FCC votes to allow carriers to automatically block robocalls

Photo (c) Oleksii Spesyvtsev - Getty Images

The agency says it expects providers to offer the tool for free

Federal regulators are stepping up their efforts to combat the scourge of robocalls, which rose 46 percent from 2017 to 2018. On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted unanimously to allow phone carriers to automatically block robocalls.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai proposed the order last month, saying it “could be a big benefit for consumers who are sick and tired of robocalls.” This week, he wrote in an op-ed for USA Today that unwanted calls have been a huge source of consumer frustration in recent years.

"When consumers complain to us, they don't distinguish between illegal calls, scam calls, telemarketing calls and spoofed calls," Pai said. "They simply lump them together under one category: unwanted.”

Filtering robocalls

The FCC said it expects carriers to offer robocall-blocking tools at no extra charge, but it doesn’t require them to. Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel took issue with this element of the proposal.

"We should be upfront and clear with consumers that today's decision offers no more than an expectation that phone companies installing this technology will not charge consumers the premium for its use," Rosenworcel said in a statement.

Fellow Democratic commissioner Geoffrey Starks pointed out that the agency could propose rules against charging for the service at a later time if it comes to that.

“We expect phone companies will move quickly to use this tool and help consumers block unwanted robocalls. Among other things, default call-blocking will reduce the costs of handling the robocalls that flood their networks and save them grief by limiting customer complaints,” Pai said.

Under the order, consumers have the right to opt out of the blocking and ask their phone company not to block any calls.

“This action empowers providers to protect their customers from unwanted robocalls before those calls even reach the customers’ phones,” the FCC said in a statement on its website.

“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.”

The FCC estimates robocalls cost consumers at least $3 billion per year.

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