from the half-measures-and-good-intent dept
So for a long time the FCC has made “fighting robocalls” one of their top priorities. Though with Americans still receiving 132 million Robocalls every single day, you may have noticed that these efforts don’t usually have the impact they claim. Headlines about “historic” or “record” FCC robocall fines usually overshadow the agency’s pathetic failure to collect on those fines, or the fact that thanks to recent Supreme Court rulings, the agency is boxed in as to which kind of annoying calls and spam texts it can actually police.
Which brings us to last week, when the agency announced yet another major action, this time proposed rule updates that would make it harder on the “gateway” companies (which connected overseas callers to U.S. phone networks) and the smaller phone operators that are the origins of so much of the problem. While the FCC’s plan made a lot of headlines, experts were quick to note that most of the improvements were still far from being implemented:
“The plan as-is consists of good ideas, but I don’t think it’s going to make a big difference in the next couple of years,” Brad Reaves, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at NC State University told Motherboard.
The proposal is just a proposal for now, and “gateway providers” still aren’t covered by existing rules. Neither are smaller providers with less than 100,000 customers, who’ve been exempted from the rules until 2023. “These two types are the providers that most in the industry believe are serving the robocallers,” he said.”
In short, the FCC’s big plan for robocalls was really just a plan to consider doing something about robocalls, eventually. To be fair, the FCC is doing something relatively good: it’s forcing wireless carriers of all sizes to implement SHAKEN/STIR call authentication tech, which helps combat robocall spoofing. It’s also requiring companies that haven’t implemented this caller verification tech to track their progress in an FCC Robocall Mitigation Database.
But there are two other reasons that the FCC’s well-hyped “solution” to robocalls isn’t much of one. For one, the agency is boxed in thanks to a recent Supreme Court Facebook ruling (Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid) that left it hamstrung when it comes to policing spam texts or live-person marketing and scam calls made with an autodialier:
“The rules were, until April 1st of this year, that our cellphones were protected not only from pre-recorded calls, but unwanted texts, and unwanted live calls made by an autodialer,” Saunders said, referring to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).
But in April a Supreme Court ruling (Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid) effectively nullified the TCPA’s ban on autodialed calls and texts to cell phones without your consent. So while there are growing but sometimes inconsistent restrictions on pre-recorded robocalls, annoying spam texts and many live calls made with auto dialers remain perfectly legal.”
The other major problem is that the existing U.S. rules about robocallers are heavily influenced by the lobbying of numerous industries and telemarketing interests. That has historically resulted in rules and enforcement that fixate exclusively on “scam” callers, while providing big loopholes for “legitimate” telemarketers, spammers, and debt collecting robocalls who can be every bit as unwanted, and who often use the same exact tactics:
“Saunders’ Congressional testimony has highlighted how scammers often comprise the minority of overall robocalls. Many are debt collectors working for banks or telecom providers, who relentlessly harass consumers they know can’t pay their bills. Efforts to rein in those types of calls have often taken a backseat thanks to lobbying pressure.”
So yes, some of what the FCC is doing is helping. Authentication tech helped trigger an 8% reduction in overall robocalls in August, though with this kind of cat and mouse game it’s not clear if that reduction will last. But the bigger problem remains that the FCC’s authority has been boxed in by the Supreme Court, and lobbying has resulted in existing rules often being a little too friendly to equally obnoxious, “legitimate” telemarketers. The reality is that Americans receive 5.5 million robocalls every hour. That’s an absolute tidal wave that’s not slowing down without significant changes on multiple fronts.