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Federal Communications Commission Votes to Allow Carriers to Block Robocallers By Default

Emily McPhie

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WASHINGTON, June 8, 2019 — Telecommunications providers can now block robocalls by default, according to a Federal Communications Commission ruling on Thursday.

In principle, the measure had bipartisan support. But Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel dissented in part because the order didn’t require phone service providers to offer call blocking for free. Commissioner Michael O’Rielly’s partial dissent emphasized the importance of having a mechanism in place for legitimate callers to dispute the blocking of their calls.

In its order, the FCC estimated the number of unwanted robocalls at five billion calls each month.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai emphasized that Thursday’s order was just one part of a “comprehensive strategy” to protect consumers from the annoyance and potential danger of robocalls.

Adressing Rosenworcel’s concern, Pai said during the meeting that he expected carriers would not charge consumers because of the money they would save by blocking robocalls.

O’Rielly’s concerns about “unintended consequences” related to schools, public safety alerts, and hospitals that use robocalls to relay important information. He said the agency’s standard of “unwanted” calls is vague and subjective.

“Telecommunications firms should not be allowed to decide for consumers which calls -- including calls related to credit card fraud or low account balances -- are blocked without recourse and we appreciate the FCC taking our concerns into account before voting on the declaratory ruling,” said Consumers Bankers Association President Richard Hunt. The groups represent entities that frequently engaged in making "unwanted" calls to debtors.

“We recognize the FCC’s actions today as a meaningful step toward ridding consumers of unwanted and harassing robocalls, but it’s not a magic bullet,” said Senior Attorney Margot Saunders of the National Consumer Law Center. “Today’s order only grants phone companies permission to block robocalls; it does not require them to do so -- and proponents and opponents of the proposal have raised understandable concerns about the accuracy of phone companies’ analysis regarding which calls will be blocked.”

In a separate vote, the FCC implemented changes to leased access rules that require cable operators to set aside capacity for unaffiliated programmers. Some see these rules as irrelevant given changes in the video marketplace with the rise of broadband technologies.

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks dissented from a portion of the agency’s ruling that argues cable providers enjoy First Amendment rights in the programming carried on cable systems.

Such an analysis, he said could have a far-reaching impact. And he argued that the majority’s First Amendment arguments were unnecessary given that the ruling was “independently and sufficiently supported by policy justifications.”

(Illustration by Jeff Dunham for the Bay Area News Group.)

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