On May 15, 2019 FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced a declaratory ruling allowing consumers call blocking by default. “Instead of being offered call blocking on an opt-in basis, carriers could provide block calls unless you affirmatively opt-out. This could mean a major reduction in robocalls, as call blocking would become the rule, not the exception.” The intention of the ruling is to allow voice service providers to offer consumers programs to block calls appearing to be illegal through analytics (call-blocking programs) and block calls from numbers not in a consumer’s contact list (whitelist programs). Chairman Pai’s announcement of the declaratory ruling is here. An FCC fact sheet has details here. The draft declaratory ruling itself is here. The FCC votes on the ruling today. Call blocking programs exist, but voice service providers were wary of offering call blocking programs because they have call completion obligations under section 201(b) of the Communications Act of 1934. In addition, there was confusion about the wording of a 2015 FCC order that was read to indicate voice service providers were not permitted to make services available which would block calls by default.
Various groups have objected on the basis that robocalls for police, fire, emergency, school and health issues may get swept up with spoofing and other and fraudulent calls. “… as drafted, [the declaratory ruling] would result in the erroneous blocking of lawful calls — including urgent calls affecting consumer health, safety, and financial well being. Public safety alerts, fraud alerts, data security breach notifications, product recall notices, healthcare and prescription reminders, and power outage updates all could be inadvertently blocked under the draft Declaratory Order, among other time-sensitive calls.” As such, these groups have requested Chairman Pai seek comment on the declaratory ruling.
At least one debt collection industry group, ACA International, claims that the declaratory ruling is overbroad and will block legitimate calls such as those from debt collectors. The ACA claims the ruling will “…allow the blocking of legitimate and needed calls with no notice of the blocking, no required recourse, and no required correction; and impugn any call that is simply “unwanted.”” Unwanted or no, the ACA claims, such calls are legal and in in leading to payment of their debts, such calls may help a consumer maintain her financial health and continued access to credit and services. The second part of the ACA’s argument is that voice service providers blocking calls is in flat violation of existing law. It almost seems as if the ACA comment is warning of a legal challenge if the ruling is approved by the full FCC.
Interestingly, I found nothing on the FCC comment website from consumer groups such as the National Consumer Law Center or Consumers Union. Instead, those groups appear to be supporting rulings and regulation aimed at enhancing technology that sense and blocks unwanted calls such as: Require phone companies to implement caller ID authentication technology in the near future and to immediately offer free call-blocking tools; Ensure that consumers have effective legal and technological protections not only from scam robocalls, but also from unwanted automated calls even if they are coming from legitimate
Regardless of how the FCC rules, perhaps the most likely outcome is that whatever it is, scammers will eventually find a way around it.