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FCC Confirms Default Robocall Blocking by Carriers

The FCC has voted unanimously, but with some partial dissents, to make it clear that phone service providers can target and block unwanted calls to their customers by default (before they get to those customers' phones) and can allow those customers to block calls not on their contact lists on an opt-in basis.

Carriers have to let consumers who don't want them to block their calls opt out.

That decision came at the FCC's monthly public meeting June 6, where the commissioners approved a declaratory ruling. The commissioners also approved a draft Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) that would propose a "safe harbor" for "providers that implement network-wide blocking of calls that fail caller authentication under the SHAKEN/STIR framework once it is implemented voluntarily by carriers.

A Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau official presenting the item pointed out that the FCC gets hundreds of thousands of complaints per year* about the calls (a phone could be heard ringing as the item was proposed).

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The item also included language that would allow the FCC to move directly to an order to mandate call identification if that voluntary adoption is not forthcoming. "Recent progress suggests that the private sector is on track to meet the end-of-year deadline I’ve set," said Pai in a USA Today blog about the item, adding that "this should greatly increase consumer adoption of these services and help stem the flow of scam robocalls."

The chairman even took to the internet to explain the new ruling:


At the request of Commissioner Brendan Carr, the item also seeks comment on creating a "robocall scorecard" to publicize data on how each carrier is or isn't targeting and blocking illegal calls.

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The FCC is under pressure from Congress to help consumers weed out unwanted robocalls--for one thing, legislators keep pointing out that they get such calls during the hearings they have been holding about how to stop them. But it has also been a priority for the FCC chairman. "Stopping the deluge of unwanted calls is the FCC’s top consumer protection priority," Pai has said.

Carr said the decision was not silver bullet, but an important step, another which would be carriers' adoption of SHAKEN/STIR.

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"It’s now time for wireless carriers to step up their efforts," said Carr, "and with today’s decision, we make clear that they have the power to do so. This decision removes any doubt that carriers can block calls before they even reach a consumer’s phone based on call analytics. And it clarifies that carriers can offer customers the option of blocking all calls that do not appear on a customer’s “white list” or contact list. I expect that carriers will use this decision to take immediate and additional actions to combat illegal calls."

Comcast has partnered with AT&T to successfully test that SHAKEN/STIR protocol.

"I am hopeful that clarifying that providers may offer informed opt-out call blocking services will make these tools available to millions more consumers as soon as possible," said Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Starks. "I appreciate that this item notes that these services should not negatively impact emergency calls or rural call completion obligations. And I am glad that we will now be positioned to act on mandating Caller ID authentication by the end of the year, if needed."

Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, who voted to support the item, but with a dissent on one part, called it well-intended. He pointed out that the FCC had already allowed default blocking by call category and from invalid or unused numbers and was concerned the item could hurt legitimate robocalls like public safety alerts, fraud alerts, and parent advisories like school closures.

He said he would have liked the item to seek comment on redress for erroneously blocked calls and so praised the addition of language saying that a call blocking regime should include such a redress process.

He dissented from one, small, part of the item on collecting carrier data on call blocking, saying it was "breathtakingly broad."

Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said it was a long-overdue rulemaking on call authentication, and on the blocking tech, "so far, so good." But she called it a "devastating problem" that the item does not prevent carriers from charging for blocking.

She called it a "pinky promise" that the item anticipates carriers won't charge a premium for its use, something Pai has signaled he anticipates as well, but does not mandate it. She said consumers wanted carriers to block calls for free and she was disappointed the FCC did not follow suit. On that part, she dissented. Commissioner Starks seconded that call for carriers to make the service free--saying he didn't want to see it as a line item on their bills, though he did not cast any partial dissents.

Pai said that in the three weeks since he announced the proposal to block calls that he had heard from many Americans. He read several, including one saying "please, please, please do so," and another saying there was simply no rest from them. He said the desire to end the scourge of unwanted robocalls unites everyone from Republican to Democrat, socialist to libertarian, and carnivore to vegetarians and that the FCC has heard their complaints and are taking action.

“ACA Connects applauds the FCC for making clear that voice service providers may offer robocall blocking tools to customers on an informed opt-out basis," said ACA Connects President Matt Polka. "Today’s ruling gives assurance to ACA Connects members and other providers that they can do more to help their customers block malicious robocalls, while also preserving the right of any individual customer to make an informed choice to receive any and all incoming calls."  

“The FCC took an important step in the robocall wars today by empowering carriers to expand their efforts to block illegal and unwanted robocalls," said Patrick Halley, USTelecom SVP, policy and advocacy. "Greater flexibility for carriers is a win for consumers. The work is far from done, however, and we look forward to working with the Commission and other stakeholders to further incentivize the ongoing industry innovation required to stop the scamming, spoofing and endless aggravation of phone users.”

* According to YouMail's Robocall Index, U.S. residents received 4.7 billion robocalls in May and over 25 billion so far this year, or an average of 152.9 million robocalls per day--that's 1,769 robocalls per second. 

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.