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On October 27, the FCC voted 3-2 to adopt an Order on Remand in response to a 2019 decision issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (covered by InfoBytes here). The D.C. Circuit’s decision mostly ratified the Commission’s 2017 Restoring Internet Freedom Order that reversed the net neutrality rules barring internet service providers from slowing down or speeding up web traffic based on business relationships, however it remanded three “discrete issues” for the FCC’s further consideration, including how the reversal of the net neutrality rules could affect public safety issues. A Fact Sheet accompanying the Order on Remand stated that the FCC found “no basis to alter” its conclusions in the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, noting that, among other things, “[n]either the Commission’s decision to return broadband Internet access service to its longstanding classification as an information service, nor its decision to eliminate the Internet conduct rules, is likely to adversely impact public safety.”
On October 1, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), seeking comment on exemptions already granted under the TCPA allowing certain entities and types of calls to be made using an automatic telephone dialing system. The FCC is required by Section 8 of The Pallone-Thune Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (TRACED Act) to ensure that any exemption granted under the TCPA “includes requirements with respect to: (i) the classes of parties that may make such calls; (ii) the classes of parties that may be called; and (iii) the number of such calls that may be made to a particular called party.” Section 8 of the TRACED Act requires the FCC to prescribe new regulations or amend existing regulations with regard to the TCPA exemptions no later than December 30, 2020. The FCC is seeking comment on the current nine exemptions, which include, among other things, financial-institution calls to a wireless number. The FCC notes that the current conditions under the financial institution exemption “appear to satisfy section 8 of the TRACED Act” because there are limitations on the class of calling parties, the class of called parties, and the number of calls (no more than three calls per event over a three-day period for each affected account).
Additionally, the FCC seeks comment on the exemption allowing commercial calls to residences that do not constitute telemarketing. The FCC notes that the current exemption does not appear to satisfy Section 8’s requirements, as there is not enough specificity of the class of party that makes the calls, nor is there a limit on the number of calls that can be made. The FCC proposes to alter this exemption into two types of classes of parties: informational and transactional callers and seeks comment on whether to limit the number of calls that can be made under this exemption.
Comments will be due 15 days after publication in the Federal Register.
On July 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs in a TCPA action, holding that a device used by a student loan servicer that only dials from a stored list of numbers qualifies as an automatic telephone dialing system (“autodialer”). According to the opinion, a borrower and co-signer sued the student loan servicer alleging the servicer violated the TCPA by using an autodialer to place calls to their cell phones without consent. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded over $176,000 in damages. On appeal, the servicer argued that the equipment used did not qualify as an autodialer under the TCPA’s definition, because the calls are placed from a stored list of numbers and are not “randomly or sequentially” generated. The 6th Circuit rejected this argument, joining the 2nd and 9th Circuits, holding that under the TCPA, an autodialer is defined as “equipment which has the capacity—(A) to store [telephone numbers to be called]; or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator; and (B) to dial such numbers.” This decision is in conflict with holdings by the 3rd, 7th, and 11th Circuits, which have held that autodialers require the use of randomly or sequentially generated phone numbers, consistent with the D.C. Circuit’s holding that struck down the FCC’s definition of an autodialer in ACA International v. FCC (covered by a Buckley Special Alert).
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to address the definition of an autodialer under the TCPA, which will resolve the split among the circuits.
On July 16, the FCC issued an order adopting rules to further encourage phone companies to block illegal and unwanted robocalls and to continue the Commission’s implementation of the TRACED Act (covered by InfoBytes here). The rule establishes two safe harbors from liability for the unintended or inadvertent blocking of wanted calls: (i) voice service providers will not be held liable under the Communications Act and FCC rules on terminating voice service providers that block calls, provided “reasonable analytics,” such as caller ID authentication information, are used to identify and block illegal or unwanted calls; and (ii) voice service providers will not be held liable for blocking calls from “bad-actor upstream voice service providers that continue to allow unwanted calls to traverse their networks.” The FCC’s order also includes a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comments on, among other things, “whether to obligate originating and intermediate providers to better police their networks against illegal calls,” whether the “reasonable analytics” safe harbor should be expanded “to include network-based blocking without consumer opt-out,” and whether the Commission should adopt more extensive redress requirements, and require terminating providers to provide consumers information about blocked calls.
On July 6, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants Inc. that the TCPA’s government-debt exception is an unconstitutional content-based speech restriction and severed the provision from the remainder of the statute. As previously covered by InfoBytes, several political consultant groups (plaintiffs) argued that the TCPA’s 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, which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated, concluding the exemption violated the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause.
In a plurality opinion, the Supreme Court agreed with the 4th Circuit. The Court noted that “a law is content-based if ‘a regulation of speech ‘on its face’ draws distinctions based on the message a speaker conveys’”; and a law that allows for robocalls asking for payment of government debt but does not allow robocalls for political donations, “is about as content-based as it gets.” The Court agreed with the government that the content-based restriction failed to satisfy strict scrutiny, as the government could not sufficiently justify the difference “between government-debt collection speech and other categories of robocall speech.” As for remedy, the Court applied “traditional severability principles,” with seven Justices concluding that the entire TCPA should not be invalidated but that the government-debt exception should be severed from the statute. The Court noted that its cases have “developed a strong presumption of severability,” and its “power and preference to partially invalidate a statute in that fashion has been firmly established since Marbury v. Madison.” Moreover, because the government-debt exception is “relatively narrow exception” to the TCPA’s broad robocall restriction, the Court concluded that severing the exception would “not raise any other constitutional problems.”
