House considers allowing robo-calls to cellphones

The House is considering a bill that would allow companies to make robo-calls to people's cellphones.

The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing on Friday to discuss the Mobile Informational Call Act of 2011, a bill sponsored by Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) that would loosen restrictions on telemarketing calls to cellphones. 

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 The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), enacted in 1991, prohibits automated dialing and prerecorded voice message calls to mobile phones. 

Terry says his bill is a badly-needed update to that law and would only allow calls for "informational purposes" and only to people who opt-in to receiving them. He said it would allow companies to quickly notify consumers if their flight is delayed, a product is recalled or their credit card information has been stolen.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the subcommittee chairman, noted that technology has changed dramatically since the Telephone Consumer Protection Act was first enacted. 

"Back then, the only person with a cell phone was Gordon Gecko," he said, referring to Michael Douglas's infamous character in the 1987 film Wall Street. "Today, many American households have given up the landline and rely exclusively on wireless service. Back then, wireless customers paid higher per-minute rates to receive calls; now, most consumers have buckets of minutes so that receiving an additional call costs them nothing. Given these changes to the market, now seems like a good time to revisit some of the rules the TCPA put in place."

But Walden said he has no intention of unleashing telemarketers on unsuspecting wireless consumers.

"I think we can all agree that any legislation should not subject consumers to unwanted telephone solicitations," he said.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif), the subcommittee's ranking member, expressed reservations about Terry's bill. In particular, she worried that people could opt-in to receiving robo-calls without meaning to. 

“I’m concerned that in redefining 'prior express consent,' as this legislation does, consumers will unknowingly be opening themselves up to receiving future robo-calls any time they provide a business with their mobile number," she said.

She added that consumers are resistant to any change that would lead to more telemarketing calls to their cellphones.

"In fact, my constituents have spoken very clearly—they don’t like this bill," she said. "I’ve heard from many, many constituents, and they don’t like it.  They’ve written to me since this legislation was introduced; nearly every letter was in opposition."