Ajit Pai: It's open season on robocallers

Ajit Pai feels your pain, people. Even the most laissez-faire of conservatives likely have secret fantasies about imprisoning those responsible for penetrating our telecom defenses with pre-recorded pitches for credit cards and other services. The innovation of this industry has overwhelmed the screening technology designed to block it, as well as scams that target the elderly.

The FCC chair promised to ride to our rescue earlier today with new rules that will allow telecoms to massively block robocalls by default:

The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday proposed granting AT&T, Verizon and other telecom carriers clearer powers to block suspected spam calls from ringing consumers’ phones, a move that comes a month after robocallers dialed Americans nearly 5 billion times, according to one industry estimate.

The idea put forward by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai — and pending approval from the agency’s commissioners — encourages carriers to enable their anti-robocall technology by default, as opposed to waiting for consumers to turn on those features themselves.

Currently, consumers often must elect to use carriers’ robocall-blocking tools, some of them costing a monthly fee, which means “fewer people are using these services,” Pai said. While the chairman said the agency is going to “encourage companies to offer this for free,” the FCC’s forthcoming directive does not require them to do so.

The FCC said the order still could help telecom carriers and their customers battle back against robocall fraudsters that use a tactic known as spoofing, which makes it appear as if they’re calling from a legitimate number that’s similar to the one they’re trying to target.

This might make for a good start, but will it do much to stem the tide of robocalls? Comcast makes Nomorobo available for free to its local-phone service customers, and it appears to do a decent job in reducing robocalls. It doesn’t stop them altogether, though, and more of them seem to be leaking through recently. My T-Mobile service offers a free version of Robokiller, which really does have telemarketer annoyance messages on it that theoretically can wreak revenge on the unfortunate soul who makes the call. However, now I have to make sure that I load people in my contact list who might call me later at some point, or otherwise the phone will never ring.

(Oh, who am I kidding? The phone never rings anyway.)

That’s a perhaps unavoidable problem with the approach taken by Pai’s proposal. It might improve matters, but it appears to shift the burden to the subscribers. The change would make that burden shift automatic, which might catch customers by surprise and unwittingly cut off their legitimate incoming phone calls until they update their contact lists.

One would hope that the FCC would demand that telecoms improve their infrastructure to prevent placement of robocalls in the first place. Fortunately, Pai’s proposal moves the FCC in that direction:

Pai also proposed seeking public comment on how caller ID authentication standards, otherwise known as SHAKEN/STIR, could inform call blocking. The SHAKEN/STIR framework would validate where calls originate and where they claim to be coming from, and would allow for faster tracing of illegal calls to find out who’s responsible for them. …

The number of unwanted robocalls skyrocketed 46% from 2017 to 2018. A January report from Hiya, a caller ID service, said there were 26.3 billion robocalls made in the US in 2018. The number breaks down to an average of 10 monthly calls per person.

If that seems low to you, it’s because it’s not calculated by household. Recalculated for 127 million households, it comes to 17 calls a month on average, or almost one for every weekday in a month. That’s enough of a problem on regulated utilities that it calls for some government prodding to demand that providers address it. One cheer for Ajit Pai and the FCC for their stopgap measure, but hold off on the other two cheers until they get the telecoms to fix their systems to end this scourge altogether.