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FCC takes another swipe at illegal robocalls and text spam

The agency stirs up controversy with its latest proposal to give wireless carriers wide latitude to block and filter text messages.

The Federal Communications Commission announced on Tuesday its latest effort to put an end to unwanted robocalls.

First, the agency plans to create a database that businesses can check to make sure the numbers they've been given permission to call haven't been reassigned to other people. But its second proposal is more controversial. The agency plans to apply the same "light touch" regulatory classification used for internet services to text messages in an effort to give wireless carriers more flexibility to block spam text messages.

ILLUSTRATION: Robocall Frustration
Getty Images

The FCC plans to vote on both proposals at its December meeting.

The database proposal is pretty straightforward. It will let legitimate businesses check whether a number they thought they had permission to use has been reassigned to a new wireless customer.

"Consumer groups and legitimate businesses that place calls (say, pharmacies or local banks) have repeatedly asked the FCC to enable callers to quickly learn of all reassignments," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a blog post introducing the December meeting agenda.

An estimated 2.5 billion automated calls are being made each month, according to YouMail, which offers an app that blocks robocalls. Three quarters of wireless customers feel like the number of unwanted calls has increased over the past year, and the calls cost Americans an estimated $350 million each year, according to Consumers Union. Pai has said robocalls are a top consumer complaint.

Though millions of numbers are reassigned each year, the most annoying robocalls often come from scammers hiding their identities behind spoofed phone numbers. An FCC official admitted the database alone is not a "panacea in terms of solving the problem in general." But he said developing the database is part of a more comprehensive effort, which includes cracking down on numbers that appear legitimate but aren't, enforcing fines against illegal robocallers and giving carriers more latitude in blocking such calls.

What's in a name? Giving text messages a clear legal classification

In a separate but related matter, the FCC plans to vote on another proposal to give wireless carriers more latitude in blocking unwanted spam text messages. Specifically, Pai wants to apply the same light touch regulatory framework used for internet access to text messaging, which would give carriers like AT&T and Verizon more leeway in blocking text messages they deem to be spam. Up until now, text messages have had no classification under the law, an FCC official said.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the only Democrat on the FCC, characterized as "bogus doublespeak" the agency's assertion that this new classification for text messaging would protect consumers.

"It's brought to you by the same agency that gave broadband providers the right to censor your online activity by rolling back net neutrality," she said in a statement. "Now the agency wants consumers to believe that giving cell phone companies the ability to block your text messages is a good thing. This makes no sense."

The new classification is bad news for the cloud-based phone service Twilio, which asked the FCC in 2015 to adopt stricter rules to prevent phone companies from blocking its service. That petition will be denied if the FCC's plan to reclassify text messages moves forward, according to an agency official. Twilio said it plans to review the FCC decision when it's released.

Some critics say the FCC's move is unnecessary and dangerous. Harold Feld, senior vice president for Public Knowledge, argued that even though the FCC hadn't formally classified text messages, it had in 2016 established narrow permission for wireless carriers to block and filter unwanted texts. He added the new classification would give carriers too much power to block legitimate texts just as Verizon had done in 2007 when it blocked messages from the pro-choice group NARAL.

"It wouldn't be the holiday season without Chairman Pai giving a great big gift basket to corporate special interests at the expense of American consumers," Feld said in a statement. "Chairman Pai's action would give carriers unlimited freedom to censor any speech they consider 'controversial,' as Verizon did in 2007 when it blocked NARAL."

Verizon ended up unblocking the group's texts hours after the incident was made public. But Public Knowledge argued in a filing to the FCC in 2007 that the incident showed how easily the phone companies could control free speech. Public Knowledge has also supported Twilio's petition.

The fight against robocalls

Each of these measures is part of a growing trend among US regulators and lawmakers to get tough on illegal robocalls. Earlier this month, Pai sent letters to the heads of AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, Google and others, asking them to adopt a call-authentication system that would combat illegal caller ID spoofing. Pai said he wants the companies to have the system in place no later than next year.

Republican Sen. John Thune from South Dakota and Democratic Sen. Ed Markey from Massachusetts have introduced the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act, which will increase penalties; promote call-authentication and call-blocking technology; and give regulators more time to find scammers. Specifically, the bill will broaden the authority of the FCC.

The FCC has also stepped up its enforcement. In September, it fined robocaller Philip Roesel and his companies more than $82 million for illegal caller ID spoofing. Roesel used those companies to market health insurance and generate leads for insurance products he sold.

In May, the FCC slapped a $120 million fine on Adrian Abramovich, who allegedly made nearly 100 million robocalls to sell "exclusive" vacation deals.

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