January 23, 2021

Congress Forces FCC To Go Beyond Its Tame, ‘Voluntary’ Anti-Robocalling Plan

Last June you might recall that the Trump FCC unveiled a new robocall plan that it claimed would finally put the annoying problem to bed. And while the tech press tripped over itself to suggest the plan was a dramatic departure from FCC robocall policies of the past, the reality is there was little to nothing in the plan that was actually new. As is often the case with this FCC, a coagulation of half-measures, already existing efforts, and empty nonsense were just kind of thrown together in a pile and deemed to be something new and revolutionary.

The biggest change was FCC rule adjustment that would let wireless carriers install robocalling blocking tools on consumer devices by default, in contrast to the current paradigm where consumers have to opt in (assuming the tools are offered at all). But while the plan urged wireless carriers deploy anti-spoofing technology like SHAKEN/STIR to help prevent robocallers from hiding their real numbers, there was absolutely nothing in the plan that actually requires they actually do so. Because hard, clear rules with genuine accountability make AT&T and Verizon mad, you see.

Not surprisingly, the voluntary measures weren’t likely to actually drive massive telecom companies to actually shore up their anti-robocall efforts. There were also justified concerns that as wireless carriers deployed anti-spoofing technologies, they’d use the opportunity to further price gouge US consumers. Realizing this, Congress passed the Traced Act, which would require wireless carriers provide anti-spoofing tech to consumers at no additional cost.

Amusingly, last week FCC boss Ajit Pai announced he was considering making deployment of SHAKEN/STIR anti-spoofing technology mandatory. In the FCC announcement, Pai tries to frame the effort as something he came up with on his own, despite the fact he was actually being mandated to do so by Congress:

“Pai framed it as his own decision, with his announcement saying the chairman “proposed a major step forward… to protect consumers against spoofed robocalls.” But in reality the FCC was ordered by Congress and President Trump to implement this new rule. The requirement on the FCC was part of the TRACED Act that was signed into law in December 2019. Pai previously hoped that all carriers would deploy the technology voluntarily.”

Pai didn’t actually release his plan, but when he does it’s likely to just mirror what was already established by new law. The problem remains that the Pai FCC will still need to be tough with giant companies that lag on deploying this technology, and, given the agency’s tendency to roll over and bare its tummy on feckless fealty to industry, actual follow through will likely prove hard to come by, especially if bigger, more politically potent companies are the ones lagging behind.
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