(Mis)Uses of Technology
Despite endless government initiatives and countless promises from the telecom sector, our national robocall hell continues. Robocalls from telemarketers continue to be the subject the FCC receives the most complaints about (200,000 complaints annually, making up 60% of all FCC complaints), and recent data from the Robocall Index indicates that the problem is only getting worse. Consumers continue to be hammered by mortgage interest rate scams, credit card scams, student loan scams, business loan scams, and IRS scams. 4.9 billion such calls were placed in April alone.
There's plenty of blame to go around when it comes to fixing the problem. The FCC, now little more than a rubber stamp for industry under Ajit Pai, has been lax in holding carrier feet to the fire. Carriers in turn have blamed everyone but themselves for their own lax response. Similarly, many carriers have been slow to offer customers free robocall blocking tech, and even slower in adopting call authentication technology (like SHAKEN/STIR), which would go a long way toward hampering the call spoofing at the heart of the problem. This John Oliver segment is worth a watch:
Enter FCC boss Ajit Pai, who has been increasingly under fire for not doing more to expedite solutions to our great, national robocall apocalypse. This week Pai proclaimed that he has "demanded" that carriers finally adopt call authentication technology this year, something that isn't much of a "demand" since most carriers have said they'd already planned to deploy the technology this year. His other solution popping up this week is being framed by media outlets fairly inaccurately as well. For example. Pai is allowed to insist via Reuters that carriers haven't deployed automatic call blocking technology because they didn't think the FCC would allow it:
"Pai said many service providers have held off developing and deploying default call-blocking tools because of uncertainty about whether the tools are legal under the FCC rules.
Allowing the default call-blocking could significantly increase development and consumer adoption of the tools, Pai said.
“By making it clear that such call blocking is allowed, the FCC will give voice service providers the legal certainty they need to block unwanted calls from the outset so that consumers never have to get them,” Pai said.
Pai's effectively trying to shift the focus away from a decade's worth of carrier failures and toward the idea that some legal confusion is the exclusive reason the industry has failed to police robocalls. But a few years ago, AT&T found itself under fire after Consumer Reports gathered a petition of 600,000 signatures demanding it do more to thwart robocalls. The company's response? To falsely blame the FCC, claiming the agency was prohibiting it from doing so. The former Wheeler FCC made it very clear in numerous letters that such tools were allowed under FCC rules.
To be clear, even clearer rules expressly permitting that carriers be allowed to implement robocall blocking tech that operates by default is all well and good. But Pai's announcement is framed in such a way to suggest that regulatory murk--not a decade of carrier apathy--is exclusively to blame for our collective robocall failures.
Pai's other primary solution for the robocall menace appears to be a new summit in July to discuss ongoing progress:
To help address #robocalls--top category of consumer complaints to @FCC--I've demanded that phone companies implement caller ID authentication standards this year. On July 11, we'll host a summit to assess their progress. If the deadline isn't met, we'll take regulatory action. pic.twitter.com/hQyDOTg9R0
— Ajit Pai (@AjitPaiFCC) May 13, 2019
Of course in the US telecom market, a lack of competition and meaningful regulatory oversight means there's really very little penalty for lazy behavior, so "market based solutions" to problems like this are often slow to materialize if they materialize at all. Robocalls are a notable problem for Pai given they're the agency's top complaint, but actually doing something about it might need to involve actual market oversight and punishment, concepts that clash with Pai's dogmatic belief that the telecom sector can self regulate. Either way Pai's fellow Commissioners weren't particularly impressed, noting that the FCC needs fewer meetings and more concrete action:
The situation with robocalls is a NIGHTMARE. Can we stop holding summits and do something already?
Need ideas? Okay, I'll start.
Require call authentication technology.
Make available free tools to consumers to block these calls.
Set up an @FCC robocall enforcement division. https://t.co/aUJf7mXrVY
— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) May 13, 2019
And while Pai continues to promise he'll take "regulatory action" against carriers that drag their feet, there's some understandable skepticism on that front. After all, this is the same FCC head that just got done effectively neutering his own agency at telecom lobbyist request and routinely parrots telecom lobbyist data points with absolutely no skepticism. The sheer volume of consumer anger on this subject could push Pai out of his comfort zone, but given Pai's recent history as the poster child for regulatory capture, his willingness to actually stand up to industry giants is something that will need to be seen to be believed.
Filed Under: ajit pai, fcc, jessica rosenworcel, robocalls, shaken/stir