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Ajit Pai’s robocall plan lets carriers charge for new call-blocking tools

Ajit Pai’s robocall plan lets carriers charge for new call-blocking tools

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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is calling on carriers to block robocalls by default without waiting for consumers to opt in to call-blocking services. But he hasn’t proposed making this a requirement and is leaving it up to carriers to decide whether to charge for such services.

To encourage carriers, Pai is proposing rule changes making it clear that carriers are allowed to block calls by default. Call blocking by default isn’t explicitly outlawed by the FCC, but Pai’s announcement today said that “many voice providers have held off developing and deploying call-blocking tools by default because of uncertainty about whether these tools are legal under the FCC’s rules.”

In a call with reporters this morning, Pai said the uncertainty stems from a 2015 FCC order in which “the FCC suggested that its rules and regulations would not prohibit call-blocking services to the extent that consumers opted into them. Many members of the industry perceived that interpretation to make illegal, potentially, the blocking of calls by default.”

“The current opt-in regime has led many consumers to not affirmatively opt in and as a result there are just fewer people who are using these services,” Pai also said.

Pai’s proposals will be up for votes at the June 6 commission meeting. “If adopted, we expect carriers to quickly begin offering call-blocking services by default and to work toward more advanced offerings, like blocking based on contact lists,” Pai said.

But since Pai isn’t proposing a requirement that carriers block robocalls, just telling carriers they’re allowed to block calls by default doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll actually do it. For example, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson clearly stated the year before that carriers have the “green light” to offer robocall-blocking services to cell phone users. AT&T and other carriers eventually agreed to do more after facing additional pressure from the Obama-era FCC.

Carriers could still charge for blocking

US wireless carriers currently offer a mix of free and fee-based call-blocking services, and third-party companies such as Nomorobo and RoboKiller also sell call-blocking tools. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, part of the FCC’s Democratic minority, has called for the FCC to prevent phone companies from charging for robocall blocking.

However, Pai’s new proposal does not require carriers to make robocall blocking available for free. Carriers charging extra fees for such services could prevent them from implementing call blocking by default, since consumers would have to opt in by paying the extra fee.

When asked whether carriers will likely charge for new robocall-blocking services, Pai said, “we certainly encourage companies to offer this for free as we do all the call-blocking tools. We anticipate the cost of doing so will be less than the current status quo in which they have to assume the cost of these robocalls going over their networks, of handling consumer complaints in connection with those robocalls, and so forth, and so we do not anticipate that there would be costs passed on to the consumer.”

But since carriers do charge for some of their current blocking services, it wouldn’t be surprising if they also charge for future blocking tools or at least restrict the most useful features to a paid tier. Despite what Pai said, carriers don’t base their consumer prices solely on their cost—as we’ve seen over the years, carriers often charge add-on fees when doing so is profitable.

Consumers could opt out of default blocking

Pai’s announcement included two robocall items that will be voted on next month. The first is a declaratory ruling that would allow phone companies to block robocalls by default using existing methods that analyze each call.

Here are some details on the proposal provided by the FCC:

  • Voice service providers may offer opt-out call-blocking programs based on any reasonable analytics designed to identify unwanted calls and will have flexibility on how to dispose of those calls, such as sending straight to voicemail, alerting the customer of a robocall, or blocking the call altogether.
  • Providers should clearly disclose to consumers what types of calls may be blocked.
  • Voice service providers must provide sufficient information so that consumers can remain in the program or opt out.
  • Call blocking should not in any way interfere with our country’s emergency communications systems.

The proposed ruling would also make it clear “that carriers can allow consumers to opt in to more aggressive blocking tools like those based on their own contact lists or other ‘white list’ options.”

As a declaratory ruling, this proposal would take effect with a vote on June 6.

Caller ID verification

Pai’s second proposal would take at least a few months to finalize because it is a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM). NPRMs ask the public to offer input, which the FCC considers before implementing final rules.

The NPRM proposes a legal safe harbor for carriers that block calls that aren’t signed under the new SHAKEN and STIR frameworks. The SHAKEN and STIR protocols use digital certificates to verify that Caller ID numbers aren’t being spoofed and are expected to be offered by mobile and landline phone companies sometime this year.

A limitation of SHAKEN/STIR is that it can only verify Caller ID on any given phone call when both the sending carrier and receiving carrier have deployed the technology. SHAKEN/STIR will work best if and when all carriers use it, because that would enable Caller ID authentication when a customer of one carrier calls a customer of another carrier. Pai previously said he’ll consider “regulatory intervention” if major phone companies fail to adopt SHAKEN and STIR this year but hasn’t said what that regulatory action would be.

SHAKEN and STIR could be implemented in a way that doesn’t actually block calls. For example, carriers could let unsigned calls ring your phone but mark them as unverified under the SHAKEN/STIR framework. When AT&T and Comcast announced a SHAKEN/STIR test in March, they didn’t promise to offer actual blocking capabilities based on SHAKEN/STIR.

Pai’s NPRM proposes letting carriers block calls that fail the SHAKEN/STIR test. The proposal includes “a safe harbor for providers that implement network-wide blocking of calls that fail caller authentication under the SHAKEN/STIR framework once it is implemented,” the FCC said.

Pai didn’t say whether any existing rule prevents carriers from blocking unsigned calls under SHAKEN/STIR if consumers opt into such blocking. It’s also not clear to us whether his proposal would allow blocking of unsigned calls by default without consumer opt-in. But Pai’s use of the phrase “network-wide blocking” may suggest that it would allow blocking by default. (We asked Pai’s office for some clarification and will update this story if we get answers.)

Separately, Pai’s NPRM “also seeks comment on whether the FCC should create a safe harbor for blocking unsigned calls for particular groups of voice service providers—such as those known to facilitate illegal robocalls” and “considers requiring voice service providers to maintain a ‘Critical Calls List’ of numbers (such as emergency numbers) they may not block,” the FCC said.

Blocking of unsigned calls from phone companies “known to facilitate illegal robocalls” could help stop robocalls routed through carriers that don’t implement SHAKEN/STIR. However, widespread blocking of calls from carriers that don’t implement SHAKEN/STIR could lead to blocking of legitimate calls, which is one reason SHAKEN/STIR will work best if it’s adopted by all carriers.

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