FCC to Congress: Your tele-town halls are safe

FCC to Congress: Your tele-town halls are safe
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The Federal Communications Commission is trying to calm the nerves of lawmakers about the legality of their telephone town hall outreach. 

The agency issued a set of FAQs on Friday clarifying that nothing in a recent FCC ruling to strengthen robocall restrictions will change how lawmakers are allowed to reach out to constituents through virtual town halls. 

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“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 agency wrote. 

Confusion was expressed earlier this week when FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler suggested lawmakers were violating FCC restrictions if they robocalled constituents without their prior consent. 

Wheeler’s statement at the end of a three-hour House hearing shocked the lawmakers still left in the room, and the agency quickly clarified that Wheeler meant to make an important distinction between robocalls to mobile phones vs. landlines.

Lawmakers and others have for decades been allowed to make “informational” robocalls — including outreach for a telephone town hall — to landline telephones. But those same calls to a mobile phone are prohibited, unless a lawmaker or vendor gets prior consent. That has been the case since mobile phones began to be covered by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. 

In a vote last month, the FCC 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.   

While some have criticized the ruling for a number of reasons, the FCC on Friday said restricting lawmakers’ telephone town halls should not be one of them. 

“Nothing in the FCC’s recent Robocalls Declaratory Ruling and Order changed that; these are longstanding TCPA and FCC requirements and we understand that third party vendors who help organize tele-town halls have compliance plans in place,” according to the agency explanation.  

The FCC said lawmakers’ offices can gain consent to call a constituent’s mobile phone in written or oral form, using tools such as online signups or standard phone calls. The agency advised lawmakers that it is better to be explicit when disclosing that a constituent is signing up to be robocalled.