Failures

by Karl Bode


Filed Under:
call completion, fcc, randall stephenson, robocalls

Companies:
at&t



AT&T Falsely Blames The FCC For Company's Failure To Block Annoying Robocalls

from the nice-tap-dance dept

Last year, the FCC made it abundantly clear in an announcement (pdf) that it was giving the green light to carriers that wanted to offer consumers robocall blocking technologies. Numerous companies like Time Warner Cable and Verizon quickly complied, integrating services like Nomorobo in order to help consumers block annoying telemarketers from disrupting dinner time. Independent California ISP Sonic even went so far as to praise the FCC in a blog post, welcoming the FCC's clarification that offering call blocking technology won't violate call-completion rules.

Then there's AT&T.

In an interesting back and forth with the Dallas Morning News, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson joins us plebeians in complaining about robocalls, the day after Consumer's Union delivered a petition to the CEO with more than 600,000 consumers urging AT&T action. But when asked why AT&T isn't following other companies in the industry and actually doing something about it, the CEO first tried to tap dance around the question, before ultimately trying to blame the FCC for the company's own inaction:
"But didn’t the FCC just give you that permission last year for phone companies to install stricter call-blocking services?

“There will be rules around this,” Stephenson said. “We don’t go in and just start discriminately blocking calls going to people without their permission, without the appropriate authority. I don’t want to be on the front page because we blocked somebody’s call, if it was a life-saving call of some kind, right?"
Right, except that's bullshit. Again, the FCC made it perfectly clear that offering call-blocking services is absolutely no problem. When pressed further by the Consumerist as to why AT&T isn't helping consumers out, a spokesman tries to claim that the technology just doesn't exist to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate calls:
"Last year, the FCC gave us authority to implement technology to allow consumer-initiated robocall blocking. However, there are no technologies currently available that can accurately distinguish illegal robocalls from legitimate calls, which could include emergency calls,” reads the statement.

“In fact, many robocallers even spoof legitimate phone numbers, making it even more challenging. As a matter of law, we don’t have permission to block legitimate calls – that is a violation of the Communications Act. We’re continuing our work to find a solution that can identify illegal robocalls 100% of the time. Until then, we cannot risk blocking legitimate calls from consumers. But in the interim, although not a perfect solution, consumers can use apps like Nomorobo to block these calls."
Again though: bullshit. One, this hasn't been a problem for any other large company; companies like Time Warner Cable and Verizon that have offered such services face no such problems. AT&T also forgets to mention that it already offers a call-blocking service for landline customers (to the tune of an extra $8.50 per month) with apparently no such issues. And of course, given that AT&T was the one that effectively made mouseprint binding arbitration a permanent fixture in America, annoyed consumers wouldn't be able to sue AT&T anyway:
"Of course, even if AT&T screwed up and deployed a horrible call-blocker that caused you to miss only important calls, you couldn’t sue the company. The 2011 Supreme Court ruling in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion upheld the use of forced arbitration clauses and class-action bans in customer contracts. So not only can’t you take AT&T to court if it breaks the law, you can’t enter into a group arbitration with other AT&T customers."
Caring about the customer in this way just isn't in AT&T's corporate DNA. Remember, this is a company in the last few years that has been fined for ripping off programs for low-income families, settled a lawsuit for helping scammers rip off IP relay services for the hearing impaired, and paid an $18 million settlement to the government after it was found to be making bills intentionally harder to understand to help crammers. This isn't the kind of company to give a damn whether robocall blocking technology is blocking legitimate calls, unless there's some undisclosed financial and marketing/robocall relationships at play that benefit AT&T.

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  • icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 2 Jun 2016 @ 6:58am

    Wait a minute.

    Far be it from me to defend AT&T for anti-consumer practices, but replace "phone company algorithm that magically detects robocalls" with "video hosting company algorightm that magically detects copyright infringement" and re-read the article, and AT&T sure sounds like they're taking Techdirt's usual position...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 2 Jun 2016 @ 7:11am

      Re:

      Magically no but it can do a bare minimum. PROCON here (pro-consumer foundation in a free translation) has implemented a system where you add your phone and telemarketing companies are forbidden from sending you calls (be them robot or not) or text messages containing advertisement or risk being heavily fined. It did not solve 100% of the problem but today I receive 1-2 calls/texts per month in contrast with at least 2 a day before it.

      And ti's the same with spam filters. The difference between blocking calls and 'copyright infringement' is that your example is imposed from the outside, the user has zero control and can't opt out.

      I can still see what's blocked in my filters and opt out if needed.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 2 Jun 2016 @ 7:36am

      Re:

      Not really.

      For one, there's known elements here. The problem with trying to detect infringement is there are a huge number of factors involved. The infringing status of a file not only depends on what's in the file, but who's hosting it, who uploaded it, external agreements, context (e.g. whether it falls under fair use or not) and a host of other factors. The same file can change from being legal to infringing without changes to the file itself. An algorithm cannot possibly detect that, even if they somehow create an accurate way of matching content alone with no false positives (which has not happened).

