U.S. Poised to Let Phone Companies Block Robocalls

U.S. Poised to Let Phone Companies Block Robocalls

FCC wants to give telecom carriers more leeway to manage unwanted calls

By Ryan Tracy and Sarah Krouse May 15, 2019 12:41 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON—Responding to widespread consumer complaints, the Federal Communications Commission says it will take steps to give phone companies permission to block unwanted robocalls.

Americans get billions of unwanted phone calls annually, making it the No. 1 complaint received by the FCC. But carriers have long been wary of blocking robocalls for fear of breaking the regulator’s call-completion rules that require phone companies to make sure calls reach their intended recipient.

“The American people are fed up with illegal robocalls,” FCC chairman Ajit Pai told reporters Wednesday, saying the agency aims to make it easier for phone companies to block them.

Illegal robocalls, often containing recordings of scammers posing as a government agency, computer support technician or insurance salesperson, have exploded in recent years thanks to low-cost technology that allows for auto-dialing and obscuring a call’s origin. Stopping them has proved difficult in part because bad actors are hard to identify and punish and in part because some robocalls are legal, others are illegal and still others are simply unwanted.

Mr. Pai said the commission has scheduled a June 6 vote on a measure that would assure phone companies that block unwanted calls won’t run afoul of federal rules. The agency said it would enable phone companies to analyze their network traffic to spot and block robocalls. They could let customers create so-called white lists of approved callers and block all other incoming calls.

The regulator is also proposing a measure that would protect phone companies using a new authentication protocol for separating legitimate calls from illegitimate ones. Mr. Pai has encouraged carriers to adopt that call-verification framework, referred to as SHAKEN and STIR, by the end of this year. He told the House Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday the agency would make the framework mandatory if carriers don’t adopt it.

The moves—particularly the portion allowing consumers to limit the calls they receive to just people or businesses in their contact lists—are likely to meet resistance from companies whose calls are legal, but often unwanted and considered annoying by recipients, such as debt collectors.

“Unwanted calls are not necessarily unlawful calls,” said Daniel Blynn, a partner at Venable LLP in Washington, D.C. He added that the proposals come with some unanswered questions such as how a legitimate company that is making legal calls and is placed on a spam caller list can remove itself from it.

ACA International, a trade group representing collection agencies, said Wednesday it supports efforts to combat illegal calls but “consumer harm results when legitimate business calls are blocked or mislabeled and people do not receive critical, sometimes exigent information they need.”

CTIA, a trade group representing mobile-phone manufacturers and wireless carriers, said “the wireless industry is committed to combating illegal and unwanted robocalls” and it will continue to work “with the FCC and other stakeholders to protect American consumers.”

For phone companies, “the traditional role was to just pass calls through. Now you’re potentially putting them on the hook for actually policing calls that go through,” said Daniel Delnero, a senior attorney at Squire Patton Boggs in Atlanta that advises companies on consumer class-action suits related to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

It remains uncertain whether the proposals will stem the flood of robocalls, and how much, if anything, consumers will pay for call-blocking services. Mr. Pai said the proposals “would likely greatly increase adoption” of call-blocking technology.

He encouraged phone companies to provide the service free, noting that fewer robocalls would also mean fewer complaints from customers and less spam traffic on their networks. But he stopped short of proposing to mandate that the services be free. He also said the proposals are designed to ensure emergency calls wouldn’t be blocked.


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