Members of the US Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet today focused on how to combat illegal robocalls, particularly the spoofed variety. In a roughly two hour hearing in which thirteen Senators participated, the Subcommittee heard from Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, Washington DC Attorney Kevin Rupy, on behalf of US Telecom – The Broadband, and Margot Saunders,who was representing the National Consumer Law Center and several other consumer groups.
Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Brian Schatz (D-HI), the Chair and Ranking Member, kicked off the hearing which had been entitled “Illegal Robocalls: Calling All to Stop the Scourge.” In his opening remarks, Senator Thune noted that all automated calls were not inherently negative and mentioned a number of types of calls conveying information between companies and the consumers with whom they had a relationship. But the hearing was to focus on unscrupulous use of robocalls. The title in itself conveys that focus.
Much of the discussion addressed how passage of the TRACED Act, now with at least forty-nine sponsors, would help combat illegal robocalls through heightened enforcement. The phenomenon of spoofed calls was a particular concern, with Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) playing a portion of a call with a spoofed Senate telephone number to his office. Each witness supported the TRACED Act and mentioned various elements (e.g., STIR/SHAKEN call authentication requirements, interagency working group) that they felt would contribute to attacking the problem.
However, there also was testimony about other potential enforcement/deterrent/prophylactic mechanisms. Mr. Rupy advocated for criminal prosecutions to go after abusers. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) was not sure about the effectiveness of the Do Not Call mechanism and noted his understanding that Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) would be introducing legislation to address that issue. A spokesman for Senator Durbin later reportedly stated that he “is planning to introduce a bill after the Easter recess which would enhance the private right of action for consumers receiving calls which they have not consented to receiving and make private right of action more effective for landlines.” Another planned legislative initiative was announced by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who will introduce legislation to require carriers to provide free call blocking services.
While there were repeated references to spoofers and scams using robocalls, as addressed elsewhere by TCPAWorld. Ms. Saunders pointed the finger at “major American corporations…with whom many of us do business every day” as responsible for the majority of robocalls – “so-called ‘legitimate businesses’.” Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) did raise with the panel the problem of companies trying to follow up with individuals who had contracted with them, with such companies regularly coming to see her on this issue. She did not want those companies to be harmed during the process of implementing remedies like STIR/SHAKEN.
In the end, there was a brief exchange about the issues pending at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the aftermath of the ACA International decision – the definition of ATDS in particular. Ms. Saunders warned against the prospect of a new FCC interpretation that ostensibly could leave many dialers outside TCPA coverage. In response Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) urged, as he had previously, that the FCC adopt a “robust definition of robocalling” that includes consumer consent and the right to revoke that consent, adding the final observation that if the FCC does not exercise its authority to do so, then the Committee would have to address the issue..
For those who desire to see and hear the details of what transpired, a video of the hearing is available on the US Senate Committee website.