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On June 6, the FCC approved a Declaratory Ruling and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to address unwanted robocalls to consumers. The Declaratory Ruling affirms that voice service providers may block unwanted robocalls “based on reasonable call analytics, as long as their customers are informed and have the opportunity to opt out of the blocking.” Among other things, the Declaratory Ruling clarifies that voice providers (i) may offer call blocking tools to their customers as a default, as opposed to an opt-in basis; and (ii) may offer customers tools that would allow customers to block calls from any number that is not listed in the customer’s contact list or other “white lists.” The FCC notes that a “white list” could be based on a customer’s contact list and would be updated as customers add and remove contacts from their phone. According to reports, the FCC also adopted language that was added to the May proposal, which encourages voice providers to devise a system for addressing complaints made by legitimate companies whose calls to customers are being blocked. The final Declaratory Ruling is effective upon its publication on the FCC’s website.
The FCC also adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) (available in the May proposal) requiring voice providers to implement the “SHAKEN/STIR” caller ID authentication framework—an “industry-developed system to authenticate Caller ID and address unlawful spoofing by confirming that a call actually comes from the number indicated in the Caller ID, or at least that the call entered the US network through a particular voice service provider or gateway.” The FCC asserts that once the “SHAKEN/STIR” is implemented, it would “reduce the effectiveness of illegal spoofing and allow bad actors to be identified more easily.” The deadline for comments in response to the NPRM will be established upon publication in the Federal Register.
On April 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit vacated a district court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the FCC, concluding that an exemption under the TCPA that allows debt collectors to use an autodialer to contact individuals on their cell phones when collecting debts guaranteed by the federal government violates the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. According to the opinion, several political consultant groups (plaintiffs) argued that a statutory exemption enacted by Congress as a means of allowing automated calls to be placed to individuals’ cell phones “that relate to the collection of debts owed to or guaranteed by the federal government” is “facially unconstitutional under the Free Speech Clause” of the First Amendment. The plaintiffs argued that the debt-collection exemption to the automated call ban contravenes their free speech rights. Moreover, the plaintiffs claimed that “the free speech infirmity of the debt-collection exemption is not severable from the automated call ban and renders the entire ban unconstitutional.” The FCC, however, argued that the applicability of the exemption depended on the relationship between the government and the debtor and not on the content. The district court awarded summary judgment in favor of the FCC after applying a “strict scrutiny review,” ruling that the exemption does not violate the Free Speech Clause.
On appeal the 4th Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs that the exemption contravenes the Free Speech Clause, and found that the challenged exemption was a content-based restriction on free speech that did not hold up to strict scrutiny review. “Under the debt-collection exemption, the relationship between the federal government and the debtor is only relevant to the subject matter of the call. In other words, the debt-collection exemption applies to a phone call made to the debtor because the call is about the debt, not because of any relationship between the federal government and the debtor.” And because the exemption is a content-based restriction on speech, it must satisfy strict scrutiny review to be constitutional, which it fails to do, the 4th Circuit opined. “The exemption thus cannot be said to advance the purpose of privacy protection, in that it actually authorizes a broad swath of intrusive calls. . . [and] therefore erodes the privacy protections that the automated call ban was intended to further.” However, the appellate court sided with the FCC to sever the debt collection exemption from the automated call ban. “First and foremost, the explicit directives of the Supreme Court and Congress strongly support a severance of the debt-collection exemption from the automated call ban,” the panel stated. “Furthermore, the ban can operate effectively in the absence of the debt-collection exemption, which is clearly an outlier among the statutory exemptions.”
On March 5, Attorneys General from all 50 states, as well as from the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, sent a letter to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation supporting a recently introduced bipartisan bill to combat illegal robocalls. Among other things, S. 151, the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (TRACED Act), would: (i) grant the FCC three years to take action against robocall violations, instead of the current one-year window; (ii) authorize the agency to issue penalties of up to $10,000 per robocall; and (iii) require service providers to implement the FCC’s new call authentication framework. The AGs state that they “are encouraged that the TRACED Act prioritizes timely, industrywide implementation of call authentication protocols,” and note their support for an interagency working group that the bill would establish consisting of members from the DOJ, FCC, FTC, CFPB, other relevant federal agencies, state AGs, and non-federal stakeholders.
