FCC wants phone companies to block robocallers

FCC wants phone companies to block robocallers
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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler wants to give phone companies the power to block robocalls and texts to customers’ phones. 

Allowing phone carriers like Verizon or AT&T to use call-blocking technology on robocallers is among a series of proposed FCC rules announced Wednesday that will come up for a vote next month to guard against unsolicited calls, which is the top consumer complaint at the agency.

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Call blocking would give customers the ability to preempt robocalls, rather than relying on the FCC to take action after abuse has occurred.

The government’s restrictions on robocalls and texts to mobile phones are already strict, but the commission says unwanted calls brought in 215,000 complaints last year. The commission is billing Wednesday's announcement as a move to close loopholes especially related to mobile phones, which are fast becoming primary communication devices. 

The proposal Wednesday would also make it easier for people to revoke consent to be robocalled, and would prevent companies from making more than one robocall to a phone number that has recently switched hands. It would also strengthen the definition of autodialers, which can churn through numerous telephone numbers at the same time but are banned from calling mobile phones.

The rules would open up robocalls to certain industries, however, to alert bank customers of possible fraud or to allow pharmacies to use the technique to remind people of medication refills, for example. Customers would be able to opt out of those calls. 

Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyNet neutrality supporters predict tough court battle over FCC's repeal plan Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Driverless car bill hits Senate speed bump MORE (D-Mass.) said he is "concerned that the proposed exemptions” could lead to increased spam calls and texts. 

The current rules under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act prevent any unsolicited call to a mobile phone that is either autodialed or prerecorded, unless there is an emergency or a person gave their prior consent. If a customer gave prior consent and then changed phone numbers, the new rules Wednesday would ensure that consent does not follow the old number. 

There are certain exceptions for robocalls made to landline telephones that would not change. Those include calls from pollsters, market researchers or certain nonprofit groups.

Dozens of state attorneys general and outside advocates pushed the FCC to clarify its rules to allow phone companies to use the call-blocking technology. In the past, trade groups representing the phone industry have said legal barriers at the FCC have prevented them from implementing any advanced call-blocking technology. 

The FCC prevents phone companies from blocking calls from another carrier for anti-competitive reasons. And carriers cited that as a hurdle to explain why they had not adopted the technology. 

In the proposed rules, the commission determined phone companies have the authority to employ the blocking technology if a customer requests it. There are already a number of third-party apps that block some unwanted calls and texts. 

There are no guarantees that phone companies would actually adopt the technology if the FCC approved the rules, because it would not be mandatory. A senior FCC official said the commission hopes the rules will encourage the adoption, but said it is poised to take further action if necessary. 

In January, AT&T said trying to block robocallers is like a game of “ whack-a-mole,” noting it is easy for them to disguise their number once identified as a robocaller. The company also brought up the idea of the technology potentially blocking legitimate numbers by accident. 

“Thus, there are serious limitations and drawbacks to all of the solutions that are currently available,” AT&T said at the time.