Fed­eral reg­u­la­tors OK new robo­call pro­tec­tions

Repub­li­cans on FCC say the rules would make out­reach harder for busi­nesses.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS BEAT - By Jim Puz­zanghera jim.puz­zanghera @latimes.com Times staff writer Colin Diers­ing con­trib­uted to this re­port.

WASHINGTON — Fed­eral reg­u­la­tors ap­proved new pro­tec­tions for con­sumers against un­wanted phone calls and text mes­sages, crack­ing down on a grow­ing num­ber of au­to­mat­i­cally di­aled robo­calls that have led to a flood of com­plaints.

“I de­test robo­calls. I’m not alone,” said Jes­sica Rosen­wor­cel, one of three Democrats on the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion who ap­proved the mea­sure Thurs­day over Repub­li­can ob­jec­tions.

“It’s time — long past time — to do some­thing about this,” she said.

The two Repub­li­can com­mis­sion­ers, Michael O’Reilly and Ajit Pai, agreed that robo­calls were an­noy­ing.

But they said the new rules would make it more dif­fi­cult for busi­nesses to pro­vide ser­vices and in­for­ma­tion to their cus­tomers and could lead to an in­crease in class-ac­tion law­suits un­der the 1991 Tele­phone Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion Act.

FCC Chair­man Tom Wheeler said tele­mar­keters have used new tech­nol­ogy to get around re­stric­tions in the law.

The agency re­ceived about 215,000 con­sumer com­plaints last year about robo­calls, more than on any other is­sue.

“There’s a sim­ple con­cept in the statute that we em­brace to­day: You can­not be called un­less you con­sent to be called. The con­sumer should be in con­trol,” he said.

Un­der the new reg­u­la­tions, con­sumers can stop robo­calls by sim­ply telling the caller “in any rea­son­able way, at any time” to stop call­ing. Com­pa­nies of­ten have re­quired writ­ten no­ti­fi­ca­tion to stop calls.

Com­pa­nies that use au­to­matic di­al­ing tech­nol­ogy also would have to stop call­ing a num­ber that has been re­as­signed af­ter mak­ing just one call.

And the FCC made clear that phone com­pa­nies can of­fer block­ing tech­nol­ogy to their cus­tomers with­out vi­o­lat­ing rules about de­liv­er­ing calls.

But busi­ness groups, such as the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, have com­plained that the new robo­call reg­u­la­tions will make it tougher for com­pa­nies to con­tact their cus­tomers.

O’Reilly and Pai noted that 37 mil­lion phone num­bers are re­as­signed each year, and there is no re­li­able data­base of those changes.

“So even the most wellinten­tioned and well-in­formed busi­ness will some- times call a num­ber that’s been re­as­signed to a new per­son,” Pai said. Those busi­nesses could be sub­ject to law­suits if they con­tinue to call, even if the per­son doesn’t an­swer or no­tify them that the num­ber has been re­as­signed, he said.

One busi­ness that could be up­ended is opin­ion polling. The new reg­u­la­tions could force poll­sters to adopt new, more ex­pen­sive meth­ods in con­duct­ing public opin­ion sur­veys.

“It’s re­ally go­ing to be a hor­ri­ble thing po­ten­tially for the re­search pro­fes­sion and po­ten­tially for so­ci­ety,” said Howard Fien­berg, di­rec­tor of gov­ern­ment af­fairs for the Mar­ket­ing Re­search Assn.

Poll­sters ar­gue their work is cru­cial to el­e­vat­ing the voice of peo­ple who would not oth­er­wise have easy ac­cess to elected of­fi­cials. And in­creased costs would cur­tail sur­veys and leave pol­i­cy­mak­ers un­der­stand­ing less about what Amer­i­cans think and what they say they need.

Rosen­wor­cel joined O’Reilly and Pai in crit­i­ciz­ing an ex­cep­tion in the new rules for robo­calls or texts from fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions and healthcare providers who could, for ex­am­ple, alert con­sumers about pos­si­ble fraud to their bank ac­counts or re­mind them to re­fill pre­scrip­tions.

The FCC also voted 3 to 2 to start for­mally con­sid­er­ing an ex­pan­sion of the Life­line pro­gram, which pro­vides sub­si­dized phone ser­vice for low-in­come house­holds, to cover high-speed In­ter­net con­nec­tions as well.

Paid for by a fee on con- sumers’ monthly phone bills, the pro­gram has been strongly crit­i­cized by Repub­li­cans as waste­ful and in need of re­form.

The FCC took steps in 2012 to rein in the pro­gram. Its $1.7-bil­lion cost last year was down from $2.2 bil­lion in 2012, and par­tic­i­pants were re­duced to 12 mil­lion from 18 mil­lion.

Demo­cratic com­mis­sion­ers said more low-in­come house­holds needed ac­cess to broad­band. But Repub­li­cans said the pro­gram should not be ex­panded un­til more is done to re­duce waste, fraud and abuse and un­til its bud­get is capped.

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