      Here, there will be properties of robocalls that are known and can be detected. Not least of which would be where the call originates from. I don't know all the backend setup with those things, but it's definitely an easier proposition to my knowledge.

      Secondly, if it's so magically impossible, why is only one company not doing it? AT&T seem to be saying that it's either impossible or they refuse to implement a system with less than 100% accuracy.

      Does this mean that the other companies are randomly blocking or allowing calls that shouldn't be, or are they merely saying they're incompetent? The article suggests that they are simply integrating an existing product. What's stopping AT&T, especially since they are suggesting customers use that product themselves?

      So, no, it's a completely different thing.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Mason Wheeler (profile), 2 Jun 2016 @ 8:27am

        Re: Re:

        Just to play devil's advocate here:

        The same file can change from being legal to infringing without changes to the file itself.

        The same telephone number can change from being a sleazy robocaller to a legitimate citizen or business. (And if you're running a sleazy business based on making illicit phone calls, wouldn't you be more likely to change numbers quickly than the average person?)

        Secondly, if it's so magically impossible, why is only one company not doing it? AT&T seem to be saying that it's either impossible or they refuse to implement a system with less than 100% accuracy.

        ...which is precisely Techdirt's position WRT copyright infringement detection algorithms: the fact that we see so many examples of false positives (even if the accuracy rate may be high overall) demonstrates that it doesn't work well enough to be worth using.

        Does this mean that the other companies are randomly blocking or allowing calls that shouldn't be?

        Quite possibly. And if a legitimate company tried to call you on legitimate business and it never got through... how would you know?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2016 @ 8:57am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Telephone numbers can change but Robocalls will look different then regular calls. For example, how often do you call another line nearly instantly after you hang up for multiple calls in a row? Legitimate businesses for Robocalls also won't change their numbers to get around the system. They also won't use those numbers for legitimate calls. Most of those will be blocked properly. Lastly, let's say there isn't a way to tell the difference, since you blocked the legitimate numbers, the number of calls will drop significantly and for those few that do get through then you send you complain to the FCC and start the process for fining them.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Mason Wheeler (profile), 2 Jun 2016 @ 1:32pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            For example, how often do you call another line nearly instantly after you hang up for multiple calls in a row?

            Me? Never. Someone working in a phone bank for a political campaign might do so on a daily basis, though.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              PaulT (profile), 2 Jun 2016 @ 11:57pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              Aren't those the kind of people who often use robocalls? Wouldn't someone wishing to block robocalls also want to block other kinds of cold calling? I don't see the problem if they're also blocked by "mistake".

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          concerned consumer, 2 Jun 2016 @ 9:38am

          Re: Re: Re:

          More importantly, why would I care?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          PaulT (profile), 2 Jun 2016 @ 11:56pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          "The same telephone number can change from being a sleazy robocaller to a legitimate citizen or business. "

          I would assume that any remotely effective system would take in more criteria than just the phone number. Frequency of calls, length of calls, other patterns, etc. Merely blocking a phone number would be as bad as blocking an IP address - ineffective and too blunt an instrument.

          "...which is precisely Techdirt's position WRT copyright infringement detection algorithms: the fact that we see so many examples of false positives (even if the accuracy rate may be high overall) demonstrates that it doesn't work well enough to be worth using."

          Not really. The position is more that it doesn't work for the intended result (piracy is still widespread no matter how much they block) and the unintended consequences are not acceptable.

          Unless the system is so poorly implemented that friends & family are failing to get through to the recipient, I don't see an analogous situation happening here. People wanting to block robocalls won't mind if other cold calling tactics also don't get through. It's just not comparable to a situation where the **AAs are literally asking for magic, and real negative consequences hit innocent 3rd parties all the time.

          "And if a legitimate company tried to call you on legitimate business and it never got through... how would you know?"

          Hopefully there would be some notification to the business that the call was being blocked (automated message, distinct error tone, whatever). They would complain, and adjustments would be made to the system to allow the call and try to prevent it in the future. No system is going to be 100% perfect, but it's better to err on the side of the consumer than the side of the businesses who caused the problem in the first place.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2016 @ 8:36am

      Re:

      You are overlooking a critical difference, video hosting company imposes filter on its users, phone companies provide a tool that the users can choose whether or not to use. Also, there is the difference that contentid stops someone publishing speech, while a robocall blocker enable people to refuse to listen.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 2 Jun 2016 @ 7:03am

    In another news, Google and the FCC to blame for hunger in Africa and the zombie according to AT&T. Cable operators disagree, believe they are to blame for that, kicking puppies, killing Jesus and the impeding zombie apocalypse.

