Government And Industry Get Together At FCC Workshop To Figure Out How To Kill Robocalls Already

Robocalls suck. They have continued to suck for a very long time. Everyone hates them. The FCC has been trying to make them go away for many months now, and to that end they held a workshop today in Washington, DC bringing together regulators, consumer advocates, and industry executives to talk about what everyone can do to make these lousy, often-fraudulent annoyances go away.

There were two overriding themes across all the panels and panelists. One: the scope of this problem is enormous. And two: solving it is going to take a lot of incremental change from a lot of different stakeholders.

The Problem
It can be easy to dismiss robocalls as “not that important,” or “not that big a deal.” But even as the era of landlines fades, the problem of unwanted scam, spam, and spoof calls keeps growing, and there are genuine consumer harms that go along with.

Early in the day, representatives from the FTC and FCC explained why robocalls are such a high priority for their offices. The FTC gets 300,000 complaints about robocalls every month, an agency member said. Do a little math, and that’s 3.6 million complaints every year. The FCC received an additional 215,000 robocall complaints in 2014.

What’s more, those numbers are likely just a fraction of the overall whole. After all, how many people do you know that actually go seek out a government regulatory agency and complain to it when they’re annoyed about something? Most of us just hang up and turn the phone’s ringer off.

Once upon a time, constant calls did indeed mostly come from telemarketers and businesses, but these days that’s much less so the case. Thanks to changes in legislation and the advent of the Do Not Call list in 2003, legitimate-but-annoying calls are a much smaller fraction of the problem. The majority are scams, and those have lasting harm — especially when scammers target vulnerable populations, like the elderly. Consumers are on the hook for an estimated $350 million in lost money every year.

So: it’s a real problem. Why isn’t it fixed?

No One-Size-Fits-All Answers
The “industry,” when it comes to voice communications, is actually a whole bunch of different industries. There are traditional copper wireline phone companies, VoIP companies, cable companies selling VoIP services, wireless companies, and then there are also the backbone businesses that connect those retail-level entities to consumers. In short, it’s complicated.

Every type of telephony operates under slightly different technical and regulatory limitations. And none of them want to interfere with legitimate, non-fraudulent telemarketing businesses that are out to make a buck.

The inventor of NoMoRobo, which works very well at blocking unwanted calls on VoIP lines, pointed out that the technical details don’t matter to consumers. “I usually don’t go into those details,” he explained when pressed for technical explanations, “because consumers just. don’t. care. how these things work. It is our job to make the complicated stuff work. I’ll put on my consumer hat right now: I talk to consumers every single day, they just — all they want is for the calls to stop.”

There are technical challenges, however. With the ways in which VoIP calling allows call spoofing, it can be very difficult for blacklists to be effective. And businesses like AT&T aren’t in favor of whitelisting for the vast majority of consumers, since it would prohibit a significant number of legitimate calls from reaching their intended destinations.

The founder of Call Control, an Android whitelisting app, suggested that in the future, perhaps even more data could be brought to bear. What if instead of creating whitelists based on who you want to call you, he mused, data mining and machine learning could recognize what people were in your social networks and bump them to the top of the priority list?

A wide number of speakers across all panels agreed that as it stands, the tools exist to mitigate probably 70% – 80% of the problem right now. The FCC recently moved to let consumers use more of those tools, so hopefully they will help.

Video of the day-long workshop will be up soon on the FCC’s site.

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