Editor’s Note: Margot Saunders is senior counsel at the National Consumer Law Center, specializing in federal law and policy that governs robocalls. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Thirty billion robocalls were made to American consumers in 2017, according to YouMail, a robocall-blocking service. And while robocalls, made with an automated dialer or using a prerecorded or artificial voice, torment Democrats, Republicans and independents alike, even on this issue, Washington leadership has found a way to divide along party lines.
The division is not over whether robocalls generally are a nuisance that should be addressed, but over which robocalls should be stopped. The robocalling industry is pushing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to deregulate all automated robocalls made with a human agent by interpreting the definition for “automated telephone dialing systems” (autodialers) in a way that would not cover any automated systems being used by the callers.
Businesses using robocalls for debt collection and telemarketing are trying to capitalize on a recent DC Circuit Court decision that tasked the FCC with revisiting some of the rules that govern robocalls under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). The TCPA requires that callers have consent when they use autodialers to call cell phones, and that consumers can revoke that consent to stop the robocalls.
However, partisan lines have been drawn over whether some well-known companies, including many creditors and debt collectors, should be exempted from the TCPA’s restrictions altogether. This would mean that consumers would no longer have the ability to stop calls from callers collecting debts – regardless of how many times a day or a week the calls are made or whether they are even reaching the correct party. While some Democratic senators have opposed the loosening of regulations that would allow consumers to be inundated by these unwanted calls, Republicans have not taken action to stand up for consumers’ rights.
Congress passed the TCPA in 1991 to address a surge in unwanted robocalls and faxes. The FCC has interpreted the TCPA to bar unwanted text messages as well as autodialed calls to cell phones without the recipient’s consent.
But as the availability of software and equipment to make autodialed calls to cell phones rapidly expands, lobbyists and lawyers for the robocallers are in Washington, working to persuade the FCC to narrow the autodialer definition so that virtually none of the technologies currently used to make unwanted robocalls or send texts would be covered by these protections.
Giving in to the robocallers’ demands would inevitably increase the number of robocalls made daily, likely by a factor of thousands. There would simply be no restrictions whatsoever on debt collection calls, survey calls, political calls or non-profits calling to solicit money, so long as those calls are made using live agents or technology that does not fit into the proposed, narrow autodialer definition. While the Do Not Call Registry would still apply, that rule protects us from only telemarketing calls, which are less than half of all robocalls.
The robocalling industry also hopes to persuade the FCC to strip consumers of their right to revoke consent. Frequently, consumers unknowingly consent to receive robocalls from companies they do business with in the fine print of loan documents, service contracts and consumer product terms and conditions.
Once consumers recognize they’ve given a business permission to robocall them, usually after receiving a number of unsolicited robocalls, they now have the legal right to inform the business that its calls are unwanted and demand that the calls stop. As things stand, the robocallers have to comply, but with the stroke of a pen, the FCC may allow them to ignore consumers’ wishes.
Lobbyists for the businesses making robocalls don’t appear confident in their own assertion that their calls are wanted communications between a business and its customers. If they were, they would support consumers’ right to revoke consent – assuming that their customers would not exercise that right.
More than a dozen Democratic senators have urged the FCC to maintain strong rules to limit unwanted robocalls and allow consumers to determine which calls are wanted. But in a true display of Washington dysfunction, that letter is void of any Republican signatures. Worse, some Republican senators wrote to the FCC urging it to side with the robocallers at the expense of consumers.
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If Americans are to have confidence in the democratic process, lawmakers must find common ground on issues that directly impact their constituents. An issue as wide-reaching and universally despised as robocalls provides just the opportunity. Congress and the FCC should honor the will of their constituents and reject efforts by big businesses and robocalling industry lobbyists to flood our cell phones with even more unwanted robocalls.