EDITORIAL: FCC move against robocalls is way overdue

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Some in the business community are decrying the Federal Communications Commission’s recent decision to allow carriers to automatically block robocalls unless customers opt out, saying it will make it harder for them to hawk their services to people who haven’t indicated they’re interested in receiving a telephone sales pitch.

Yes, it will make it harder — that’s the whole point. Robocalls are the scourge of the communications industry, blowing up Americans’ phones almost 48 billion times last year alone by one estimate. The FCC move is way overdue.

Anyone with a cellphone knows the aggravation of getting repeated calls from numbers that look vaguely familiar, only to be greeted with a recorded voice trying to sell something.

Marketers know that a tiny percentage of people who get these annoying, deceptive calls will be drawn in to buy goods or services they haven’t asked for. Wasting the time of the vast majority of us who won’t is just their cost of doing business.

Some carriers already offer robocall-blocking tools, but customers have to take the initiative to activate them. The new rule, approved by a unanimous FCC vote last week, allows carriers like AT&T and Verizon to automatically block robocalls unless customers ask to receive them.

Similarly welcome is the regulatory agency’s related move to address “spoofing” — the practice by marketers of disguising their numbers to make it look like the calls are coming from local phones or from geographic areas the customers routinely call. In addition to allowing preemptive robocall blocking, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has called for public input into the “spoofing” issue with an eye on possible regulation in the future.

“My message to the American people today is simple: We hear you and we are on your side,” Pai said before last Thursday’s vote. The FCC “will stand with American consumers, not with those who are badgering them with these unwanted robocalls.”

Opponents include banks, credit unions, health care organizations and others that use robocalls to sell services. They point out that they also use robocalls to conduct ongoing business, and claim it will hamper their ability to communicate even legitimate information to their existing customers.

But legitimate communications with existing customers doesn’t generally involve an out-of-the-blue, prerecorded call from a disguised number. Any legitimate recorded calls in danger of being blocked — say, your pharmacy calling to say your prescription is ready — will have the option of appealing to the carriers to get off the list.

It would have been better news had the FCC specifically required carriers to offer these blocking services free of charge.

Pai is on record saying he fully expects that will be the case. If the carriers don’t adhere to that, then the issue may have to be revisited. Until then, enjoy the blissful silence.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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