Why tech giants are ganging up on robocalls

The FCC is calling for an industry 'strike force' to tackle the rise of the robocalls. The 33 companies set an Oct. 19 deadline to produce solutions. 

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
FCC chair Tom Wheeler, center, joins hands with FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn (l.) and Jessica Rosenworcel before the start of a February hearing. On Friday, the FCC oversaw the creation of an industry 'strike force' to tackle the rise of the robocalls.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) convened a meeting in Washington on Friday, where all the biggest names in telecommunications gathered to talk about stopping unwanted messages.

Laws against persistent "robocalls" date back to 1991 but in light of their dramatic increase, the FCC has gathered the industry's leading players to fight back.

Enter the Robocall Strike Force.

Friday's gathering was an unprecedented sign that 33 companies, including Google, Apple, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Microsoft, can combine forces against robocalls, a collaborative model that may ultimately yield solutions for other problems. 

The meeting comes amid an uptick in robocalls that has run parallel to the explosion of communications technology.

The Federal Trade Commission received 3.5 million complaints about robocalls in 2015, nearly half from consumers who had already asked to join a "do not call" list, according to the Consumers Union, the activist division of Consumer Reports. Complaints about rising robocalls violating the Do Not Call registry doubled between 2010 and 2015.  

AT&T chief executive officer Randall Stephenson, who chairs the taskforce, emphasized the need to create new anti-robocall standards, find technical solutions to enforce them, and evaluate the logistics of a "Do Not Originate" list to protect certain government or bank phone numbers. 

“We have to come out of this with a comprehensive playbook for all of us to go execute,” said Mr. Stephenson. “We have calls that are perfectly legal, but unwanted, like telemarketers and public opinion surveyors. At the other end of the spectrum, we have millions of calls that are blatantly illegal.”

This explains only in part the warlike language of the fight against automated telemarketing. Perhaps it is, as the Android Authority suggests, "tongue-in-cheek;" perhaps someone at the FCC has been watching "The Avengers."

"The bad guys are beating the good guys with technology,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, “due in large part to industry inaction.”

The meeting was bipartisan, including speeches from both Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai and Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, according to Politico, and the whole effort suggested that the "good guys" were ready to put aside differences over net neutrality, operating system, and the like to free consumers from what Mr. Pai called a "scourge on civilization." 

“The commission has a long history of prohibiting abusive or anticompetitive use of call-blocking technology, but consumers want real relief, and I am optimistic that beginning with today’s conversation, we will be able to deliver to consumers the change they are clamoring for,” Ms. Clyburn said.

The Consumers Union counted the meeting a partial victory already, having petitioned AT&T, CenturyLink, and Verizon to release anti-robocall technology last year. 

“The plan unveiled by the Strike Force today represents an important initial victory for consumers and a sign that the phone companies are taking more serious steps to protect their customers from unwanted calls," said Tim Marvin, manager of Consumers Union’s End Robocalls campaign, in a press release. "We’ll be monitoring the work of the Strike Force closely in the next 60 days to make sure they deliver on these promises.”

The meeting yielded an Oct. 19 deadline for companies to develop solutions and policy recommendations for the robocall problem.

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