On February 14, the FCC released a notice of proposed rulemaking intended to strengthen its rules against caller ID spoofing and expand the agency’s enforcement efforts against illegal spoofed text messages and phone calls, including those from overseas. The proposed rules would enact requirements in the recently passed RAY BAUM’S Act of 2018, and expand Truth in Caller ID Act prohibitions against the transmittal of “misleading or inaccurate caller ID information (‘spoofing’) with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value” to text messages and calls to U.S. residents originating from outside the U.S.
The FCC seeks comments on the proposed rules—adopted unanimously at the agency’s February 14 meeting—on, among other things, what changes to the Truth in Caller ID rules can be made “to better prevent inaccurate or misleading caller ID information from harming consumers.” Comments will be due 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.
On February 13, the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada rejected a cloud communication company’s motion to dismiss a TCPA class action. According to the opinion, the plaintiffs’ alleged the company “collaborated as to the development, implementation, and maintenance of [a] telemarketing text message program,” which was used by a theater production company to send text messages without prior consent in violation of the TCPA and the Nevada Deceptive Trade Practices Act (NDTPA). The company moved to dismiss the claims, arguing, among other things, that it was not liable under the TCPA because it was a “transmitter” and not an “initiator” of communications. Citing the FCC’s previous determination that, under certain circumstances transmitters may be held liable under the TCPA, the court rejected this argument, concluding that the company took steps necessary to send the automated messages and that its “alleged involvement was to an extent that [it] could be considered to have initiated the contact.” Moreover, the court determined the plaintiff sufficiently alleged injury under the TCPA, concluding that violations of privacy and injury to the “quiet use and enjoyment of [a] cellular telephone” are consistent with the purpose of the TCPA. The court did dismiss the plaintiff’s NDTPA claims, however, holding that the transaction did not involve the sale or lease of goods or services as the law requires.
District court orders TCPA suit to mediation, states FCC’s interpretation of autodialer may take years
On February 1, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri issued an order referring the parties in a putative TCPA class action to mediation. The plaintiff’s complaint alleges that the defendant’s insurance company sent her text messages without her consent using an automatic telephone dialing system (autodialer). In response, the defendant argued that the software it used to send the text messages does not qualify as an autodialer because it calls numbers from a pre-set list, instead of one that is randomly or sequentially generated. The defendant further argued that the case should be stayed because the FCC is currently considering whether systems such as the one at issue qualify as autodialers under the TCPA following the D.C. Circuit’s March 2018 ruling in ACA International v. FCC, which set aside the FCC’s 2015 interpretation of an autodialer as “unreasonably expansive.” (Covered by a Buckley Special Alert.) The decision to refer the case to mediation comes after the court’s August 2018 order denying the defendant’s motion to stay the proceeding. In that order the court explained that, although the FCC issued a notice in May 2018 (covered by InfoBytes here) seeking comments on the interpretation of the TCPA, the rulemaking process would likely take years and may not even resolve the issue in the case.
District Court allows TCPA action to proceed, citing 9th Circuit autodialer definition as binding law
On January 17, the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona denied a cable company’s motion to stay a TCPA action, disagreeing with the company’s arguments that the court should wait until the FCC releases new guidance on what constitutes an automatic telephone dialing system (autodialer) before reviewing the case. A consumer filed a proposed class action against the company, arguing that the company violated the TCPA by autodialing wrong or reassigned telephone numbers without express consent. The company moved to stay the case, citing the FCC’s May 2018 notice (covered by InfoBytes here), which sought comments on the interpretation of the TCPA following the D.C. Circuit’s decision in ACA International v. FCC (setting aside the FCC’s 2015 interpretation of an autodialer as “unreasonably expansive”). The company argued that the FCC would “soon rule on what constitutes an [autodialer], a ‘called party,’ in terms of reassigned number liability, and a possible good faith defense pursuant to the TCPA,” all of which would affect the company’s liability in the proposed class action. The court rejected these arguments, citing as binding law Marks v. Crunch San Diego, LLC, a September 2018 decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that broadly defined what constitutes an autodialer under the statute (covered by InfoBytes here), and therefore, determining there was nothing to inhibit the court from proceeding with the case. As for the FCC’s possible future guidance on the subject, the court concluded, “there seems little chance that any guidance from the FCC, at some unknown, speculative, future date, would affect this case.”
