Congress Can Shove the Robocall Bill up Its Pork-Fed Ass

Since 1991, marketing robocalls in the US have been as tightly regulated as medicine, meth, and murder. But if HR 3035 makes its way through Congress, it's going to be open season for the automatons to call your cellphone.

Do NOT let this happen.

When you think of legislation that blatantly values corporate interests over consumers, you think of pages and pages of arcane language and linguistic trickery, right? Not this time! HR 3035 is a wisp of a thing, barely more than a page, meant to amend the Communications Act of 1934. It's lurking in committee now, awaiting a vote in the House of Representatives. It's so straightforward that it's impressive. Impressively ballsy and evil.

HR 3035 (also known, putridly, as the "Mobile Information Act of 2011") makes three main points, each increasingly terrible. So let's walk through them, shall we? Put your tiny hand in mine...

1. A Robocall Is Not a Robocall

Batting leadoff is the attempt to redefine what exactly constitutes an illegal "automatic telephone dialing system," which seems pretty self-explanatory as it is! But HR 3035 would narrow that definition:

(1) The term ‘automatic telephone dialing system' means equipment which uses a random or sequential number generator to produce telephone numbers to be called and to dial such numbers.'

Conveniently enough, that type of equipment hasn't existed in any quantity for years, according to Delicia Hand of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. It's like the NRA pushing through a bill that limits the definition of "gun" to muskets and Kentucky rifles.

The robocalls of the future won't be random. They'll actually be worse: They'll be targeted. And for every handy UPS package notification (these are good) that would come with HR 3035, an avalanche of debt collectors, marketers, and other harassments would follow close behind. Because of part two.

2. Your Number Is Your Consent

Let's say you're a cute, friendly person (I mean, you are—you totally are) and you give someone your number in a bar one night. Nothing out of the ordinary there. What if that person took your number-giving as permission to come over to your house every night. Forever. Not reasonable! That's HR 3035:

The term ‘prior express consent' means the oral or written approval of a person... A person who provides a telephone number as a means of contact evidences consent under this paragraph.

That's right: the act of giving your number to a clerk means you are 100% okay with being robocalled by that clerk's corporate parent in perpetuity. Never mind if you just gave the pharmacist your number in case of complications, or you absentmindedly gave your digits to the Old Navy cashier because you were in a rush. That's consent, brother. It's also total bullshit.

And here's the thing: The law as it stands already allows robocalls to people who've given explicit consent. If you want robocalls, you can get them. They're also, for what it's worth, already totally legal in the case of an emergency. So what does HR 3035 accomplish other than making consumers more vulnerable? Oh, by the way, it's vulnerable people they're after in the first place. That's in part three.

3. When "Information" Is Intimidation

The last section of HR 3035 is the one that actually tries to be clever, so hats off for that:

(A) to make any call (other than a call made for emergency purposes or made with the prior express consent of the called party) using any automatic telephone dialing system or an artificial or prerecorded voice... (iv) to any telephone number assigned to a cellular telephone service, specialized mobile radio service, or other radio common carrier service, or any service for which the called party is charged for the call, unless the call is made for a commercial purpose that does not constitute a telephone solicitation.

Which is to say: people can't call your cell asking you specifically to buy things. Great, right? Except, obviously, because let's be honest who are we talking about here.

When is a purpose commercial but not solicitous? Even the obvious cases are annoying: the car dealer you bought from calls you about your warranty, Delta updates you on your frequent flier miles. Yuck. But real beneficiaries are the debt collectors and credit card companies—the people who are on your back enough already, now given free reign to call you every hour on the hour until you scrape some funds together. Sending a guy to break your kneecaps would have hurt more, but at least it's sincere.

And even beyond that: Is it technically solicitous of J. Crew to text me about a fabulous fall sales event? Or is it just a commercial courtesy, knowing that a current customer might want to know about SAVINGS. I don't, by the way. Not on my phone.

Between the Lines

And that's just what's actually in the bill. If mobile phone robocalls were to actually kick in, guess who's footing the bill for all those texts and phone calls? No, wait, don't guess. It's you. If you don't have unlimited voice and text plans, you'll literally have to pay to be advertised to. So there's that.

There's also just the great weight that we feel every day of our privacy eroding away into nothing. More than any other device these days, our phones are our outlets to the rest of the world. It's one place where we have some control over what comes in and goes out. We don't get spammed on our phones (except by politicians, which is weirdly totally legal). It's as safe a haven as we have. And it's about to get firebombed.

Look. Here are your duly elected representatives arguing that this terrible thing is actually wonderful, along with a handful who merrily call bullshit and a few mopey lobbyists on both sides. So here's what you do: Sign this petition. Get in touch with all of them. Tell them you're mad. Or better yet, record one message explaining how and why you're so upset and leave it on their voicemail every hour on the hour.

It's okay, it's not solicitous. It's information.


You can keep up with Brian Barrett, the author of this post, on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.