Phone companies can block robocalls by default starting today, FCC says

Illustration of a robot wearing a phone headset.

The Federal Communications Commission today voted to let phone companies block robocalls by default even when consumers have not opted in to robocall-blocking services.

The FCC said it “approved a Declaratory Ruling to affirm that voice service providers may, as the default, block unwanted calls based on reasonable call analytics, as long as their customers are informed and have the opportunity to opt out of the blocking.”

Phone providers already block robocalls on an opt-in basis, sometimes charging consumers for the blocking services. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says the commission’s rules were vague as to whether robocall blocking is legal on an opt-out basis but that today’s ruling will fix that problem.

“Most importantly, we clarify that phone companies may immediately start offering call-blocking programs by default,” Pai said at today’s FCC meeting.

Deployment of call-blocking tools “has been limited because they’re only being made available on an opt-in basis, and many of the consumers who would most benefit from these tools, such as elderly Americans, are unaware that they can opt in,” he added.

Carriers can charge extra for blocking

But the FCC vote today does not require carriers to deploy automatic call blocking, and it doesn’t prevent carriers from charging customers extra for such services.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, one of two Democrats on the Republican-led commission, approved the order in part and dissented in part. She said:

I think robocall solutions should be free to consumers… I think we should be up front and clear with consumers that today’s decision offers no more than an “expectation” that phone companies installing this technology will not charge consumers a premium for its use. But every one of us knows there is nothing enforceable about an expectation. There is nothing here that prevents companies from charging each of us whatever additional fees they want to put this call-blocking technology on our line… I am disappointed that for all our efforts to support new blocking technology, we couldn’t muster up the courage to do what consumers want most—stop robocalls and do it for free. On this aspect of today’s decision, I dissent.

Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican, and Geoffrey Starks, a Democrat, joined Pai in approving the order in full. Republican Michael O’Rielly approved in part and dissented in part.

O’Rielly said his partial dissent was spurred by the order instructing FCC staff to “collect ‘any and all relevant information’ from voice service providers” so that the FCC can prepare reports on the state of call blocking.

“I worry that this language is breathtakingly expansive and gives the bureau virtually unlimited authority to demand whatever data it wishes from carriers,” O’Rielly said.

Carriers are vague on call-blocking plans

The FCC today also started the process of requiring carriers to implement the SHAKEN and STIR protocols, which use digital certificates to verify that Caller ID numbers aren’t being spoofed. Pai’s office said he’ll move ahead with the requirement “if major voice service providers fail to [deploy SHAKEN and STIR] by the end of this year.”

Carriers’ plans for implementing automatic call blocking are not clear. T-Mobile responded to the FCC vote today and noted that it lets consumers opt in to a free call-blocking service. But the company didn’t say whether it will change that from an opt-in to an opt-out service.

Verizon said it “intend[s] to take advantage of the new flexibility the FCC is giving us” but was vague as to how or when it would do so. “With the help of these new FCC rules, we’ll be able to provide our customers the benefits of spam alerts and blocking more broadly and conveniently,” Verizon said.

House Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) said he’s disappointed that the FCC decision “doesn’t ensure consumers don’t foot the bill for stopping these calls. Consumers should not have to pay one cent more of their hard-earned money to get rid of these illegal and unwanted calls.” Pallone’s committee “will mark up consumer-focused legislation soon to stop the robocall epidemic,” he said.

The Senate last month approved anti-robocall legislation that would let the FCC issue fines of up to $10,000 per call to robocallers for up to three years after a violation of robocall rules. Currently, the FCC can only issue such fines against robocallers if it does so within one year of a violation.

The bill, which is pending before the House, would also require carriers to implement the SHAKEN and STIR frameworks.

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