On June 25, the FCC narrowed the Commission’s definition of an “autodialer,” providing that “if a calling platform is not capable of originating a call or sending a text without a person actively and affirmatively manually dialing each one, that platform is not an autodialer and calls or texts made using it are not subject to the TCPA’s restrictions on calls and texts to wireless phones.” The FCC reiterated that only sequential number generators or other systems that can store or produce numbers to be called or texted at random are the only technologies considered to be autodialers. The FCC further noted that whether a system can make a large number of calls in a short period of time does not factor into whether the system is considered an autodialer, and that message senders may avoid TCPA liability by obtaining prior express consent from recipients. The FCC issued the ruling in response to an alliance’s 2018 petition, which asked the FCC to clarify whether the definition of an autodialer applied to peer-to-peer messaging (P2P) platforms that, among other things, allow organizations to text a large number of individuals and require a person to manually send each text message one at a time. The FCC declined to rule on whether any particular P2P text platform is an autodialer due to the lack of sufficient factual basis.
The FCC issued a separate declaratory ruling the same day reiterating that the TCPA requires autodialer or robocall senders to obtain prior express consent before making any texts or robocalls, stressing that the “mere existence of a caller-consumer relationship does not satisfy the prior-express-consent requirement for calls to wireless numbers, nor does it create an exception to this requirement.” The ruling was issued in response to a health benefit company’s 2015 petition, which asked the FCC to exempt health plans and providers, as well as certain non-emergency, urgent health care-related calls, from the prior consent requirement as long as the company permitted consumers to opt out after the fact.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, several appellate courts have issued conflicting decisions with respect to the definition of an autodialer.
On June 4, 52 state attorneys general, through the National Association of Attorneys General, submitted reply comments to the FCC in support of an April final rule, which amends and adopts its rules in accordance with Section 13(d) of the Pallone–Thune Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (TRACED Act) to create a single registered consortium that serves as a neutral third party to manage the private-led efforts to trace back the origin of unlawful robocalls. In the letter, the attorneys general emphasized the importance of traceback efforts to assist law enforcement in identifying and investigating illegal robocallers more efficiently. Moreover, the attorneys general note that traceback investigations help “shed light” on other actors in the “telecommunication ecosystem” that may support robocall scammers. Similarly, in May, the attorneys general, also through the National Association of Attorneys General, published a letter to industry groups asserting their intention to intensify enforcement efforts against illegal robocallers, and urged the US Telecom and the Industry Traceback Group to expand capabilities related to tracebacks in anticipation of growth in the need for data analysis and the number of civil investigative demands and subpoenas that will be issued directly to the Industry Traceback Group (covered by InfoBytes here).
On May 20, the FTC and the FCC sent letters to three more Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service providers, warning the companies to stop routing and transmitting robocall campaigns promoting Covid-19 related scams. According to the FTC, two of the companies are routing coronavirus-related fraud robocalls originating overseas. In April, the agencies sent an initial round of letters to three VoIP service providers for similar issues (covered by InfoBytes here). As in April, the letters warn the companies that they have been identified as “routing and transmitting illegal robocalls, including Coronavirus-related scam calls” and must cease the behavior or they will be subject to enforcement action. Additionally, the agencies sent a separate letter to a telecommunications trade association thanking the group for its assistance in identifying the campaigns and relaying a warning that the FCC will authorize U.S. providers to begin blocking calls from the three companies if they do not comply with the agencies’ request within 48 hours after the release of the letter.
On May 1, the FCC issued an order announcing the Commission will no longer send entities outside its jurisdiction warnings prior to commencing an enforcement action related to TCPA robocall violations. Specifically, the order, as mandated under Section 3 of the TRACED Act (covered by InfoBytes here), (i) removes provisions that previously required the FCC to issue a warning prior to imposing penalties for making robocalls; (ii) increases the maximum fine that the FCC can assess for robocall violations to $10,000 per intentional unlawful call, in addition to a forfeiture penalty amount; and (iii) extends the statute of limitations to four years for the FCC to investigate and take enforcement action against an entity that violates the TCPA. The order takes effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.
On April 27, the CFPB sent a letter to the FCC in support of a petition filed at the end of March by several financial trade associations, which seeks an expedited ruling to allow financial institutions to make certain automated calls concerning Covid-19 relief options without violating the TCPA. The CFPB specifically encouraged the FCC to allow a limited number of automated Covid-19-related calls from financial institutions that would alert customers of offers of forbearance, payment deferrals, fee waivers, extensions or relaxations of repayment terms, loan modifications, and other resources related to loans secured by homes or vehicles. “Allowing financial institutions to make automated calls is one more way to maximize the outreach to ensure consumers receive important and timely information,” CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger noted, cautioning, however, that financial institutions must still comply with other legal requirements with respect to their communications with customers, including the Bureau’s mortgage servicing rules and Dodd-Frank’s prohibition on unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices.
- Hank Asbill to discuss "The federal fraud sentencing guidelines: It's time to stop the madness" at a New York Criminal Bar Association webinar
- Daniel P Stipano to moderate "Digital identity: The next gen of CIP" at the American Bankers Association/American Bar Association Financial Crimes Enforcement Conference