The FCC recently announced a public comment period for a new Petition for Declaratory Ruling that seeks to have the FCC “clarify that delivery of a voice message directly to a voicemail box through ringless voicemail (RVM) technology does not constitute a ‘call’” subject to TCPA prohibitions. The Petition was filed by the U.S. Senate campaign for David Perdue – Perdue for Senate, Inc. (Perdue) stemming from litigation in Georgia related to primary election delivery of RVMs to voters. Interested parties have until October 4, 2021, to submit comments and until October 19, 2021, to submit reply comments.
After adopting orders reflecting the majority of implementation deadlines set by the TRACED Act and the Supreme Court’s highly anticipated TCPA decision interpreting the statutory definition of automatic telephone dialing system in the first half of 2021, all eyes are on what the FCC has planned. Midsummer seems like a good time for a year-to-date review to track where the FCC has been and where it is headed next in its TCPA oversight and enforcement roles.
STIR/SHAKEN Call Authentication Framework
Last week, the FCC adopted its January 2021 proposal and issued a Report and Order establishing what the FCC describes as “a fair and consistent process” that a voice service provider can use to challenge a decision by the STIR/SHAKEN framework Governance Authority to strip that provider of the “digital token” that authenticates calls on that provider’s Internet-Protocol (IP) networks.
The TRACED Act’s December 30, 2020 deadline was not the end of the FCC’s recent series of actions to bring more clarity to certain forms of TCPA exemptions. Most recently, on January 15, 2021, the FCC issued a Declaratory Ruling “clarify[ing] that a call to a residential telephone line seeking an individual’s participation in a clinical pharmaceutical trial is not subject to the TCPA’s restrictions on prerecorded calls.” Instead, the FCC stated that these calls are eligible for exemption from the TCPA’s prior express written consent requirement as other calls to a residence that do not constitute telemarketing.
Some welcome the New Year with new goals and new plans while others – the FCC, in particular, welcomes the New Year by wrapping up TCPA rulemakings and issuing other rulings. As expected, a number of TRACED Act items were included in orders issued in late December 2020. As we previewed, the FCC amended nine existing TCPA exemptions, imposing additional restrictions on pre-recorded/artificial voice calls placed to residential lines even for informational calling, and adopted new redress requirements on and safe harbor protections for carriers engaging in network-based call blocking. The FCC also denied two petitions for declaratory rulings, clarifying that “soundboard callers use a prerecorded voice to deliver a message” and that as a result, these calls made using soundboards are subject to TCPA restrictions. In light of these changes, we encourage business callers to carefully assess how they affect any existing calling protocols and compliance practices.
The FCC in 2016 determined that the federal government was not a “person” subject to the TCPA, and that by extension, federal contractors working within the scope of their delegated authority were also not bound by TCPA restrictions. This Broadnet Declaratory Ruling was the subject of at least one prominent dissent. At the time, then-Commissioner Ajit Pai observed: “[I]t is odd to suggest that a contractor’s status as a ‘person’ could switch on or off depending on one’s behavior or relationship with the federal government.” The National Consumer Law Center and Professional Services Council both filed petitions for reconsideration and this issue was again joined on December 14, 2020, when the FCC issued a Reconsideration Order stating that government contractors – but not federal or state governments themselves – “must obtain prior express consent to call consumers” when making calls on behalf of the government.
Over the years, one of the biggest challenges many businesses face when assessing TCPA risks posed by a new calling or texting campaign has been determining whether the proposed use case can defensibly rely on one of the exemptions adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). That is because the FCC has repeatedly cautioned that any exemptions it adopts apply only to the specific set of facts considered by the agency. Sometimes the jigsaw puzzle pieces align, but other times they do not perfectly fit together, making exemptions less useful than they might otherwise be.
As we previewed recently, the FCC adopted a set of rule amendments through a Third Report and Order for its “call blocking by default” framework on July 16, 2020. These rules focus on two safe harbors potentially shielding voice service providers from liability when they block calls that fail the SHAKEN/STIR authentication framework or that originate from “bad-actor upstream voice service providers.” These rules also generally provide for protection of “critical calls,” and condition safe harbors on having a no-cost, streamlined solution designed to remedy blocking errors, without defining what constitutes an “error.”
The rules as adopted had few substantive changes from the draft version that was released prior to the FCC’s July 2020 Open Meeting. First, the FCC added a clarification that the safe harbor that allows voice service providers to block calls based on “bad-actor upstream voice service providers” is not intended to “affect the private contractual rights a downstream provider has to block or refuse to accept calls pursuant to its agreements with wholesale customers.” This clarification suggests that the FCC does not intend this safe harbor to be the only permissible provider-based blocking under the FCC’s rules. For example, the FCC has long recognized that consumer consent or opt-in could be a valid basis for call blocking.
Another court decision reminds us that conclusory allegations that an agency relationship exists should not be sufficient to impute TCPA liability on the alleged beneficiary of a messaging campaign. Pleadings that lack plausible allegations showing “some degree of control over who sent the text and the manner and means by which it was sent” can lead to dismissal – with prejudice, if the plaintiff has run out of a reasonable number of opportunities to amend.
The FCC recently reported a decrease of approximately 60% of consumer robocall complaints and a drop of approximately 30% in volume of “unwanted robocalls” that were placed in the first half of 2020 as compared to the first half of 2019. Considering that the FCC adopted the first-of-its-kind “call blocking by default” framework in June 2019, some might wonder: Does this mean the FCC’s “call blocking by default” framework has been successful?
While the FCC cited to voice service providers reporting that they have so far only discovered less than 1% of – or as few as 0.2% of – blocked calls to be false positives, the seemingly low percentage still means that millions of lawful and wanted calls have been erroneously blocked. For example, Hiya reported that it has blocked nearly 800 million calls in 2019, which could mean that 0.2% of which – 1.6 million calls – had been blocked in error in that year. Likewise, Nomorobo blocked over 512 million robocalls in 2019; its blocking platform may have affected the delivery of 1.024 million lawful calls in that year.
The FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau last week issued a declaratory ruling resolving a long-pending Petition on the question of whether certain healthcare-related calls, given their significance and value for consumers, should be entirely exempted from the TCPA’s prior express consent requirement, or at least exempted as long as consumers are allowed to opt out of the calls. The Bureau declined the petitioner’s invitation to create new healthcare exemptions or expand the scope of exemptions already in place for certain types of health-care-related calls.