FCC Cracking Down on Wireless Robotexts, Calls

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has circulated to the other commissioners a proposal for a June vote on preventing unwanted robocalls and "robotexts," spam and telemarketing calls to wireless phones that makes it clear that carriers can help their subs block those unwanted communications.

That is according to FCC officials speaking on background.

Wheeler is trying to close what he sees as "loopholes" in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) by issuing declaratory rulings on more than 20 petitions for clarity on how it interprets the TCPA regarding wireless phones, though some of the changes will apply to wired phones as well. Some of those questions had come from carriers and others wondering if they were allowed to provide blocking technology given their common-carrier requirement for completing calls.

Complaints about violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) are the FCC's most numerous. More than 215,000 complaints came in last year alone, according to an FCC official.

App developers and others have sought input on just what consumer protections square with the law.

The chairman's declaratory rulings make it clear that no carrier can "block, choke, reduce or restrict" access, but an official said carriers would be empowered to help consumers block VoIP robocalls. The official said it removes a key question from carriers and some state AG's about whether carriers could help with this type of blocking. The FCC proposal says there is no barrier to filtering out unwanted numbers.

The FCC is saying that the Title II obligation of telecoms to complete calls is not a legal barrier to a consumers ability to use a call-blocking technology. If the consumer requests that technology from the carrier, the carrier can provide it.

Wireline carriers would also be able to offer the blocking technologies.

The rulings would:

1. Make it easier to get off a robocall list. Any reasonable means of revoking consent would have to be accepted, like an oral expression, for example.

2. Allow for robocall-blocking technologies.

3. Require companies to actively purge their lists of old phone numbers, so holders of reassigned numbers aren't bombarded with calls.

4. Define an autodialer in a technology-neutral manner.

5. Provide carveouts for robocalls that can be made without consent if they are ones that are free or are alerting consumers about possible fraud or medication reminders.

An official said the commission is in a wait-and-see mode about whether call-blocking technologies will develop, as is hoped, but if not, it is prepared to take further action.

The rules will be enforced both through a consumers' private right of action -- as in to sue -- callers that violate TCPA and the commission's rules. The FCC's Enforcement Bureau has also fined companies millions for TCPA violations and will continue to be vigilant, the officials made clear.

While CTIA: The Wireless Association said it was still vetting the proposals, it also pointed out it was already helping its subs prevent unwanted solicitations.

“Collectively through CTIA as well as individually, wireless companies have sought to empower customers, through education and the development of tools to block fraudulent and unwanted communications," the association said in a statement. "There are a variety of apps and features available to consumers today, many for free, to help stop robocalls and other annoying or fraudulent activity. While we are still reviewing the details of the Chairman’s proposals, we remain committed to working with all interested parties to help protect consumers while preserving choice and promoting innovation throughout the wireless ecosystem.”

John Eggerton

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.