Federal regulators just made it harder for telemarketers to interrupt your family dinners and jam your mobile phone with unwanted text messages by passing strict new rules that will give consumers more ways to opt out and block unwanted messages and prerecorded, automated robocalls.
The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 Thursday to adopt rules that close loopholes in the law that have allowed marketers and others to continue annoying customers with unwanted calls and text messages despite a federal law that is meant to prevent this kind of behavior.
Specifically, the new rules will allow consumers to put a stop to unwanted messages simply by telling companies not to call again or by any other "reasonable way" rather than filing a written form. The new rules also pave the way for phone companies to offer consumers a service to block robocalls. And the rules establish stricter definitions for "autodialing" to ensure that telemarketers can't skirt the law.
Twenty-four years after Congress passed the Telephone Protection Act, which was supposed to protect consumers from receiving these unwanted and unsolicited telephone calls from marketers and other companies targeting consumers, hundreds of thousands of consumers complain they are victims of these unwanted and annoying messages.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the problem has persisted for too long.
"Listening to Congress, the American people, the message is clear: no unauthorized, automated calls," he said. "Stop it, and stop today."
Even though customers have been able to sign up for a "Do Not Call List" for more than a decade, the annoying calls persist. The FCC tried in 2012 to strengthen protections to prevent unwanted calls and text messages from getting through to consumers, but it is still a problem.
The problem is so bad that unwanted robocalls, robotexts and telemarketing calls are the No. 1 complaint the FCC receives from consumers, Wheeler said. Last year alone, the agency received more than 215,000 complaints of unwanted and intrusive calls and text messages. What's more, attorneys general in 39 states have also filed complaints asking the agency to take action.
All five FCC commissioners agree the issue is real and that consumers demand action.
But agreement over how to stop it is an entirely different story. The two Republicans on the FCC, Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly, said the new rules were overly strict and would harm legitimate businesses. They also said the rules could be used by unscrupulous lawyers to drum up bogus lawsuits.
Pai said that the existing Telephone Protection Act has already become a "poster child for lawsuit abuse." And he said that the new FCC regulations will make abuse of the existing law to protect consumers "much, much easier."
O'Rielly agreed that the new rules would only "lead to more litigation that places burdens on legitimate businesses without protecting consumers from robocalls made by bad actors."
He also said the rules "penalize businesses and institutions acting in good faith to reach their customers using modern technology."
These are similar concerns expressed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which sent a letter to the FCC last week stating the agency's rules make no distinction between "aggressive phone-bullies" who cold-call consumers and legitimate businesses simply trying to reach customers.
At least one Democrat was not entirely satisfied with the outcome of the new rules. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel dissented in part from the order because she said the rules were not restrictive enough and still offered too many loopholes for companies to exploit. She said she's concerned that big banks, health care providers and pharmaceutical companies all get an exception under the new rules.
"They get a loophole," she said. "The Order couches this exemption in high-minded rhetoric about informing consumers about upcoming health care appointments and threats to their credit. But despite this rhetoric, the result is obvious -- consumers can expect to receive more robocalls from health care providers and banking institutions."
Wheeler said that banks should be allowed to call consumers to alert them about fraud and doctors should be allowed to call to notify patients of health concerns, but the purposes of these calls "should not be used as a smokescreen" to justify abusive calls.
He also emphasized that the FCC's approach does exactly what Congress intended.
"There is a simple concept in the statute that we embrace today," he said. "You cannot be called unless you consent to be called. The consumer should be in control."