FCC Wants Phone Companies To Start Blocking Robocalls By Default

The FCC's proposal would allow phone companies to block
The FCC's proposal would allow phone companies to block "unwanted calls" by default. Customers would be able to opt out.
John Raoux/AP

If the government's new plan works, the number of robocalls you receive may go down in the near future.

The Federal Communications Commission is proposing to push phone companies to "block unwanted calls to their customers by default."

If enacted, the proposal would not compel phone companies to impose default call-blocks. But it would shield telecom providers from legal liability for blocking certain calls.

"The American people are fed up with illegal robocalls. It is the top complaint we receive from consumers each and every year," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told reporters. "And we believe that we need to make it easier for phone companies to block these robocalls."

This would be a major change from now, when customers typically need to opt in for unwanted call blocking. Under the proposal, "carriers would simply have to allow consumers who do not want that kind of service to opt out," Pai said.

He said it would be comparable to the way email providers filter messages into spam folders. The FCC is pushing for phone companies to use an authentication framework for blocking unwanted calls that is dubbed "SHAKEN/STIR." It's a way for phone companies to verify that a call is actually coming from where a caller ID says it is.

The call-blocking company YouMail issues estimates of nationwide robocalls each month. It estimates there were 4.9 billion calls placed in April 2019 — a rate of 14.9 calls per person.

"Our belief now is that over half the robocalls out there are scams," Alex Quilici, a robocall expert and the CEO of YouMail, told NPR. A rising problem is calls that are "spoofed," meaning they disguise their identity on caller ID.

USTelecom, a trade group that represents telecommunications providers, applauded the FCC's proposal.

"The criminals that are scamming consumers with this flood of illegal robocalls must be confronted by industry and government head-on," the group's president and CEO Jonathan Spalter said in a statement. "This is a big and bold proposal by the FCC that can bolster our industry's cutting-edge call blocking and authentication efforts and do something important: stop unwanted calls from reaching consumers in the first place."

The FCC has previously encouraged companies to take firmer action against scam robocalls.

But it may be a challenge for companies to figure out which robocalls are truly scams and which contain information that a consumer would want to get, like automatic calls about school closings.

And according to Quilici, one of the challenges to stemming relentless robocalls is that companies have been reluctant to assume legal liability for blocking calls that customers wanted.

"What we find is there's a range of things that people are comfortable with having blocked," he told NPR.

Quilici said it's safe to assume everyone would want to block scam calls. But other types are less clear. For example, some people want to receive automated payment reminders from credit card companies, whereas others might prefer to block such calls.

And then there are extreme examples, he added, that might have made providers reluctant to embrace sweeping action in the past that could expose them to legal liability: "It's the fear that you block a number and it's Grandma calling and she's having a heart attack."

"It is very important that the proposal makes it clear that emergency and other vital calls are not blocked and that carriers give consumers ample information about these services and methods," Pai told reporters.

The FCC has not yet released the specific details of its proposal — in particular, what kinds of guidelines the agency will provide companies for determining whether a call is "wanted" or "unwanted."

Will Wiquist, a spokesperson for the FCC, said the call-blocking programs "would be based on reasonable analytics, like current call blocking apps." He said the analytics are aimed at stopping scams and look for patterns like "floods of calls in the network or numerous short-duration calls." Wiquist added that the proposal would allow for flexibility about what to block, or for customers to opt out altogether.

The FCC's proposal also would allow providers to offer customers an even more aggressive form of blocking than the default option. If passed, customers could opt in to a filter system that would only allow calls through from numbers in their contacts, dubbed a "white list."

"The number of #robocalls we get is INSANE. For too long the @FCC has wasted time holding workshops and summits instead of holding bad actors responsible," said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who is a Democrat.
"Today it finally proposes new policies to help block robocalls. I sincerely hope this is not too little, too late."

The FCC will consider the proposal at a meeting on June 6. Pai, a Republican, says he hopes it will give consumers the "peace of mind that they deserve."

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