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.

Filed Under: ajit pai, fcc, robocalls


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jun 2019 @ 6:53am

    "Stopping the deluge of unwanted calls is the FCC’s top consumer protection priority. "

    The FCC is now delving into comedy.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Jun 2019 @ 9:34am

      Re: FCC Comedy

      Nah, I don’t think they’re going for comedy. I’m willing to take them at their word, and consider this as indicating exactly how important consumer protection is for this FCC.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jun 2019 @ 8:15am

    "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 robocall"

    And he will the ocean is a mere puddle and ignore it.

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

  • icon
    Chris-Mouse (profile), 13 Jun 2019 @ 8:15am

    FCC Pats Itself On The Back For Doing Nothing

    Which pretty much sums up the FCC in a nutshell.

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

  • identicon
    anymouse, 13 Jun 2019 @ 8:22am

    I think I see the plan...

    So the telecom companies will get to start charging everyone an extra $2.99 (lets be reasonable, it may start lower, but will climb much higher much more quickly than anyone will be able to explain) to 'claim' that they are providing "Robocall blocking"...

    But when the amount of robocalls doesn't change, and my bill goes up by over $8 a month (taxes, fees, and 'convenience fees' for processing the 'robocall blocking' payment that isn't actually doing anything).

    So lets do some back of the envelope math and assume $5 per account for the 3 major carriers is~ $2 BILLION dollars a month for doing NOTHING...
    Carrier Accounts (M) Fee Net Fees (M)
    ATT 155.7 $5.00 778.50
    Verizon 153.1 $5.00 765.50
    T-Mobile 81.3 $5.00 406.50
    390.1 $1,950.50

    So based on current accounts, the carriers will be able to rake in an extra $2 Billion dollars a month for effectively doing nothing (they will all charge, but nobody will actually filter robo-calls, although this will open up the Telecom Robocall Protection racket... that's a nice robocall operation you have there, would be a shame if something happened to it (like us blocking your calls if you don't pay a hefty 'campaign promise' to the appropriate individuals).

    Make no mistake, this is the real reason this is being setup, so they can pick the winners and losers in the game (the only game they want to be in is one they control completely).

    Or my tinfoil could be loose again...

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Jun 2019 @ 8:36am

      Re: I think I see the plan...

      Or... You can install RoboKiller on your phone which is a carrier-independent spam call blocker that is the voice call and SMS equivalent to an ad-blocker plugin in your browser. It does cost $30/yr to keep your block list updated but that's totally worth it to me. I was getting up to 7 spam calls every day and now I get zero. You can bet that the carriers' own apps and services won't be that effective.

      I have no affiliation with the app developer or any other aspect of the app. I'm just a satisfied customer.

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

      • icon
        That Anonymous Coward (profile), 13 Jun 2019 @ 9:48am

        Re: Re: I think I see the plan...

        And for my landline?
        For the flip-phone preferred by the older set?
        For the people running around on burners that lack all those neat tracking features? (Damn I miss my F3)

        A much better solution would be to sue the carriers at this point, because Pai won't do shit.

        The carriers make money when the scammers need to get a new number, they now get to make money killing those numbers off.
        Shades of the cell cramming craze where it took a couple years for the feds to understand that the telcos were playing both sides.
        The crammers gave them a cut & customers were paying their bills until they noticed the cramming.

        They have a screwed up system that works exactly how they like it to. They sell service to scammers, they sell service to the targets... why invest any money in stopping the flow of cash?

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

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 13 Jun 2019 @ 9:53am

          Re: Re: Re: I think I see the plan...

          I'm not saying the telcos need to be held to the fire and made to do something to fix this problem. They do. But for most of us there are solutions that don't rely on the telcos getting off their moneyed asses. And who still uses a land line any more? :P

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

          • icon
            ECA (profile), 13 Jun 2019 @ 10:09am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: I think I see the plan...

