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With Robocall Complaints Down, Who Can STIR Up Action to Restore Public’s SHAKEN Trust?

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Photo of Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser from his office

September 11, 2020 – Given the way that robocalls “implicate a wide jurisdiction,” Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai stressed the need for collaboration to end the crisis of unwanted calls and specifically lauded the so-called STIR/SHAKEN protocol for phone number verification.

Ironically, during the last six months of the coronavirus pandemic, the nation has seen “a huge drop in consumer complaints” about robocalls, said Lois Greisman, head of the marketing practices division of the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Protection Bureau. Both were speaking during a Wednesday webinar hosted by US Telecom.

Greisman attributed this drop in customer complaints to the FTC’s efforts to block illegal robocallers by “increasing their costs and the barriers to entry.”

See “Telephony Industry Rises to the Challenge of Robocalls, With Legislation, Regulation and Enforcement Close Behind,” Broadband Breakfast, December 13, 2019.

But Pai also emphasized ensuring that automated “robocalls” that consumers actually want don’t get “thrown out with the bathwater.” Examples of such wanted robocalls include messages from schools and hospitals.

Pai and the others participating in the discussion agreed that collaboration between public- and private-sector actors was crucial. The cryptographic protocol STIR/SHAKEN, which stands for “Secure Telephony Identity Revisited/Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs,” is a key component of that effort.

Panelists agreed with Pai who said that the efforts to reduce illegal robocalls have “[proven] public private partnership isn’t an empty cliché.”

Some in the discussion stressed the work that has been left undone.

Phil Weiser, attorney general of Colorado, said that in the absence of federal enforcement, states have a responsibility to “pick up the slack” and engage in cooperative federalism. He was speaking particularly about the lack of federal enforcement on consumer privacy.

He said that public’s trust has been shaken by robocalls, and championed education programs informing consumers to avoid picking up the phone if they didn’t recognize the number.

Finally, Weiser said that the government and the private sector needed to amplify its efforts to identify the callers and implement STIR/SHAKEN technologies.

Chris Oatway, assistant general counsel at Verizon Communications Inc, identified three lines of defense against robocalls: First, opt-in or opt-out call blocking tools for consumers; second, implementing STIR/SHAKEN, which he called “crucial to restoring trust in caller ID”; and third, using traceback as a data tool.

Not all providers have implemented these steps, Oatway said. In fact, some have tried to ignore legislation Congress passed on robocalls in December.

Oatway said that lagging providers will soon find that a STIR/SHAKEN technical group is empowered “to start publishing lists of companies that don’t respond or try to put their head in the sand.”

Instead, Oatway said Verizon won’t do business with those who aren’t sufficiently vigilant about the source of their originating telephone traffic. This policy should receive federal backing and apply to other companies, urged Oatway.

Rebecca Murphy Thompson, head of communications policy at Twilio, questioned that perspective. Verizon’s approach should not get federal backing, she said. But the industry’s traceback group was crucial to restoring trust in telephone calls.

The Justice Department will be prosecuting individuals involved on all sides of the unwanted robocall industry, said Ann Entwistle of the department.

Reporter Liana Sowa grew up in Simsbury, Connecticut. She studied editing and publishing as a writing fellow at Brigham Young University, where she mentored upperclassmen on neuroscience research papers. She enjoys reading and journaling, and marathon-runnning and stilt-walking.

Robocall

Lawmakers, FCC Take More Action Against Illegal Robocallers

There are new proposed rules that offer legal protections to those aiding in enforcement efforts against illegal robocalls.

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Rep. Bob Latta, the primary sponsor of the Robocall Trace Back Enhancement Act

WASHINGTON, April 27, 2022 – Regulators and legislators in Washington continued their efforts to curb unlawful telephony use with proposed rules designed to crack down robocalls.

On Wednesday, Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, introduced the Robocall Trace Back Enhancement Act – an amendment to the Pallone-Thune Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act.

If signed into law, the bill would provide legal immunity for a broad range of entities engaging in private efforts to track, surveil, and report on illegal robocalling scams.

The protected parties include registered consortiums that handle call receiving, sharing, and publishing and all voice service providers and any informants that share covered information.

It would also grant the Federal Communications Commission jurisdiction to take enforcement actions based on the information collected during the aforementioned activities.

FCC measures on cease-and-desist letters

In addition to this legislation, as part of her agenda to combat scam calls, on April 26 FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel proposed closing a loophole to the STIR/SHAKEN regime afforded to small telcos.

Most telcos are required to adhere to cease-and-desist orders regarding illegal spam-calls and generally comply with actions taken by the FCC. The loophole in question gave smaller telcos greater latitude in how they chose to respond to FCC requests.

