The FCC on Thursday voted to allow phone service providers to block unwanted robocalls by default, hoping to diminish the influx of nuisance phone calls American consumers are plagued by on a daily basis.
The vote was unanimous, with Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly each dissenting in part.
Under the Declaratory Ruling, service providers can blocked unwanted calls based on “reasonable call analytics” without the need for customers to opt-in, though they must inform consumers and provide an opportunity for them to opt-out of the service.
While robocall blocking technologies are already available, the need to opt-in has hampered adoption, particularly for at-risk groups like the elderly, who may not realize the tools are available, according to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
However, the ruling doesn’t require service providers to implement these tools or provide them to consumers at no cost— the latter of which Commissioner Rosenworcel took issue with. She dissented in part saying Thursday’s decision “offers no more than an expectation” that phone companies will not charge consumers a premium for robocall blocking services, and that “there’s nothing enforceable about an expectation.”
Still, with the amount of consumer complaints about robocalls (the FCC itself received 232,000 consumer complaints in 2018) it seems unlikely service providers would not chose to provide blocking services. Commissioner Geoffrey Starks noted the item indicates call blocking will save providers billions, free up network capacity and lead to customer service representatives fielding fewer complaints.
Consumers can also opt-in for more aggressive tools that would block calls from any number not on their contact list, which would be updated automatically as people add or delete contacts from their smartphone, according to the FCC.
While all of the Commissioners acknowledged and agreed upon scourge of robocalls, Commissioner O’Rielly was concerned with language in the ruling, including the categorization of “unwanted calls,” as well as “reasonable analytics” used to block calls. He contends the vague and subjective language could set up risks for erroneous call blocking from sources consumers do want to hear from, such as fraud alerts, flight schedule changes or school closures.
To address this, the FCC made clear that any default call-blocking program must also include a way for legitimate callers to register complaints and a mechanism to resolve those complaints.
The FCC previously recommended major carriers implement the caller ID authentication framework SHAKEN/STIR by the end of the year to help inform consumers whether a phone number is real. While Pai said he’s optimistic service providers will meet the year-end deadline, he noted that if it isn’t, the FCC is prepared to take regulatory action. The Commission adopted a NPRM seeking comment on mandating implementation of SHAKEN/STIR if carriers don’t voluntarily put the framework in place by the end of the year.
“Now is the time for telephone companies to take the baton,” Pai said. “I commend those carriers who have stepped up to the plate and already indicated that they will implement call-blocking services by default. And I encourage those who haven’t already done so to listen to the American people and help to end this scourge.”
Starks also voiced support for a section of the ruling that calls for carriers to provide information through a series of reports detailing their deployment and implementation of call blocking and caller ID authentication. He said that the item will give the agency critical feedback on how the tools are working, about fees charged, and vital information on the state of deployment of authentication through SHAKEN/STIR.
O’Rielly dissented, disagreeing with the need to collect all relevant information from voice providers on the state of call blocking.
In May, the U.S. Senate passed a bill aiming to fight illegal robocalls, but still must win approval in the House.