The regulator said in a blog post on Wednesday that "illegal automatic voice calls will not only exhaust the patience of individual families, but will also consume our economy." The agency said that the latest data from YouMail shows that only in 2019 In March, there were 2.5 billion illegal automatic voice calls. The FCC estimates that these calls could cost consumers at least $3 billion a year. The agency said that this estimate may be low because it does not include monetary losses caused by fraud.
The blog was written by FCC chief economist Babette Boliek and chief technology officer Eric Burger. Previously, the agency had voted to pass a proposal to give mobile phone companies more power to block unwelcome automated voice calls.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai released the details of the proposal last month. If adopted, it will allow wireless carriers to block these automated voice calls for customers by default. These companies also allow consumers to block calls from unknown numbers themselves. Customers can choose to join or opt out of any blocking service.
The FCC's focus on these calls is because Congress expressed frustration with illegal automated voice calls in April and reintroduced bipartisan legislation called the TRACED Act (automatic voice call abuse criminal enforcement and deterrence). The bill will improve enforcement policies, criminalize illegal automated voice calls, and require telephone companies to use new technologies that can verify where calls come from. In addition, the agreement will allow for faster tracking of illegal automatic voice calls. The bill has been passed in the US Senate.
From 2017 to 2018, the number of unwelcome automated voice calls soared 46%. A report from a caller ID service company in Hiya stated that 26.3 billion automatic voice calls were made in the United States in 2018.
This latest FCC initiative will enable operators to block illegal or unwelcome calls. Wireless operators like AT&T and Verizon appreciate the proposal, saying they are allowed to have more powerful tools to help block these calls. But some companies say the FCC's policies may be too broad, allowing operators to block automated voice calls from legitimate sources by default.
ACA International, the National Association of Healthcare Administration, the National Association of Credit Unions, and the American Bankers Association, representing credit and collection companies, met with FCC officials last week to express their concerns.
“Although the FCC is very good at trying to target these bad actors, the draft is too broad in its attempt to achieve a laudable goal of preventing illegal automatic voice calls,” ACA International said in a filing with the FCC. The organization said that the proposed rule might "mistake legitimate calls as fraud", which would "allow to block legitimate and necessary calls."
Which phones might this block? According to Nelson Mullins Broad law firm Melissa Gomberg and Erin Kolmansberger, automated calls from pharmacies, doctor's offices, customer service support and credit card fraud protection alerts may be inadvertently captured by automated call interception networks.
Calls from the support center may also be blocked. She said the FCC policy would allow operators to block these calls by default without letting consumers know that they have tried such a call, causing patients to miss important health information or consumers waiting for technical support that has never arrived.
"For the automatic dialer under TCPA, there has been a lot of confusion about legal or illegal, which only adds another layer of complexity," Gomberg added. “Classifying a phone as 'unwelcome' is so subjective.”
At least one FCC Commissioner, Michael O'Rielly, understands the nuances of this argument. He has warned that allowing operators to block automatic voice calls by default may have unintended consequences.
"Not all automated voice calls are illegal or fraudulent, and we must accurately describe the controversial actual issues," he said at the House of Representatives hearing last month. “Many honest and legitimate businesses use automated dial-up technology to communicate the information they need to their customers, in full compliance with the scope and intent of the TCPA [Telephone Consumer Protection Act].”
But FCC officials said that operators can choose to automatically block illegal automatic voice calls without forcing consumers to choose to join the service, which consumers want and need.
FCC officials said in a blog post on Wednesday that "inertia is a barrier for many consumers, otherwise they will participate in the call blocking program." In the blog post, Boliek and Burger explain that smaller service providers tell the agency to convince consumers to register call blockers instead of providing it too expensive and ineffective.
Call blocking technology provider Hiya estimates that 95% of customers choose to continue to opt out of the call blocking program, while only 20% of customers choose to join their opt-in program.
FCC officials said: "Setting the call blocking service to the default value can significantly increase consumer engagement while maintaining consumer choice."