Apple and Google parent company Alphabet have joined a coalition of more than 30 tech companies and telecoms focused on combating automated phone calls, according to Reuters. Called the "Robocall Strike Force," the group is led by the Federal Communications Commission, which held its first hearing on the subject today in Washington, DC. Robocalls include both prerecorded messages from misleading phone numbers and automated text messages.
The FCC is turning to companies like Apple, Alphabet, AT&T, and Verizon because it’s seeking a solution to prevent telemarketers and even big corporations from harassing consumers with prerecorded messages. "We know there is a problem. We know how much consumers dislike these calls," said FCC Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn. "We know the public is frustrated, because they assumed that after they registered for the ‘Do Not Call’ list, this would stop. It did not, so now it is time to take some real action."
The strike force is expected to report to the FCC by October 19th with "concrete plans to accelerate the development and adoption of new tools and solutions," said AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, who is the chairman of the coalition. These solutions could come in the form of Caller ID verification standards that could block spoofed phone numbers, as well as a list of numbers from government agencies and banks that telemarketers would not be able to spoof.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler calls robocalls a "scourge"
Speaking today at the meeting, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called robocalls a "scourge." In fact, the FCC says complaints filed under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) accounted for more than half of the 175,000 tickets filed at the FCC’s help center in the first six months of 2016.
The FCC first began addressing the problem from a technical end last year, when it gave phone makers and telecoms the go ahead to implement robocall-blocking software. However, companies like AT&T have been dragging their feet, claiming to need FCC approval for such technology. That prompted Wheeler to post a call to arms in July with a post titled "Cutting Off Robocalls," in which he called on tech companies and carriers to work together with the commission.
The FCC is pushing companies to work together on blocking robocalls
Commissioner Clyburn was careful to point out in her statements today that the group is walking a fine line between helping consumers and allowing anticompetitive behavior. For instance, the FCC stopped AT&T from blocking iPhone VoIP calls, including those from Google Voice, as part of a contractural agreement it had with Apple. "The Commission has a long-history of prohibiting abusive or anticompetitive use of call-blocking technology," Clyburn said. "But consumers want real relief and I am optimistic that beginning with today’s conversation, we will be able to deliver to consumers the change they are clamoring for."
Tech companies and telecoms also have another reason to cooperate with the FCC. The TCPA has often been used aggressively in the past to sue companies over even basic automated messages. Although the law was devised to crack down on harassing robocalls from, say, a third-party debt collection agency hired by a bank, it’s gotten companies like Facebook and Yahoo sued over notification texts about account sign-ins and welcome messages. By participating in this strike force, tech companies may be able to ease the loose application of the TCPA in these types of class action lawsuits.