On December 12, the FCC adopted new rules to establish a single, comprehensive database designed to reduce the number of calls inadvertently made to reassigned numbers as part of its strategy to help stop unwanted calls. According to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the database would enable callers to verify—prior to placing a call—whether a number has been permanently disconnected and is therefore eligible for reassignment. Currently, callers may be held liable under the TCPA should they call a reassigned number where the new party did not consent to receiving calls. The FCC also announced it will (i) add a safeguard requiring a “minimum ‘aging’ period of 45 days before permanently disconnected telephone numbers can be reassigned”; and (ii) provide a safe harbor from TCPA liability for any calls to reassigned numbers due to database error. However, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly stated that while he supported the creation of the database, he expressed reservations about both the cost and effectiveness, stating “only the honest and legitimate callers will consult the reassigned numbers database—not the criminals and scammers.” O’Reilly suggested developing better, more logical interpretations of the TCPA, asserting that “much more work remains, particularly on narrowing the prior Commission’s ludicrous definition of ‘autodialer,’ and eliminating the lawless revocation of consent rule.”
Additionally, the FCC announced a ruling (see FCC 18-178) denying requests from mass-texting companies and other parties for text messages to be classified as ‘“telecommunications services’ subject to common carrier regulations under the Communication Act.” If the request had been granted, the FCC stated, the classification would have limited wireless providers’ efforts to effectively combat spam and scam robotexts. Rather, the FCC classified SMS and Multimedia Messaging Services as “information services” under the Communications Act, which allows wireless providers the ability to take action to stop unwanted text messages, such as applying filtering technologies to block messages that are likely spam.
On December 6, the Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced he is joining a bipartisan group of 40 state Attorneys General to stop or reduce “annoying and dangerous” robocalls. The multistate group is reviewing, through meetings with several major telecom companies, the technology the companies are pursuing to combat robocalls. According to the announcement, the working group’s goals are to (i) develop an understanding of the technology that is feasible to combat unwanted robocalls; (ii) encourage the major telecom companies to expedite a technological solution for consumers; and (iii) determine if the states should make further recommendations to the FCC. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in October, a group of 35 Attorneys General, including Herring, submitted reply comments to the FCC in response to a public notice seeking ways the FCC could create rules that would enable telephone service providers to block more illegal robocalls. In their comments to the FCC, the coalition encouraged the FCC to implement rules and additional reforms that go beyond the agency’s 2017 call-blocking order, which allows phone companies to proactively block illegal robocalls originating from certain types of phone numbers.
On November 29, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey partially denied a company’s motion to dismiss proposed class action allegations that it violated the TCPA when it used an automatic telephone dialing system (ATDS) to send unsolicited text messages to customers’ cell phones that resulted in additional message and data charges. According to the opinion, the company sent three text messages to the plaintiff who responded to two of them. The first message gave the plaintiff the option to send “STOP” to opt out or “HELP” to receive assistance. Because the plaintiff texted “HELP” in response, the court found that the plaintiff consented to receiving the company’s second message; the court found that the third follow-up message was permissible because it was a single “confirmatory message” sent after the plaintiff texted “STOP” after receiving the second follow-up message. However, the court determined that the plaintiff satisfied the burden of showing at this stage in the proceedings that the first text message was sent from a company with whom he had no prior relationship and had not provided consent. “When an individual sends a message inviting a responsive text, there is no TCPA violation,” the judge ruled. “The TCPA prohibits a party from using an ATDS ‘to initiate any telephone call to any residential telephone line using an artificial or prerecorded voice to deliver a message without the prior express consent of the called party,’ unless the call falls within one of the statute’s enumerated exemptions.”
The court further denied the company’s motion to stay pending the FCC’s interpretation of what qualifies as an ATDS in light of the decision reached by the D.C. Circuit in ACA International v. FCC, stating, among other things, that the company “has not established the FCC proceedings will simplify or streamline the issues in this matter” and that the plaintiff is entitled to discovery concerning the company’s communication devices.
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