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FCC proposes new protections against spammy phone calls and text messages

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The Federal Communications Commission is continuing its quest to stamp out spammy phone calls and text messages, today proposing a series of new rules that could make it easier for consumers to opt out of texting lists and block unwanted callers. For the most part, this proposal is a matter of clarifying existing law and closing loopholes, but the broader impact should be strengthening what consumers and phone companies can do to fight back against robocalls and texts.

Consumers could easily opt out, and carriers could use tech to block calls

The biggest piece of this proposal is a confirmation that phone carriers are allowed to offer robocall blocking tech to their subscribers. Carriers are apparently already interested in using this tech, but the legal situation around it has been ambiguous. With this proposal, the FCC actually plans to begin encouraging carriers to adopt robocall blocking tech, giving consumers another way to avoid calls. This is also meant to address spammy calls coming from overseas, where companies don't have to follow the FCC's rules. The commission says that it will closely monitor any robocall blockers to make sure that they aren't accidentally blocking many genuine calls.

One of the other big elements to this proposal would make it far easier for consumers to opt out of robocalls and texts. Right now, spammy callers sometimes require that consumers jump through hoops — such as making them mail in a form — to be removed from a calling list, a senior FCC official says. That won't be allowed under this new proposal, which will require that companies allow consumers to revoke their consent to calls in "any reasonable way at any time." The intention is to allow consumers to simply inform a company and then be taken off the list.

Additional pieces of the proposal include clarifications to the definition of an "autodialer," which make it harder for companies using such tech to skirt the rules, and requirements that companies actively clear old phone numbers from their lists, so that calls don't continue when those numbers are reassigned. The final element of the proposal also clarifies what robocalls are acceptable; the answer is: very few. Robocalls will only be allowed for the purpose of informing consumers about urgent financial and medical information, such as fraud or prescription refill alerts. Consumers will also be able to opt out of those if they choose to.

Elements of today's proposal are largely in place already, but it's no secret that they aren't working as well as they should be. The FCC says that it receives more complaints about telemarketing and robocalls — 215,000 last year — than any other issue, making it an important item to address. These rules will only go so far if carriers don't decide to offer robocall blocking tech, but given consumers' interest, it seems likely that they would. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler proposed these new rules today, and they'll be voted on at a commission meeting on June 18th.