The FCC has opened an inquiry to ask about the legality of blocking robocalls. We just finished a time where we were peppered with robocalls from political candidates. Robocalls are also those telemarketing calls where you answer and then there is a pause before a telemarketer comes on-line.
The FCC has allowed other kinds of call blocking in the past:
- The FCC has allowed call blocking for years when a customer wants to block a specific telephone number. This has been sold in two ways in the past. One is selective call blocking, or *60 which allows customers to block specific numbers. The other is selective call acceptance, or *64 which allows customers to only accept calls from a defined list of numbers and block everything else.
- In 1996 the FCC ruled that carriers could block fraudulent international calls to business customers. If you recall, third party or collect calls were routinely being made to businesses from African countries and then billed at exorbitant rates.
- In 2004 the FCC rules that TRS services (the service that provides calling for deaf and hard-of-hearing customers) could provide anonymous call rejection as long as the ultimate end user had subscribed to this service.
But other than these examples the FCC has generally held that carriers can’t block calls. The general principle has been that carriers are obligated to try their best to complete calls. You may recall a few years ago when a number of carriers blocked calls that went to rural exchanges that had very high access charge rates. The FCC ruled that such blocking was unlawful. They have always ruled that customer must be protected over carriers.
The primary question being asked is if customers can block a certain type of call rather than blocking calls one number at a time. The FCC is further worried that a technology that blocks calls in this manner will not be perfect and that it will block some calls that should go through while also failing to block calls that are supposed to be blocked.
This proceeding was initiated by a letter signed by the Attorney Generals of 39 states. The states are in favor of blocking robocalls since they field a lot of complaints about the practice. It is supposed to be illegal to place a robocall to cellphones, but I probably still receive a dozen of them per year. But my mother-in-law said she was getting numerous robocalls per day during the recent election season on her landline. There certainly comes a point where the sheer volume of such calls are a nuisance.
To some degree the FCC has to reconcile two different legal obligations under exiting telecom law. First, the Telecom Act of as amended creates a requirement that carriers must complete calls. But the FCC also has a mandate from the Telephone Protection Act to protect consumers from unwanted calls.
The FCC asks an interesting question and asks if the technology can somehow tell the difference between telemarketing calls and emergency calls. For example, I know of several cities along the Gulf of Mexico that use robocalls as one of their methods to notify people of a hurricane evacuation.
The question is of some importance for several reasons. Certainly getting this request from the numerous Attorney Generals forces the FCC to look at the request. But it has also come to the FCC’s attention that there are several products in the market that are already offering this service and this also forces them to determine if these services are legal.
This proceeding ought to be of interest to anybody who offers voice, because these rules would apply both the landlines and VoIP lines. One would think that if the FCC allows robocall blocking that customers everywhere will be demanding it, and so carriers will all be looking to gain the technology.