New Phone Bill Prevents Telecoms from Charging Customers to Ban Robocalls

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore. listens as left as the committee’s ranking member Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 9, 2017.
Photo: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

House Republicans and Democrats came together on Thursday to put forth comprehensive legislation designed not only to help end the scourge of robocalls but prevent U.S. consumers from being forced to foot the bill.

The duly titled Stopping Bad Robocalls Act would require the Federal Communications Commission to prescribe regulations governing the use of automatic telephone dialing systems and other artificial or prerecorded messages, namely by forcing callers to demonstrate that they’ve obtained the consent of those being called. The bill also aims to ensure there are reliable mechanisms in place for the withdrawal of said consent.

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The bill is introduced by Congressmen Frank Pallone and Greg Walden, chair and ranking member, respectively, of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

It includes several exemptions enshrined by the Communications Act: Emergency services and calls with no commercial purpose, for instance, are exempt from the requirements, as are any automated calls that don’t contain unsolicited advertisements. This means consumers should not expect debt collectors to stop flooding them with prerecorded messages anytime soon.

Some of the exciting language in the bill—from a consumer protection standpoint, anyway—can be found in a paragraph under subsection (b), section 7, which is pleasantly titled: “No additional cost to consumers or small business customers.” (Emphasis ours)

The regulations required by subsection (a) shall prohibit providers of voice service from making any additional line item charges to consumer or small business customer subscribers for the effective call authentication technology required under paragraph.

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This effectively cancels out an annoying caveat in the FCC’s own recently passed proposal that enables companies like T-Mobile and AT&T to pass along any costs associated with halting robocalls onto consumers—a “devastating problem” as put by Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, who otherwise supported the new rulemaking.

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The FCC’s ruling, which received nearly unanimous support from within, gave phone companies the green light to begin blocking, by default, “unwanted calls based on reasonable call analytics, as long as their customers are informed and have the opportunity to opt out of the blocking.” (Commissioner Michael O’Rielly dissented in part over language that he said gave the agency’s staff overly broad authority to demand access to carrier data.)

The FCC’s Republican majority did not respond to requests for comment.

“I agree wholeheartedly that the Commission could and should have required these services to be free when issuing its ruling last month, and I would welcome direction from Congress requiring us to do so,” said Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, who last month wrote 14 major voice service providers asking if they intended to charge customers. (The companies were asked to respond to the question on or before July 10.)

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“The number of robocalls we get today is insane,” Rosenworcel told Gizmodo by email. “Consumers didn’t create this mess and they shouldn’t have to pay to fix it.”

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“I think on that score the FCC has fallen down on the job by failing to make clear that carriers should not be charging special fees to clean up this problem,” she added. “So kudos to Representatives Pallone and Walden for their work to make sure that consumers have free tools to deal with robocalls.”

Rep. Mike Doyle, chairman of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, and Rep. Bob Latta, its ranking member, have also voiced support for the bill.

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It was also endorsed by the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), a nonprofit specializing in consumer justice and economic security for low-income and other disadvantaged people. NCLC senior counsel Margot Saunders called it an “important step in the fight to stop unwanted and illegal robocalls.”

“Robocalls plague voters of all political stripes so we are especially pleased to see a bipartisan effort on this bill,” she said.

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Dell Cameron

Privacy, security, tech policy | Got a tip? Email: dell@gizmodo.com | Send me encrypted texts using Signal: (202)556-0846

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