FCC Votes to Let Telecom Companies Stop Unwanted Phone Calls by Default

The Federal Communications Commission voted on Thursday June 6, 2019 to allow telecom providers to block illegal and unwanted calls before they reach telephone consumers. The FCC claims consumers will notice an immediate difference for those plagued by scam calls. The FCC reported they received over 200,000 consumer complaints per year.

Specifically, the Commission 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. This action empowers providers to protect their customers from unwanted robocalls before those calls even reach the customers’ phones. While many phone companies now offer their customers call blocking tools on an opt-in basis, the Declaratory Ruling clarifies that they can provide them as the default, thus allowing them to protect more consumers from unwanted robocalls and making it more cost-effective to implement call blocking programs.

“I’m optimistic that the strong FCC proposal to allow these calls to be blocked by default will help get us there — and hasten the end to what one former senator rightly called the “scourge of civilization.”

— FCC Chairman Ajit Pai

The ruling also clarifies that providers may offer their customers the choice to opt-in to tools that block calls from any number that does not appear on a customer’s contact list or other “white lists.” This option would allow consumers to decide directly whose calls they are willing to receive. Consumer white lists could be based on the customer’s own contact list, updated automatically as consumers add and remove contacts from their smartphones.

The Commission also adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that proposes requiring voice service providers to implement the SHAKEN/STIR caller ID authentication framework, if major voice service providers fail to do so by the end of this year. It also seeks comment on whether the Commission should create a safe harbor for providers that block calls that are maliciously spoofed so that caller ID cannot be authenticated and that block calls that are “unsigned.”

What Does SHAKEN/STIR Mean?
SHAKEN/STIR is a framework of interconnected standards. SHAKEN/STIR are acronyms for Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information Using toKENs (SHAKEN) and the Secure Telephone Identity Revisited (STIR) standards. This means that calls traveling through interconnected phone networks would have their caller ID “signed” as legitimate by originating carriers and validated by other carriers before reaching consumers. SHAKEN/STIR digitally validates the handoff of phone calls passing through the complex web of networks, allowing the phone company of the consumer receiving the call to verify that a call is from the person making it.

The FCC says beating unwanted robocalls is about economics, too. Illegal robocalls are not just a drain on individual households’ peace of mind, they are also a drain on our economy. According to the most recent data compiled by YouMail, there were about 2.5 billion illegal robocalls in March 2019 alone. The FCC estimates the cost of these calls to consumers is at least $3 billion per year from lost time alone, not including monetary losses to fraud. Moreover, phone companies also benefit from this decision because the cost of handling service calls by consumers can be more than $10 per call. Thus, avoiding robocall-related customer service calls will save phone companies millions of dollars per year, far exceeding the cost of providing call blocking services. This, in fact, is one of the reasons most carrier-provided opt-in call blocking services offered today are free to the consumer.

The FCC reports that about every three minutes American consumers receive about 350,000 unwanted calls to their homes, businesses, and mobile phones. Of those 350,000 unwanted calls, an estimated 47%, or 164,500 calls, are illegal—scams aimed at tricking the hurried, the trusting, and the vulnerable consumer.

The commission says the “Do Not Call” registry works for legal robocalls, but an estimated 47% of robocalls are illegal.

The FCC vote means that under existing rules your phone company can block unwanted calls based on a computer’s assessment of the call, similar to a service some companies allow customers to use on an opt-in basis or which requires a separate app.

In April, Congress expressed frustration with illegal robocalls and reintroduced bipartisan legislation called the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Defense, or TRACED Act. The bill would improve enforcement policies, criminalize illegal robocalling and require phone companies to use a new technology that can validate that calls are originating where they claim to be coming from. In addition, the protocol would allow for faster tracing of illegal robocalls.

“I hate robocalls as much as you do. I get them myself on my mobile phone, I hear about them from my family and friends, and I know that consumers want to reclaim their sanity.”

— FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, USA Today op-ed

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the vote is a response to the thousands of complaints from consumers and he expects phone companies to adopt the tool quickly and start blocking unwanted robocalls.

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FCC | Combating Spoofed Robocalls with Caller ID Authentication

Action by the Commission June 6, 2019 by Declaratory Ruling and Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FCC 19-51). Chairman Pai, Commissioners Carr and Starks approving. Commissioners O’Rielly and Rosenworcel approving in part and dissenting in part. Chairman Pai, Commissioners O’Rielly, Carr, Rosenworcel, and Starks issuing separate statements.

CG Docket No. 17-59; WC Docket 17-97