Critics are calling on the Federal Communications Commission to delay Thursday’s vote on a new measure to halt illegal robocalls and unwanted calls, arguing that the proposal is advancing without any opportunity for public evaluation and could result in the blocking of lawful communications.
Currently, most customers need to opt-in to call-blocking services, either through their wireless provider or a third-party company. The measure from Chairman Ajit Pai, which is expected to be approved by the other commissioners, would clarify that under existing law companies can automatically enroll consumers in those offerings.
The proposal comes amid intense pressure from Congress on the agency to act on the issue. But the current version of the order has elicited strong opposition from a slew of industries over fears that legitimate calls, like notifications of airline delays, health care reminders or food safety recalls, could be inadvertently blocked.
Despite the urging, the FCC has no plans to halt Thursday’s vote, arguing that the proposal will provide consumers with “much-needed relief.”
“To the extent that any consumers feel that a call blocking service is preventing them from receiving wanted calls, they will have the ability to opt out of the service,” an agency spokesman said.
Opponents counter that wireless providers will be under no obligation to provide customers an opportunity to view which calls were blocked, particularly since the FCC is strongly urging companies to provide the service for free and such platforms could be expensive to develop.
Meanwhile, third-party firms that offer scam protection services say it’s up to telecom companies to provide such transparency.
“Consumers still want to be able to go in and see which calls were blocked and why,” Gavin Macomber, senior vice president at First Orion, told FOX Business. “That’s something that either the FCC with this ruling or carriers themselves need to take it upon themselves to provide. Otherwise, we go back to a situation where legitimate business calls get blocked.”
Industry groups are also crying foul over the speed at which the proposal is advancing, without the customary public comment period that is used to inform most federal regulations, and say it could make compliance with other statutes more difficult, if not impossible.
Credit unions, for example, are required by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to contact borrowers in advance of foreclosure activity. The sector worries that, should the FCC proposal be implemented, calls from mortgage or loan providers could be blocked.
“The proposed declaratory ruling will actually conflict with the obligations financial institutions have with other regulators,” said Mitria Wilson, senior director of advocacy at the Credit Union National Association. “Even with the current regulatory regime, which was a regime based on optional call blocking, we were experiencing a series of legitimate calls not being able to get through.”
The FCC has not addressed the concerns with the group, Mitria said. An agency spokesperson said the measure would not interfere with existing regulations.
Should the order advance, it would be implemented immediately once the final language is released. Opponents may try to sue to block it, however, which could jeopardize the liability protection the FCC intended to give to the wireless industry.
Attorneys say the current draft has a number of legal weaknesses. If a court acted to invalidate the proposal in the future, carriers could be liable for any lawful calls that were blocked in the interim.
“Nobody is focused on a legal challenge. Of course, those options remain open,” said Mark Brennan, a partner at law firm Hogan Lovells who is representing opponents of the measure.
Top wireless telecom firms are still supportive of the measure.
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If the plan passes, Verizon Wireless would “use this new authority that the FCC is giving us to more effectively protect our customers from robocalls," according to a spokesman. The New York-based company currently offers a free call-blocking service and Verizon expects to “make that service even more robust.”
Meanwhile, AT&T said the proposal would “increase the arsenal of tools available to combat calls that are not authenticated.”
The FCC suggested that firms block calls that come in large bursts or those that are short in duration, among other criteria. Critics argue, however, that there is no industry-wide standard and calls that are blocked by one carrier could be allowed by another.
Changes to the existing draft are possible before implementation. Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, a Republican, is said to have concerns over the current language and is pushing Pai to focus on only illegal calls, among other demands.
O’Rielly’s office did not respond to a request for comment from FOX Business.