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.

The Next Round of the FCC’s “Call Blocking by Default” Approach Kicks off with a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking

By directing voice service providers to deal with “unwanted calls” as part of its anti-robocall policies, the FCC seems to have moved well beyond addressing “illegal and spoofed robocalls.” The text of the FCC’s new “Call Blocking by Default” approach was released late on June 7, 2019, which, as we previously predicted, contains several changes to the draft version of the Declaratory Ruling and Third Further Proposed Rulemaking (the Third FNPRM). Depending upon your point of view, the Third FNPRM contains either a few hopeful signs that the FCC understands and is willing to address the practical effects of its highly consequential blocking edict, or troubling confirmation that it has little idea of what it has unleashed on businesses and consumers. Continue reading   »

FCC Adopts Controversial Declaratory Ruling Encouraging “Call Blocking By Default”

Voice service providers soon may dictate which calls will reach you. The FCC  honed in on “unwanted calls” when it voted at its Open Meeting today to adopt a Declaratory Ruling and Third Further Proposed Rulemaking (the Third FNPRM) permitting voice service providers to implement “Call Blocking by Default.”  We are awaiting and will report on the ruling and notice when it is released.  Continue reading   »

Do B2C Telephone Communications Now Need to Win the Popularity Contest to Not Be Preemptively Blocked?

Businesses may dial large volumes of numbers daily for a variety of legitimate purposes. These calls now appear to have become swept up and conflated with illegal robocalls, with a number of undesirable consequences. Certainly policy makers at the FCC, in reacting to understandable concerns about fraudulent and illegal calling, have been introducing more and more opportunities for voice service and app providers to apply non-transparent, subjective standards to block calls, and further muddy the water for business callers. Continue reading   »

Comment Cycle Begins for the FCC’s Proposed Amendment to Truth in Caller ID Rules

Yesterday, the FCC’s adopted Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) to amend its Truth in Caller ID Rules was published in the Federal Register, triggering the commenting period deadlines. We previously compared the adopted NPRM with the draft document here and provided an overview of the proposed key provisions here. Comments on this NPRM are due by Wednesday, April 3, 2019, and reply comments are due by Friday, May 3, 2019. Commenters should follow the filing instructions provided in paragraph 40 of the NPRM. Drinker Biddle’s TCPA team will continue to monitor this docket and related developments as they become available.