Safe Harbors and Erroneous Blocking Redress Measures Adopted by the FCC; Additional Rulemaking Proposed

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.

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Alleged Oversight and Monitoring of a Messaging Campaign Deemed Inadequate to Establish Agency

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.

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Regulatory Updates: FCC to Vote on “Robocall” Measures to Mitigate Erroneous Blocking and to Advance Reassigned Numbers Database Rules to the Next Step

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.

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FCC Affirms that Health Plans and Providers Cannot Offer Post-Call Opt-Out in Lieu of “Prior Express Consent”

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.

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FCC Issues Ruling Applying TCPA’s “Emergency Purposes Exception” To Calls Addressing Health and Safety Risks Arising Out Of COVID-19 Pandemic

Acknowledging that “effective communications with the American public” is “a critical component” to efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released on its own motion, a declaratory ruling on March 20, 2020, addressing the applicability of the “emergency purposes” exception to the TCPA’s prohibition against making automated and prerecorded calls without prior express consent. This declaratory ruling is meant to provide “hospitals, health care providers, state and local health officials, and other government officials” peace of mind when sending important COVID-19 information through automated calls or texts.

As readers of the blog are well aware, the TCPA contains an exception to its consent requirements for calls made for “emergency purposes.” 47 U.S.C. §§ 227(b)(1)(A)-(B). The FCC’s rules define “emergency purposes” to mean “calls made necessary in any situation affecting the health and safety of consumers.” 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(f)(4). The FCC’s declaratory ruling officially acknowledges the undeniable point that the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes an “emergency” under the TCPA. Earlier this month, on March 13, 2020, the White House declared a national emergency in light of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. As of March 20, 2020, all fifty states and the District of Columbia had declared states of emergency, which have led to many cities closing schools, workplaces, parks, restaurants, and houses of worship. Public safety organizations and institutions providing healthcare services, in particular, are changing modes of operation and means of handling some public-facing tasks. For example, many health care clinics have broadened their telemedicine programs or have begun conducting new patient intake “virtually” to triage patients with flu-like symptoms. These changes need to be communicated to existing and prospective patients in a timely manner on a large scale.

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Draft Reassigned Numbers Database Technical Requirements Unveiled and Awaiting Comments

The long awaited draft technical requirements for the FCC’s reassigned numbers database was released today. At the time of the adoption of an order establishing this database in December 2018, the FCC tasked its North American Numbering Council (NANC) with studying several technical issues that are prerequisite to ensure the effectiveness of this database within a year. However, stating that the task was unexpectedly complex, the NANC sought two extensions of the deadline in June and in September 2019, using the additional time to formulate baseline technical requirements for the database.

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Million-Dollar Settlement of Billion-Dollar Claim Found Reasonable in Light of Due Process Problems Posed By Disproportionate Damages

Another court has observed that a billion-dollar aggregate liability under the TCPA likely would violate due process, adopting the Eighth Circuit’s reasoning that such a “shockingly large amount” of statutory damages would be “so severe and oppressive as to be wholly disproportionate[] to the offense and obviously unreasonable.”

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TRACED Act Creates New FCC Implementation Timelines

As predicted, amendments to the TCPA – in the form of the Pallone-Thune Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (the “TRACED Act”) – were signed into law by the President of the United States on December 30, 2019. The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) applauded this milestone on Twitter, commenting: “[T]he TRACED Act was signed into law, giving the FCC and law enforcement greater authority to go after scammers.” As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility: the enactment started the countdown for a long list of actions that the FCC is required to take during 2020 and beyond. This will add to the already active TCPA dockets at the FCC.

We share below the timeline for these actions to help our readers anticipate and prepare for the regulatory activities that will ensue. We summarized the content of these required FCC actions previously at this post.
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Legislation Looking Likely on a Number of TCPA “Hot-Button” Issues

Senate Bill 151, now called “the Pallone-Thune Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act” (the “TRACED Act”), has been reconciled with the House of Representatives’ bipartisan bill House Bill 3375 and was passed in the House on December 4, 2019. This revised amendment has been returned to the Senate for a final vote and is expected to become final legislation “if not this week, then next week,” according to the bill’s sponsor, Representative John Thune. Thus, the prospects for passage of TCPA legislation currently look quite positive.

As drafted, the legislation will kick off a number of activities by the FCC, and may, as a practical matter, require the agency to take prompt actions on long-awaited rulings on critical statutory definitions. We highlight below some of the most notable revisions in the TRACED Act made since July 2019.

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Court Finds That Some Soundboard Calls Can Qualify As “Prerecorded Voice” Calls, At Least When They Do Not “Interact With the Customer Except In Preprogrammed And Meaningless Ways”

As we previously discussed, the need for clarification as to the TCPA’s treatment of outbound calls made using soundboard technology (“soundboard calls”) is particularly manifest in light of two pending petitions before the FCC and the Supreme Court’s refusal to review the FTC’s decision to treat soundboard calls as robocalls subject to the Telemarketing Sales Rules. [See here and here].  Plaintiffs have sought to exploit the uncertainty; a spate of lawsuits contend that soundboard calls are prerecorded calls prohibited by the TCPA if made without prior consent.  Recently, the Western District of Oklahoma attempted to set a standard for the permissibility of these calls, but the decision may only engender more uncertainty. While professing that soundboard calls are not “categorically prohibited,” the court’s ruling fails to provide a roadmap for what types of soundboard calls would be permissible, beyond stating that a “soundboard call which did not interact with the customer except in preprogrammed not to mention meaningless ways” violated the TCPA.

Soundboard technology allows call center agents to interact with consumers on a real-time basis using a combination of audio clips and the agent’s own voice.  Because a live agent selects the audio clips to play based on the statements made by the called party, companies using or offering the technology have argued that these calls feature a degree of human interaction that means they should not be considered “prerecorded calls” subject to the consent requirements of the TCPA.

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