Robocalls: FCC wants them blocked by default but you may pay extra

Carriers are not banned from charging consumers to block robocalls under new proposals.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finally has a plan for how US carriers can deal with the scourge of spammy robocalls, which are the commission's top complaint each year. But consumers could end up paying extra for the benefit of carriers blocking those calls.  

Ahead of a vote on his proposal to deal with robocalls, FCC chairman Ajit Pai on Thursday proclaimed that spam calls should be blocked by default. 

"If you have a cellphone, you probably love it and hate it. The main reason you hate it is very likely to be robocalls," Pai wrote

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The FCC on Thursday ended up voting in favor of allowing carriers to "aggressively block unwanted robocalls before they reach consumers". 

Under the plan, voice carriers can block unwanted calls by default, reversing current practices, which allow consumers to opt in to robocall blocking services. 

Carriers can block unwanted calls based on "reasonable call analytics", so long as users are informed and can opt out of the blocking.

The ruling also clears the path for carriers to offer consumers the choice to opt in to a service that blocks any number that's not on the user's contact list or another list of approved numbers, otherwise known as a 'whitelist'.     

Every year Americans are inundated by tens of billions of spam and scam calls, and every year the problem gets worse, undermining the benefits of having a mobile phone. Some estimates suggest phone users receive 10 unwanted calls per month.   

"If Americans can agree on anything these days, it's that they're fed up with robocalls," wrote Pai in his pre-vote pitch to the public. 

"The scam calls. The calls from foreign countries at 2am. The deceptive caller ID 'spoofing', which happens when a caller falsifies caller ID information to make it look as if they're calling from your area code."

The FCC also officially tabled the proposal to force carriers to implement the Shaken/Stir caller ID authentication framework if service providers haven't already done so by the end of the year. 

The Shaken/Stir plan would see carriers 'sign' calls originating from their network, which would be validated by other carriers before reaching a phone. It would help carriers rapidly attribute calls to an entity. 

However, there is a potential catch to this plan for consumers, since carriers can legally charge consumers for robocall blocking services.

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FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who was appointed to the role by the Obama administration, voted to approve Pai's robocall-blocking proposal, but dissented in part.  

Following the vote, she tweeted that the FCC "refuses to prevent new consumer charges and fees to block these awful calls. That's not right. We should stop robocalls and do it for FREE."

"As far as this new blocking technology goes, so far, so good. But there is one devastating problem with our approach. There is nothing in our decision today that prevents carriers from charging consumers for this blocking technology to stop robocalls," she said in her statement on the vote

"I think robocall solutions should be free to consumers. Full stop. I do not think that this agency should pat itself on the back for its efforts to reduce robocalls and then tell consumers to pay up. 

"They are already paying the price – in scams flooding our phone lines; wasted time responding to false and fraudulent calls offering us what we did not ask for, do not want, and do not need; and a growing distrust in our most basic communications."

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