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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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 Declaratory Ruling Regarding Whether P2P Text Messaging Platforms Are Autodialers

On June 25, 2020, the FCC issued a Declaratory Ruling that granted a Petition that had been filed in 2018 by the P2P Alliance—a “coalition of providers and users of peer-to-peer (P2P) text messaging services.” The Petition had asked the FCC to clarify whether texts sent via its messaging platform were subject to the TCPA restrictions on automated dialing. The FCC did not decide if the Petitioner’s messaging platform is an autodialer, as the record was not sufficient to do so. But it did clarify in the abstract that, “if a texting platform actually requires a person to actively and affirmatively manually dial each recipient’s number and transmit each message one at a time and lacks the capacity to transmit more than one message without a human manually dialing each recipient’s number… then such platform would not be an ‘autodialer’ that is subject to the TCPA.”

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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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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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New Petition Seeking FCC Clarification That Calls Using Soundboard Technology Are Not “Entirely Prerecorded Calls” Prohibited By the TCPA

The FCC’s TCPA docket now has two pending petitions for declaratory ruling on the question as to whether outbound telemarketing calls made through soundboard technology are prohibited communications if made without prior consent under the TCPA. As we predicted in April 2019, industries using soundboard technology to streamline their telemarketing operations are increasing their efforts before the FCC in seeking review of this very issue.

The FCC recently issued a Public Notice seeking comments on a Petition for Declaratory Ruling filed by Yodel Technologies, a Florida-based company providing other entities with outbound telemarketing services using soundboard technology. The Yodel Petition “fully supports” “a currently pending Petition for Emergency Declaratory Ruling filed by NorthStar Alarm Services, LLC, that sets forth a litany of persuasive reasons why the Commission should rule that use of soundboard technology does not violate the TCPA.” The Yodel Petition also “submits its own justifications” to assist the FCC in reaching this conclusion or, alternatively, in waiving application of any rules prohibiting soundboard technology prior to May 12, 2017.

According to Yodel, as “calls using recorded audio clips specifically selected and presented by a human operator in real-time,” soundboard technology should not be considered “prerecorded voice message.” Yodel argues that the FCC’s 1992 TCPA Report and Order implied that prerecorded voice message only refers to calls and messages that are entirely prerecorded. In support, it observes that the FCC has always been and has only been using examples of fully automated calls when discussing TCPA implementing rules in the past twenty-seven years.Yodel’s Petition emphasizes that a caller’s ability to “ascertain the propriety of proceeding with a message” is an important characteristic in distinguishing between live and prerecorded calls – a view supported by case law in the Ninth Circuit. As such, Yodel advocated that outbound calls using soundboard technology would not be prerecorded calls when live operators would remain “available to interact with every called party from inception.”

After the Supreme Court declined in April 2019 to review a challenge to a Federal Trade Commission decision treating outbound telemarketing calls made through soundboard technology as robocalls, a wave of litigation ensued. Many federal courts, including the Eleventh Circuit (with appellate jurisdiction over Florida), have not examined soundboard technology in the context of TCPA claims in the past. Others have not had a consistent view on soundboard technology. As Yodel put it, clarity is needed because of the “serious reliance interests at stake.”

Interested parties have until October 21, 2019 to submit comments to the FCC on the Petition. Reply comments are due on November 4, 2019. Drinker Biddle’s TCPA team will continue to monitor this docket and related developments.

FCC Amends Its Caller ID Rules to Broaden their Scope and Effect

The FCC on August 1 voted to adopt enhanced Truth in Caller ID rules that will subject a broader range of “spoofed” calls to new heftier statutory civil penalty and potentially criminal sanctions for willful and knowing violations of these FCC requirements. Companies using spoofing technology should have until early 2020 to assess their operations to ensure compliance prior to these amended rules taking effect.

At its Open Meeting, the FCC adopted a Report and Order (R&O) to amend the current Truth in Caller ID rules. The text of the adopted version of the R&O was released on August 5, 2019 and largely remains unchanged since the release of the draft Second R&O. It appears that the rules adopted build upon the framework the FCC proposed in its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking from in February 2019 (click here for our earlier summary of the Notice). Overall, the Second R&O mirrors most of the FCC’s original proposals. The differences we highlight below are relatively technical, reflecting the FCC’s attempt to grapple with and clarify the scope of rule changes in light of foreseeable business use cases that may cause problems that the RAY BAUM’S Act intended to prevent.

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Comment Cycle Begins for the FCC’s Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on “Call Blocking by Default” Regime And SHAKEN/STIR Implementation Deadline

On June 24, 2019, the FCC’s adopted Declaratory Ruling and Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“Third FNPRM”) was published in the Federal Register, triggering the commenting period deadlines. We previously discussed in detail the various components of the Third FNPRM here and here. Comments on this Third FNPRM are due by Wednesday, July 24, 2019, and reply comments are due by Friday, August 23, 2019. Drinker Biddle’s TCPA team will continue to monitor this docket and related developments as they become available.