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On January 10, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it had granted a petition for a writ of certiorari filed by the U.S. government in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants Inc.—a Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) case concerning an exemption that allows debt collectors to use an autodialer to contact individuals on their cell phones without obtaining prior consent to do so when collecting debts guaranteed by the federal government. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the 4th Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs (a group of several political consultants) that the government-debt exemption contravenes the First Amendment’s 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,” the appellate court opined. However, the panel sided with the FCC to sever the debt collection exemption from the automated call ban instead of rendering the entire ban unconstitutional, as requested by the plaintiffs. “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.” The petitioners—Attorney General William Barr and the FCC—now ask the Court to review whether the government-debt exception to the TCPA’s automated-call restriction is a violation of the First Amendment.
On December 30, President Trump signed S. 151—the “Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act” (TRACED Act)—which, among other things, grants the FCC authority to promulgate rules to combat illegal robocalls and requires voice service providers to develop call authentication technologies. The TRACED Act, Public Law No. 116-105, also directs the FCC to issue regulations to ensure that banks and other callers have effective redress options if their calls are erroneously blocked by call-blocking services.
Highlights of the TRACED Act include:
- STIR/SHAKEN implementation. Within 18 months of enactment, the FCC must require voice service providers to implement “STIR/SHAKEN” caller ID authentication framework protocols at no additional charge to consumers. Providers will be required to adopt call authentication technologies to enable telephone carriers to verify the authenticity of the calling party’s calls. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.)
- Increased enforcement authority. The FCC will be able to levy civil penalties of up to $10,000 per violation, with additional penalties of as much as $10,000 for intentional violations. The TRACED Act also extends the window for the FCC to take enforcement action against intentional violations to four years.
- FCC requirements. The TRACED Act directs the FCC to (i) initiate a rulemaking to protect subscribers from receiving unwanted calls or texts from callers who use unauthenticated numbers; (ii) initiate a proceeding to protect parties from “one-ring” scams “in which a caller makes a call and allows the call to ring the called party for a short duration, in order to prompt the called party to return the call, thereby subjecting the called party to charges”; (iii) submit annual robocall reports to Congress; and (iv) establish a working group to issue best practices to prevent hospitals from receiving illegal robocalls.
- Agency collaboration. The TRACED Act directs the DOJ and the FTC to convene an interagency working group comprised of relevant federal departments and agencies, such as the Department of Commerce, Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, FTC, and CFPB, which must consult with state attorneys general and other non-federal entities, to identify and report to Congress on recommendations and methods for improving, preventing, and prosecuting robocall violations.
- Criminal prosecutions. The TRACED Act encourages the DOJ to bring more criminal prosecutions against robocallers.
Earlier on December 20, the FCC issued a public notice seeking industry input on current practices for blocking unwanted calls as part of a study required by last June’s declaratory ruling and proposed rulemaking (covered by InfoBytes here; Federal Register notice here). The FCC will use the information collected in an upcoming report on the current state of call blocking efforts. Comments will be accepted until January 29, and reply comments are due on or before February 28.
On November 7, the FCC released a public notice seeking comment on a petition filed by a financial institution requesting a declaratory ruling on whether a company can send a follow-up clarification text message in response to an opt-out message from a consumer without violating the TCPA. More specifically, in connection with informational texts that the consumer previously consented to receive, the institution desires to “discern the scope of that opt-out,” because “[s]ome customers want to opt-out of all texts; others merely want to opt-out of the specific category of text message alert they received most recently.” The institution notes it filed the petition “in an abundance of caution” in light of the highly technical nature of TCPA compliance, and that it believes the FCC’s 2012 ruling in SoundBite Communications, Inc. Petition for Expedited Declaratory Ruling is clear that a sender may clarify in an opt-out confirmation message the scope of the consumer’s request without violating the TCPA as long as the message does not contain marketing or promotional content or seek to encourage or persuade the recipient to reconsider the opt-out.
Comments on the FCC’s public notice are due by December 9, with reply comments by December 24.
On October 2, the California governor signed SB 208, the “Consumer Call Protection Act of 2019,” which requires telecommunications service providers (TSPs) to implement specified technological protocols to verify and authenticate caller identification for calls carried over an internet protocol network. Specifically, the bill requires TSPs to implement “Secure Telephone Identity Revisited (STIR) and Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs (SHAKEN) protocols or alternative technology that provides comparable or superior capability by January 1, 2021. The bill also authorizes the California Public Utilities Commission and the Attorney General to enforce certain parts of 47 U.S.C. 227, making it unlawful for any person within the U.S. to cause any caller identification service to knowingly transmit misleading or inaccurate caller identification information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, in June 2019, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) requiring voice providers to implement the “SHAKEN/STIR” caller ID authentication framework. The FCC argued that once “SHAKEN/STIR” is implemented, it would “reduce the effectiveness of illegal spoofing and allow bad actors to be identified more easily.”
On October 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued a decision, which mostly ratifies the FCC’s 2017 reversal of the net neutrality rules barring internet service providers (ISPs) from slowing down or speeding up web traffic based on business relationships. (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.) Notably, however, the decision vacates a portion of the FCC’s 2018 Restoring Internet Freedom Order (Order), which preempted states from issuing their own net neutrality rules on requirements that the FCC “‘repealed or decided to refrain from imposing’ in the Order or that [are] ‘more stringent’ than the Order.”
