Good news, humans: You may soon be able to pick up your phones again with far less fear of finding a robot on the line. Lawmakers and the Federal Communications Commission have been moving for months toward crafting a regime that would save Americans from the scourge of 60 billion to 70 billion spam calls annually, but the measures so far have solved only parts of the problem. Thankfully, an ambitious bipartisan bill in the House, introduced by Reps. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., and Greg Walden, R-Ore., passed subcommittee last month.
The robocall epidemic starts with spoofers, fraudulent callers whose technological trickery allows them to simulate existing numbers that are not their own – perhaps the local police department, or just a neighbor with a matching area code. Carriers have been promising under pressure from the FCC to adopt an authentication tool to root out those actors, and the Senate passed a law almost unanimously last month to force them to get into gear. The House bill would also require carriers to act, but crucially it mandates that they provide the services, along with any call-blocking enabled by default, free of charge.
Those blocking services could help not only with spoof calls but also with all of the unwanted ringing that comes from legitimate businesses that nonetheless do not have consumers' consent to contact them en masse. Pallone and Walden's bill would address that issue by forcing the FCC to come up with updated definitions of auto-dialers and prerecorded calls. The task is to craft a rule that does not accidentally loop in all people who call contacts with one tap on their smartphones but that also prevents bad actors from circumventing the law by tweaking the system they use to flood the country with calls.
The bill, like its Senate counterpart, would also give the FCC a wider window to catch illegal callers, as well as the authority to fine illegal robocallers on the first offense. Amendments added in subcommittee make the legislation more comprehensive still by, among other things, calling on the FCC to track industry-led efforts to trace illegal calls to their origin and creating a working group to study enforcement.
A future that is entirely free of illegal robocalls may be a fantasy. Even under the House bill, blocking services are allowed but not required, in part because calls coming from rural areas with copper-wire networks may be harder to authenticate. Fraudsters who currently spoof numbers may also simply adopt a new technique when authentication gets in their way – requiring enforcers to rethink their strategy all over again. Still, robocallers have been attacking Americans on all fronts, and it is time to fight back on all fronts, too. The House's legislation finally puts the troops in position.