Lawmakers could be violating robocall restrictions

Lawmakers could be violating robocall restrictions
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Some members of Congress might be inappropriately robocalling their constituents' mobile phones.  

House members in both parties were in a tizzy Tuesday after confirming their telephone town halls could violate Federal Communications Commission robocall restrictions. 

While many in Congress have pushed for robocall restrictions to be tightened, a series of lawmakers Tuesday suggested the rules should be relaxed or changed to accommodate their outreach. 

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The issue emerged as lawmakers questioned FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler about a new agency ruling adopted last month that aimed at cracking down on the calls — which can include unwanted calls that are autodialed or prerecorded. 

"If I have a tele-town hall in my office, which I do, and there is some company that calls all those thousands of people in my district, are they now prohibited from doing this?" Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) asked Wheeler during a House Energy and Commerce hearing. 

"Unless the consumer has asked to get [the call]," Wheeler replied. "The statute is very explicit."

Wheeler said it was his view that that method of robocalling people's mobile phone to participate in a town hall is prohibited and always has been. The exception is if a constituent gave prior permission to be called.

"Wow, That's interesting," Walden said. "That would be news to a lot of people."

Wheeler said the FCC's robocall rules are a strict interpretation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act passed by Congress in 1991. Robocalls to mobile phones in particular are barred except for a very narrow set of circumstances. However, those same informational calls to a landline phone would be permitted. 

The FCC clarified that Wheeler was referencing robocalls to mobile phones, when saying lawmaker practices could violate FCC rules.  

“The Commission’s recent robocall clarifications didn’t impose new restrictions on tele-town halls or Congressional outreach to constituents,” FCC spokesperson Will Wiquist said.

“Since 1991, informational calls to landlines have been permitted without restriction, while such calls to mobile phones have required consumer consent,” he added. “As long as vendors for tele-town halls continue to adhere to the decades-old rules, use of these services should pose no issue.”

The FCC ruling last month made it easier for people to revoke consent to be robocalled and bolstered the definition of autodialers. It also gave phone carriers the green light to offer call blocking technology.  

The exact method lawmakers use to get people to participate in their telephone town halls likely varies from office to office, but some methods could skirt the line. 

Rep. Ben Ray Lujan's (D-N.M.) office, for example, uses a list of constituent phone numbers it collected from people who previously contacted the office. It hands those numbers to an outside vendor that then sends out multiple pre-recorded and autodialed calls inviting constituents to participate. The office later clarified that it screens out mobile phone numbers. 

Another method is using an online sign-up sheet. Walden's official website includes a form that constituents can fill out to join the calls.

The form authorizes Walden's office to "call me or send me information about their telephone meetings," which would appear not to violate robocall restrictions since the constituent has to give prior consent. 

Lujan, who also leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, suggested autodialed calls are sometimes the only method available, since online sign-up sheets or emails do not work for the people who do not have an Internet connection at home.

"If the rule requires them to opt into this program, how would we reach out to 700,000-800,000 constituents for them to opt-in?" Lujan asked Wheeler. 

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) noted the 1991 law was passed more than two decades ago and might be in need of updating, it if is not flexible enough to keep up with changing technology. 

"Maybe we've got to reach out to every single one of them if we possibly can," Eshoo said of her constituents. "But in my view, meeting with people relative to a telephone town hall meeting has been overwhelmingly embraced."

"I think they'd say change whatever you have to change," she said.

— Updated 6:28 p.m.