The D.C. Circuit held that the FCC’s decision to reclassify broadband internet access as a Title I service under the Telecommunications Act—allowing for a “light-touch” regulatory framework for ISPs instead of the more heavily regulated Title II—deserves Chevron deference. The appellate court also noted that while “[p]etitioners dispute that the transparency rule, market forces, or existing antitrust and consumer protection laws can adequately protect internet openness. . . . [we] are ultimately unpersuaded.”
The D.C. Circuit also concluded that the FCC failed to adequately address how the reversal of the net neutrality rules could affect public safety issues, holding that the FCC must address this issue. The appellate court stressed that “[u]nlike most harms to edge providers incurred because of discriminatory practices by broadband providers, the harms from blocking and throttling during a public safety emergency are irreparable.” Additionally, the appellate court instructed the FCC to revisit its analysis on how the reversal will affect the regulation of pole attachments as well as low-income households that receive the internet through an FCC subsidy program. Furthermore, while the appellate court concluded that the FCC overreached its authority in prohibiting states from passing their own net neutrality rules, Judge Williams—who concurred in part and dissented in parted—reasoned that the internet cannot be divided into state markets, and that state actions “would frustrate an agency’s authorized policy.”
On August 22, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein announced a bipartisan agreement between 51 state attorneys general and 12 voice service providers, adopting eight principles for fighting illegal robocalls and preventing consumer fraud. Under the principles, the voice providers will: (i) offer no-cost call-blocking technology, including easy-to-use call blocking and labeling tools; (ii) implement STIR/SHAKEN call authentication (as previously covered by InfoBytes, in June the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking requiring voice providers to implement the caller ID authentication framework); (iii) analyze and monitor high-volume voice network traffic for robocall patterns; (iv) investigate suspicious calls and calling patterns and take appropriate action; (v) confirm identities of new commercial customers; (vi) require traceback cooperation in new and renegotiated contracts; (vii) provide for timely and comprehensive law enforcement efforts through cooperation in traceback investigations; and (viii) communicate with state attorneys general about recognized robocall scams and trends and potential solutions. AG Stein noted that the principles will also “make it easier for attorneys general to investigate and prosecute bad actors.”
On August 21, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon upheld a $925 million jury verdict against a direct sales company in a TCPA class action lawsuit, denying the company’s motion to decertify the class. According to the opinion, the named plaintiff brought the 2015 class action lawsuit alleging the company violated the TCPA by calling consumers using an artificial or prerecorded voice without their consent. In April 2019, a jury concluded that a total of 1,850,436 calls were made using an artificial or prerecorded voice to either cell phones or landlines. However, in June 2019, the FCC granted a request made by the company in September 2017 for a retroactive waiver of the agency’s 2012 new written consent requirements for telemarketing robocalls, but only as it applied to “calls for which the petitioner had obtained some form of written consent.” Based on the newly-obtained waiver from the FCC, the company moved to decertify the class arguing that, among other things, (i) the named plaintiff lacked standing, and (ii) consent is now an individualized issue that “predominates” over the class issues. The court rejected these arguments, concluding that the company waived the affirmative defense of consent by not raising the defense earlier in the litigation when it knew its FCC waiver was pending. Specifically, the court reasoned that the failure to raise the issue “given the likelihood that the FCC would grant its waiver petition was unreasonable.” The court also rejected the company’s predominance arguments, concluding that whether the calls were made to a landline or cellphone is irrelevant as TCPA liability “attaches to any call made [to] either” type. The court concluded that class certification was proper, upholding the jury’s verdict.
On August 1, the FCC announced the adoption of new rules that will extend the Truth in Caller ID’s prohibitions against robocalls to caller ID spoofing of text messages and international calls, and implement measures passed last year in the RAY BAUM’s Act. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the rules are supported by a bipartisan group of more than 40 state attorneys general, and will allow the FCC to bring enforcement actions and assess fines on international players who try to defraud U.S. residents. However, while Commissioner Michael O’Rielly voted in favor of the measure, he raised concerns that the FCC may encounter problems when trying to enforce the rules across international borders. “As I expressed before, the expanded extraterritorial jurisdiction may prove difficult to execute in uncooperative nations and come back to bite us in other contexts,” O’Rielly stated. “In addition, the definitions of text messaging and voice services are broader than my liking and may cause future unintended consequences.” However, his statement did not specify what these unintended consequences might be.
On July 8, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai proposed rules supported by a bipartisan group of more than 40 state attorneys general that would extend prohibitions against robocalls to caller ID spoofing of text messages and international calls, implementing measures passed last year in the RAY BAUM’s Act. Previously, anti-spoofing prohibitions applied only to domestic robocalls. According to Pai, “Scammers often robocall us from overseas, and when they do, they typically spoof their numbers to try and trick consumers. . . . With these new rules, we’ll close the loopholes that hamstring law enforcement when they try to pursue international scammers and scammers using text messaging.” The FCC will vote on the proposed rules at its August 1 meeting.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FCC authorized voice service providers last month to automatically identify and 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.”
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.
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