    At this point one can only treat what comes from these guys as pure comedy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2016 @ 7:12am

    "companies like Time Warner Cable and Verizon that have offered such services face no such problems. AT&T also forgets to mention that it already offers a call-blocking service for landline customers (to the tune of an extra $8.50 per month) with apparently no such issues. "

    How do we know that no legitimate calls are blocked? Just curious. Trivial example, customer calls internet provider, is told will get a call back, from customer point of view call never happens because it was blocked, result = pissed customer blames internet co and pissed tech support blames customers who never answer. How do we know (or a telecom know) that a valid call was misidentified as a spam call and blocked? What technology and what documentation actually exists to show that this never happens?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2016 @ 7:57am

      Re:

      While I can't be certain, there is probably an easily recognizable pattern on robo call phone numbers. I setup robocalls for schools and the system will make a bunch of calls within a certain time period. It is probably easy to tell that phone number XXX-XXXX just made 37 calls in the last hour and there was less then a second between calls.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2016 @ 7:29am

    at&t continues to illustrate why it shouldn't exist.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    jupiterkansas (profile), 2 Jun 2016 @ 7:36am

    $8.50 a month - more than I pay for Netflix - just to be added to a filter list? Unconscionable!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    PaulT (profile), 2 Jun 2016 @ 7:39am

    Erm...

    "Numerous companies like Time Warner Cable and Verizon quickly complied, integrating services like Nomorobo"

    "But in the interim, although not a perfect solution, consumers can use apps like Nomorobo to block these calls."

    So, he's saying that the company is refusing to offer a product that their competitors are offering because it's not 100% perfect, but telling customers to go and pay for it anyway? Seems a little fishy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Median Wilfred, 2 Jun 2016 @ 7:54am

    Enforce valid caller ID info

    Here's my proposal:

    Fucking enforce valid caller ID. If someone spoofs it, cut them off. Immediately. There's rules around this already, just because the FCC doesn't enforce them doesn't mean that Immoral MegaCorps like AT&T and Verizon and Sprint & etc can't enforce them.

    Oh, and quite acting like I'm the first guy to ever complain about this. Bungholes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mark Gisleson (profile), 2 Jun 2016 @ 8:32am

    ATT provides the phone service

    for a campaign office we just opened in WI. We have not made the number public yet, but each day for weeks now we have gotten 2-3 junk calls a day for ads in junk publications.

    We need a Constitutional right to privacy. No one's land line is safe from these predators, not even when you're running for Congress!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2016 @ 8:59am

      Re: ATT provides the phone service

      uh oh, in case you dont know, the kongresskritters helpfully -for ourown good!- exempted political calls from the do-not-call listings...
      cause everyone WANTS those calls.... snicker

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    John85851 (profile), 2 Jun 2016 @ 9:33am

    A few things from other discussions about this

    First, how are scammer calls blocked but legitimate calls are allowed? By using crowd-sourced software like Nomorobo: people report a phone number as bad and as more people report it, it gets labeled as a spammer and blocked.

    Second, I don't know all the technical details, but supposedly all phone calls have internal ID's attached to them so the phone companies know where they come from. It's easy to use software to spoof the phone number that appears on a caller ID, but it's almost impossible to spoof the internal ID.
    Would it possible for phone companies block calls using the internal ID's?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Jun 2016 @ 6:46am

    AT&T is right about the FCC's regulations.

    They know that, because AT&T wrote them that way.

    Technical Background:

    When a call is placed, there are two fields (among many) that are transmitted in the SS7 call setup message that is received at the terminating switch. Once contains the actual source phone number, the other contains the caller-id information. The caller-id is populated by the calling node, the other is populated by the carriers switch.

    All that has EVER needed to be done to fix this, is to replace the callerid with the information provided by the switch. This is ONE line of code. And it IS prevented by FCC regulation. I don't remember the section of legal code, but I have looked it up before.

    There are companies that bypass this "feature" as a service. You pay a monthly fee, and they pass your calls through their switch, and copy one field to the other, and forward the call to your phone. They aren't public utilities, so aren't under the same regs.

    End Background

    So yeah, the FCC regs on this one are wrong. The reason they are, is because the mayhem creates a lot of secondary market products. (*69 service charges and the like)

    Network architecture for cell phones made complex software for call filtering possible. Now nobody wants a landline if they can help it because of all the old douchebag functionality and tarriffs. Deprecating the bad architecture will INCREASE landline subscribership, which is good for AT&T.

    So the situation is pretty much like Comcast and open networking. It would increase profits over ten years, but decrease them over the first 24 months. It isn't about change. They have to change, they know that.

    The fight right now, is about getting Congress to rape the people on their behalf so they can fix their busted fucking networks without having to pay for it. A couple of CEO's keep their quarterly bonus's, and you and me pay for it out of our taxes. THAT is what this is about.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mike in San Jose, 2 Aug 2018 @ 7:30am

    AT&T sucks

    I hear you brother.
    I get 8 to 15 junk calls a day for 12 years now and just want to strangel some bastard. Canadas system ois just as worthless as ours.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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