out.
“There are many tools available right now that are effective in blocking unwanted calls before they reach consumers,” he added. “But their deployment has been limited because they’re only being made available on an opt-in basis, and many of the consumers who would most benefit from these tools, such as elderly Americans, are unaware that they can opt in. We believe today’s clarification will make it easier for consumers to participate in and benefit from call-blocking programs.”
Pai said that the FCC still wants consumers to be able to make informed decisions about staying in such a call-blocking program, so providers are being required to disclose what kind of calls might be blocked and the risks and offer an option for opting out — and for offering companies which make robocalls an avenue to complain that their calls aren’t getting through and for that to be resolved. After all, there are legitimate and wanted robocalls, such as notifications from school districts or doctors’ offices.
Network operators are also allowed to provide more aggressive blocking services, such as using a smartphone contact list as a “white list” and blocking all calls from numbers not on that list.
In his statement on the clarification of the rules, Pai quoted from numerous consumers who had contacted the FCC in support of more blocking of robocalls — including one who reported having received more than 500 health insurance robocalls between the end of February to the end of March of this year, all from spoofed numbers.
“You will be my hero and I dare say millions of other Americans if you actually put an end to this harassment,” Pai quoted the consumer as saying.
Pai went on to highlight a number of efforts on the part of the government to combat robocalls in the past two years: authorizing the creation of a reassigned phone number database, prosecuting robocallers and requiring the industry to implement Caller ID authentication by the end of the year, to combat illegal Caller ID spoofing.
“I’m optimistic that all of these measures will meaningfully reduce the number of unwanted robocalls that Americans get,” Pai said.
CTIA VP of Regulatory Affairs Matthew Gerst called the FCC’s guidance an “important step towards relieving American consumers from the plague of illegal and unwanted robocalls by ensuring they can automatically benefit from innovative call blocking tools and make informed decisions about which calls they want to receive. We thank the Commission for continuing to make clear that protecting consumers from the scourge of robocalls is a bipartisan priority.”
FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said that consumer receive 6.4 million robocalls per hour, and that such calls “have changed the fabric of our culture – if you get a call and don’t recognize the number, you don’t pick it up. Often, calls are spoofed to look like they are coming from a local business or neighbor. This pernicious practice makes it so we can’t differentiate these unwanted robocalls from calls from our doctors or our kids’ schools. Put simply, by allowing these calls to proliferate, we’ve broken phone service in this country.”
The FCC declaration garnered at least partial support from all of the commissioners, although commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Michael O’Rielly each had a partial dissent. Rosenworcel’s objection focused on the fact that the FCC is not requiring network operators to provide the call-blocking services for free. O’Rielly objected to what he called “breathtakingly expansive” language around allowing Wireless Bureau staff to collect information from carriers about the state of call blocking.
He also expressed some reservations about the overall action, saying that while he shared “the desire to eliminate the menace of illegal robocalls and believe that this item is very well-intended … I nonetheless wonder if it may lead to certain problematic consequences. Completely legitimate organizations and businesses regularly engage in so-called ‘robocalling’ to provide consumers with critical and time-sensitive information, such as fraud alerts, flight schedule changes, school closures, delivery window delays, prescription notices, appointment reminders, public safety alerts, and—yes—anti-delinquency notices. Efforts to attack illegal and fraudulent calls should not restrict or prevent these beneficial robocalls. … To the extent that providers implement this new default regime, I worry that consumers will only realize that important voice calls have been blocked after it’s too late.”