If adopted, the proposed regulation would require small telcos to abide by cease-and-desist orders, participate in robocall mitigation, cooperate with FCC enforcement, and take responsibility for facilitating illegal robocall traffic.

“International robocallers use these gateways to enter our phone networks and defraud American consumers,” Rosenworcel said in a statement, “We won’t allow them to bypass our laws and hide from enforcement.”

The new rule will be voted on at the FCC’s open meeting on May 19.

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Privacy

Federal Privacy Legislation Needed As State Legislation Could Harm Smaller Players, Event Hears

Different state privacy laws stifle competition and places burdens on small companies, experts say.

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Maneesha Mithal (far-left), Sara Collins (middle-left), Lartease Tiffith (middle-right), Brandon Pugh (far-right) on stage at "Beyond the Basics: The Many Pillars of a U.S. Privacy Law"

WASHINGTON, April 25, 2022 – While experts agreed that federal legislators need to take action on comprehensive privacy legislation, they disagreed on the specifics of how such regulation should be enforced.

Though some states have begun to establish their own frameworks for consumer privacy regulation, each framework puts forth different standards that online platforms would have to adhere to. These varied frameworks have raised concerns among many experts who consider a patchwork of legislation to raise the bar of compliance – a bar that could be lowered by federal legislation.

During an R Street panel on Monday, experts from the technology industry weighed in on the matter with their perspectives.

In March, Utah joined  California, Colorado, and Virginia and became the fourth state to successfully pass consumer privacy legislation. Several additional states, including Florida, Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut have experienced mixed success with their bills and have not yet signed anything into law.

Lartease Tiffith, executive vice president for public policy at the Interactive Advertising Bureau, said that the US is an outlier among developed countries. “We are one of the few developed countries that [does not have a federal privacy law],” he said. “I think that in order to reflect the same common values as our colleagues who are in Europe and elsewhere around the world, we need [to make] one.”

Beyond the international perspective, Tiffith also emphasized domestic justifications for federal legislation. “I cannot think of a subject matter that is not more under the purview of Congress than interstate commerce,” he said. “The internet is everywhere – it is not limited by borders. So, we need to have one standard, one set of laws. It should not matter where you live – California, Utah, Virginia, Colorado – you should have the same basic privacy rights as anyone, anywhere.”

Various state legislation harder for smaller companies

Tiffith also explained that a patchwork of regulation would hit smaller businesses the hardest. “If you are a small or medium sized business and you are looking at investing more money into your products and service and delivering and reaching customers – you want to do that rather than spending time on hiring more lawyers to deal with ever complicating regulations.

“We need this for the next set of Amazons and Googles of the world to exists,” he said.

While the panelists were able to agree on the fact that current patchwork of laws is not sustainable, they did not agree on how to enforce a federal framework.

A federal body for consumer data protection

Sara Collins, senior policy counsel for internet advocacy group Public Knowledge, voiced benefits to creating a new data protection authority in the US – a body distinct from the Federal Trade Commission – that would focus expressly on matters related to consumer data protection.

Tiffith pushed back, however, arguing that the FTC already does a good job at handling these issues, and is only held back by what he views as under-resourcing. “If you compare the FTC to other protection authorities, they are very under-resourced,” he said. “So, I think instead of us standing up a whole new data protection authority, I think instead, let’s invest that money in the FTC, give them some rules, some limited rulemaking authority, and let’s give them a lot more staff and a lot more money.

“Let them be the cop on the beat,” he said.

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Robocall

FCC Announces Majority of States Now Signed Onto Robocall Investigation Partnership

The FCC signed on five states this month and seven last month.

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Illustration from C-Zentrix

WASHINGTON, April 7, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission said Thursday it has partnered with further five more state attorneys general to combat illegal robocalls.

The agency said Thursday it had signed on Alaska, California, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Washington state to investigate the robocalls, which can lead to scams. Thursday’s news comes on the heels of a March 28 announcement, when the agency said it signed similar memorandum of understanding with Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Idaho, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Wyoming.

Altogether, the agency, which announced the federal-state partnership effort in February, said it has signed on the majority of the United States.

“It shows that we are united when it comes to fighting robocalls—urban, rural, north, south, east, and west,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “Today I invite every state and U.S. territory to join this effort and establish information sharing and cooperation structures with the FCC so we can work together to investigate and put an end to spoofing and robocall scam campaigns.”

The agency, which has made fighting illegal robocalls a key mandate, has previously credited states with catching those that allow robocalls.

Earlier this month, the FCC credited the North Carolina Department of Justice in an investigation that identified thinQ Technologies as a “facilitator” of robocalls. The agency, which is working with the Traceback Consortium to identify the culprits, has already sent more than a dozen cease and desist letters to those it has identified in investigations.

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