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FCC allows phone companies to block unwanted calls by default
by Mike Snider - USA TODAY - Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Federal Communications Commission is stepping up the war on robocalls.

A new ruling passed by the FCC on Thursday lets phone companies block robocalls before they get to your home phone or mobile device. 

Some landline and cellular providers currently offer call blocking tools, but phone subscribers must opt-in to use them. The FCC's rule lets service providers block calls as a default.

"If there is one thing in our country today that unites Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, socialists and libertarians, vegetarians and carnivores, Ohio State and Michigan fans, it is that they are sick and tired of being bombarded by unwanted robocalls," said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai during the commission's monthly meeting prior to the 5-0 vote to approve the rule. "My message to the American people today is simple: We hear you, and we are on your side."

The FCC's action comes amid increased federal attention to robocalls. More than 20 U.S. senators have called on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to reconsider a proposal that could exponentially increase robocalls. The bureau, in an update to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, would allow debt collectors to send unlimited texts and emails to consumers, as well as call them seven times a week per debt.

Last month, the Senate passed the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act, which would make robocalls illegal and require phone companies to adopt new, in-development anti-robocall technologies called SHAKEN (Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs) and STIR (Secure Telephone Identity Revisited) that could help stop unwanted calls. 

The number of robocalls in the U.S. has fallen slightly since hitting a record 5.23 billion estimated calls in March, according to YouMail, a company that provides a service to block such messages. The estimated 4.7 billion robocalls in May amounted to about 152.9 million each day, YouMail says.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel expressed some concern that the FCC rules do not prohibit phone companies from charging subscribers for the robocall blocking features. "I am disappointed that for all of our efforts to support new blocking technology, we couldn’t muster up the courage to do what consumers want most: Stop robocalls and do it for free," she said.

The FCC should monitor whether providers charge for call blocking features and update the rules if they do so, said Commissioner Geoffrey Starks. He has added a stipulation to the ruling that if carriers do charge consumers for the features, new provisions can prohibit those charges, he said.

The regulations allow for legitimate callers to register a complaint if they feel robocall technologies have unfairly blocked their calls, Pai said. He expects phone companies should be able to have the features operational by the end of the year.