            Whats the Diff between a landline and a smart phone???
            NOT MUCH...as they both use the backbone of the Original system.
            the only TRUE wireless to wireless System requires Satellite at about $1000 per month..
            the Diff, is that the Telco only needs a few Giant antennas in an area to cover the 2000-3000 people near it. NOT 100 miles of cable and poles..That connect ot the backbone.

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

          • icon
            That Anonymous Coward (profile), 13 Jun 2019 @ 11:43pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: I think I see the plan...

            Old people have landlines....

            We haven't met, I'm an immortal sociopath that's been around since before God said something and then it was bright.

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

        • icon
          John85851 (profile), 13 Jun 2019 @ 10:16am

          Re: Re: Re: I think I see the plan...

          "For the flip-phone preferred by the older set?"

          I think this is really the heart of the matter. I would think most people reading this site would be savvy enough to know how to install screening apps, but what about the older set? You know, the ones who are the most vulnerable to falling for robo-call scams.

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

      • icon
        ECA (profile), 13 Jun 2019 @ 10:05am

        Re: Re: I think I see the plan...

        This sounds like the old conspiracy of which came first...
        The Virus's or the Anti virus companies..

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Jun 2019 @ 8:37am

      Re: I think I see the plan...

      Or my tinfoil could be loose again...

      Or you are using that inferior imposter made out of aluminium and often called tinfoil, instead of real tinfoil made from tin.

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

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 13 Jun 2019 @ 9:50am

      Re: I think I see the plan...

      There's an App for that.. .99-$5

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jun 2019 @ 9:41am

    cant this cunt Pai be voted out? i mean, what a total prick! i dont know if Trump loses his next election play if that makes any difference to who has been put into positions like this. can they be replaced then? there needs to be some serious changes but not only with the FCC. so many in Congress need kicking out too, not being there for any reason except to better their own agenders

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Jun 2019 @ 9:54am

      Re:

      Yes, Pai was appointed and can be replaced at any time. Sadly we can't vote for the FCC commissioner but we can vote for a president who will do something about it and appoint real FCC oversight instead of a carrier crony.

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

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 13 Jun 2019 @ 9:56am

    WHO understands this???

    "let wireless carriers install robocalling blocking tools on consumer devices by default,"

    "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. "

    So. I get a call and have to Push a button on my Wireless phone? I run out and get an APP that blocks Callers??
    How does a App, know its a robocall??

    WHY in hell would the Phone corps Stop this voluntarily?? ITS MONEY.. How much do you think it costs from China, India, and other nations to ROBOCALL the USA??
    Witht he Digital system we have NOW, it should be pretty easy to track The mass of calls being sent.. Its not like 1 location in the world is sending 10,000+ phone calls per hour, from a Company, from 1 location with 200+ phones..

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jun 2019 @ 11:56am

    There is a classic reddit conversation in which a guy describes turning his home number into a premium-rate telephone number then going out of his way to answer all telemarketing calls and keep the conversation time as long as possible. Making money and wasting telemarketer time in doing so.

    That's the idea.

    We have premium-rate telephone numbers.

    We have AI chat assistants.

    Provide option when receiving a call to send an unsolicited call number to a premium-rate line operated by an AI system aimed at keeping the call going as long as possible. Any proceeds reduce your phone bill.

    Telecoms can roll out the strategy at scale. Any un-assigned phone number goes to an AI chat bot that tries to keep the caller on the line while recording the groups chat-scripts to identify networks.

    Destroy the profit-per-minute by maximizing the time spent per profitable transaction. Use an AI-assist Alexa chat bot to make it unprofitable to run unsolicited call center scams at any budget.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Jun 2019 @ 11:59am

    Mistaken Identity

    "Repeat after me," O’Rielly said on Thursday. "'Robocall' is not a bad word."

    You gotta forgive Uncle Mike - he was off his meds during those remarks. He thought people were saying bad things about his cousin Rob O'Call (who's runs neck and neck with Uncle Mike for the title "family jerk").

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


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