Entire federal government exempt from robocall laws, FCC rules

Entire federal government exempt from robocall laws, FCC rules

The entire federal government is exempt from consumer protection laws that limit unwanted robocalls, the Federal Communications Commission decided in a ruling issued Tuesday night. 

While the Telephone Consumer Protection Act bars businesses from making numerous autodialed or prerecorded calls to a person’s cellphone — and similar telemarketing calls to a person’s home phone — the FCC ruled that the 1991 law doesn’t apply to the federal government.

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It also said that contractors working on the government’s behalf are exempt. 

The ruling stemmed from a Supreme Court case earlier this year that found the law does not apply to the government because of sovereign immunity. The government, the FCC ruled, falls outside the law’s definition of a “person.”

“Indeed, had Congress wanted to subject the federal government to the TCPA, it easily could have done so by defining ‘person’ to include the federal government,” according to the ruling.

That means that contractors hired by members of Congress can robocall individuals to participate in town halls, government researchers can place autodialed calls to the cellphones of survey respondents, and contractors can make similar calls to offer information about social security. 

The FCC emphasized the exemption does not apply to lawmakers who are using the calls for political campaigns. And the FCC stressed contractors have to closely follow the government's instructions when making the calls.   

The ruling, which was circulated in March, could upend the debate about government robocalls.

Many congressmen and the Obama administration, it seemed, did not previously buy into the new interpretation outlined Tuesday night. Just last year, Congress approved a law that narrowly exempted government robocalls aimed at collecting debt. 

That narrow exemption at the time caught the ire of many Democrats. 

Tuesday’s ruling goes much further to exempt the entire federal government and those working on its behalf, for any official purpose. One Democratic FCC commissioner called attention to that confusion.  

“After all, if the federal government is truly outside the scope of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, it is unclear why Congress would need to have specifically provided a debt-related exception to the law in the first place,” Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote in a concurring statement. 

She expressed concern that the decision “gives short shrift to consumer frustration with robocalls.”

— updated 3:50 p.m.