FCC Proposes Call-Blocking from Invalid Numbers, Seeks Input on Other Blocking Criteria

March 23, 2017–The FCC today proposed allowing carriers to block “spoofed” calls that appear to be placed from a line for which the subscriber has made a “do-not-originate” request or from numbers that cannot be valid, such as unallocated or unassigned numbers. The proposal would expand on an industry do-not-originate (DNO) trial conducted by the Industry Robocall Strike Force last year (TRDaily, Oct. 26, 2016), in which participating providers, at the request of the Internal Revenue Service, blocked calls that appeared to come from certain IRS phone numbers, leading to a 90% reduction in consumer complaints about IRS scam calls.

In the notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) and notice of inquiry (NOI) adopted unanimously today in Consumer and Governmental Affairs docket 17-59, the FCC also sought input on how to address spoofed calls from outside the U.S. and on additional measures for enabling carriers to block illegal robocalls.  The NOI asks “how to create a safe harbor for providers from FCC call completion rules when they rely on objective criteria to identify and block calls that are highly likely to be fraudulent,” according to a Commission press release. The NOI also asks about what objective criteria might be used to assess whether a call meets the suggested “highly likely to be fraudulent” standard, Jerusha Burnett, an attorney adviser in the Consumer Policy Division of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, said in presenting the item to the Commissioners at their meeting today.

The text of the NPRM and NOI was not yet available at TRDaily’s news deadline. In her separate statement, Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn said, “By proposing rules expressly allowing providers to automatically block calls originating from unassigned or invalid numbers, the NPRM targets calls that are most likely established, to defraud and harm consumers. But the NOI goes a step further, by asking questions, about objective criteria for identifying calls, where there is a sufficiently high degree of certainty, that the call is illegal.”

Commissioner Mike O’Rielly noted that the final version of the item adopted today makes clearer than the first draft circulated to the Commissioners that the focus is “on protecting consumers from illegal robocalls.” “Unlike the prior Commission, whose misguided interpretations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA) have exposed legitimate businesses to liability for trying to provide useful information that their customers expect to receive, this item seeks comment on ways to stop actual bad actors from making calls to scam and defraud consumers,” Commissioner O’Rielly said.

With regard to the NOI’s request for input on how to determine whether a robocall is illegal, he said that he would not support requiring providers “to submit their proposed practices to Commission staff for review.  This suggestion was excised from the item at my request and I would not agree to it in the future either.”

Commissioner O’Rielly continued, “Finally, I was heartened to see discussion of a safe harbor to protect providers that block calls in accordance with rules adopted by the Commission.  Notwithstanding the D.C. Circuit’s decision, the Commission may need to create a safe harbor for legitimate callers who follow industry best practices to keep customer information up to date but occasionally reach numbers that have been reassigned.”

He added, “In terms of the larger picture, I can only hope that we are presented with the opportunity to revisit the erroneous decisions of the prior Commission that have harmed upstanding businesses and innovation without actually protecting consumers from abusive calls.  Until that happens, a significant portion of U.S. commerce remains at the mercy of bounty hunting law firms seeking to extract payments from a statutory interpretation gone awry.”

Chairman Ajit Pai said, “Robocalls are the number one consumer complaint to the FCC from the public.  And it’s no wonder:  Every month, U.S. consumers are bombarded by an estimated 2.4 billion robocalls.  Not only are unwanted robocalls intrusive and irritating, but they are also frequently employed to scam our most vulnerable populations, like elderly Americans, out of their hard-earned dollars. “This must change.  And starting today, we lay the foundation for changing it,” the Chairman added.

He noted that blocking calls based on a DNO request from the subscriber assigned the originating number is a codification of bureau guidance issued in 2015.  “By formalizing this safe harbor we give certainty to voice service providers that will allow them to block plainly illegitimate calls, and we empower subscribers of spoofed numbers to take action to protect themselves and their numbers,” he said.

In response to a question from a reporter during a post-meeting press conference, Chairman Pai said that there are “no specific plans” for reconvening the Industry Robocall Strike Force, adding that the group gave the FCC plenty to work on last year. In a blog post, CTIA said that it supports the FCC’s action.  “We look forward to helping the FCC work through these complicated issues and developing the right solution to help consumers fight unwanted calls,” it said.

In a separate statement, CTIA Vice President–regulatory affairs Scott Bergmann said, “Combatting robocalls is a complex problem that will require continuing collaboration between the FCC, law enforcement and industry to give consumers even greater control.”

U.S. Telecom Association Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Spalter said, “Customers are justifiably frustrated with annoying robocalls which interrupt their day. The FCC’s proposal to allow carriers to more easily block some robocalls from certain numbers is a positive step forward in this ongoing fight. Our members are waging a daily battle to stop scammers from using these calls to reach subscribers and this will be a valuable tool to protect our customers. Through the industry-led Robocall Strike Force, broadband providers are taking a holistic approach to this fight which requires assistance from a broad range of stakeholders, including voice service providers, software developers, standards organizations, consumer groups and government. This is an important proceeding and USTelecom and our members stand ready to continue our longstanding work with the FCC and other stakeholders on this issue.”

Joan Marsh, AT&T, Inc.’s senior VP–federal regulatory, said, “AT&T takes very seriously the proliferation of illegal and unwanted robocalls and we remain committed to finding technical solutions to this problem, and to developing tools that empower our customers with the ability to block unwanted calls.  Last year, AT&T led the efforts of the Robocall Task Force, an industry-wide effort which developed concrete plans to accelerate the development and adoption of new tools and solutions. The tremendous work of the group, which included more than 30 companies, continues today as led by a variety of industry associations, including USTelecom, CTIA and ATIS. This new proceeding will help to foster ongoing industry efforts and will serve as a forum to educate consumers and update policymakers on the progress that is being made on this very complex and challenging issue.”

Will Johnson, Verizon Communications, Inc.’s SVP–federal regulatory and legal affairs, said, “Verizon welcomes the FCC’s vote today to continue to address the robocall problem.  Millions of Americans are harassed by unscrupulous telemarketers and others who often disguise their caller identification information to circumvent ‘do not call’ lists and anti-robocall tools.  It needs to stop.  “Verizon is working to address this problem in a number of ways.  We’re continuing to work with enforcement agencies and others to trace back suspicious robocalls, supporting legislative efforts to address the ‘spoofing’ problem, educating our customers about how to protect themselves, and developing and deploying new tools to further empower customers to address unwanted robocalls.  We look forward to participating fully in the proceeding,” Mr. Johnson added.

In a statement released this morning before the FCC’s vote, Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst with Consumers Union, said, “Americans have run out of patience with robocalls that ring at all hours of the day.  This proposal is a positive step that will help provide relief from the scourge of unwanted calls.  But consumers have waited long enough for action.  It’s time for the phone companies to start offering free call-blocking solutions to all of their customers.” —Lynn Stanton, lynn.stanton@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily