FCC Pats Itself On The Back For 'New' Robocall Plan That Isn't New, Has No Real Teeth
from the consumer-protection-theater dept
The Ajit Pai FCC has been making the rounds the last few weeks patting itself on the back for its new anti-robocall initiative. But while the tech press has kind of tripped over itself to suggest the plan is a dramatic departure from FCC robocall policies of the past, the reality is there’s little to nothing in the plan that’s actually new. The biggest change is a new FCC rule adjustment that would let wireless carriers install robocalling blocking tools on consumer devices by default, in contrast to the current paradigm where consumers have to opt in (assuming the tools are offered at all).
To hear Ajit Pai tell it in an editorial over at USAToday, this slight policy language shift is a major revolution in robocall enforcement:
“Stopping the deluge of unwanted calls is the FCC?s top consumer protection priority. That?s why I recently proposed to allow such calls to be blocked by default, before they even get to your phone. Call-blocking services are available now, but only if a consumer proactively asks for it or downloads an app.
But under my proposal, which the FCC will vote on Thursday, phone companies won?t have to wait before offering these protections. This should greatly increase consumer adoption of these services and help stem the flow of scam robocalls. And, of course, consumers can opt out if they don?t want these calls blocked.”
Here’s the thing though. While the plan urges wireless carriers to offer robocall blocking technology by default, and encourages them to deploy anti-spoofing tech to help prevent robocallers from hiding their real numbers, there’s absolutely nothing in the plan that actually requires they do so. And while Pai has suggested he’ll take “regulatory action” if carriers don’t, there’s little to nothing in Pai’s history that suggests he’s capable of standing up to carriers should they lag on such adoption. In the two years since being appointed by Trump, Pai has yet to stand up to carriers on a single policy proposal of any real measure. As in: ever.
While Pai suggests that FCC policy (not letting carriers offer tools that block calls by default) was a major reason why carriers were lagging on implementing robocall-blocking technology, the real reason is arguably much simpler: they didn’t want to pay for it. As a result, wireless carriers have spent several years blaming everyone but themselves for failing to do more to thwart robocalls, suggesting it was FCC policy — not carrier penny pinching — that was to blame. And while Pai subtly perpetuates that myth here, former FCC lawyer Gigi Sohn recently told me the previous FCC had already gone out of its way to make it clear carriers would not face penalties for being more aggressive:
“We said in 2015 that the carriers incurred no legal liability for allowing consumers to use robocall blocking technology,? Sohn says. ?Here, Pai is saying that the carriers won?t incur liability for blocking robocalls by default. So I suppose it?s a bit stronger, but not by much.”
Consumer advocates were even more pointed, noting that much of the Pai proposal had basically taken the previous FCC’s robocall efforts (which Pai repeatedly voted against), slapped a new coat of paint on it, and tried to claim it was new:
“This follows a familiar pattern of Pai taking the initiatives of the Obama FCC, filing the serial numbers off, and then claiming these ideas as his own,? Feld says. ?It takes truly world class chutzpah for Pai to do this after he dissented from virtually everything Wheeler tried.”
Feld told me the FCC’s proposal opens the door for carriers to charge US consumers (who already pay some of the highest rates in the developed world for service) an additional line item fee for blocking robocalls, something consumer groups believe should simply be included as a standard part of your service.
The Pai proposal is also quick to focus almost exclusively on illegal scam operations, ignoring the “legitimate” debt collectors and telemarketers that utilize the exact same tactics. In fact, the same week the new FCC proposal was being circulated, Pai’s fellow Commissioner Michael O’Rielly was busy kissing up to the telemarketing and debt collection industry at an industry event:
“Repeat after me,? O?Rielly said on Thursday. ??Robocall? is not a bad word.?
That’s a bit of a mixed message there, hoss.
So in short, while the Pai proposal makes one modest clarification to FCC rules, most of the proposal is simply a rehash of previous efforts, and offers zero penalties for carriers that choose to do nothing. It also opens the door to consumers paying more to block these annoying calls, and doesn’t really address that much of the robocalling menace is coming from large above-board companies. Ultimately Pai now finds himself in a precarious position. His longstanding policy of refusing to hold carriers accountable for misdeeds will run face first into the ocean of pissed off Americans tired of receiving annoying robocalls.