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.
For nearly five years, the TCPA explicitly excluded from liability calls made to collect government-backed debt. Naturally, government debt collectors relied on this exception and called debtors without fear of TCPA liability. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that this exception was unconstitutional and severed it from the statute. Now, a federal district court has ruled that government debt collectors may be liable for calls made prior to the Supreme Court Ruling, despite their reasonable reliance on the exception. In doing so, the court brushed aside due process concerns.
As previously reported, the government debt exception was severed from the statute by the Supreme Court’s decision in Barr v. AAPC. The AAPC decision was highly fractured—with the Court issuing four opinions but none commanding a majority. Since, district courts have been grappling with AAPC means for the statute.
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 Tenth Circuit kicked off the holiday season with a little TCPA humor. In Rivera v. Exeter Finance Corp., No. 20-1031, 2020 WL 6844032, at *1 (10th Cir. Nov. 23, 2020), the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals was confronted with a case about “[p]esky robocalls: we all get them, we all hate them, and yet we cannot seem to get rid of them, no matter how many times we unsubscribe, hang up, or share choice words with the machine on the other end of the line.” The plaintiff evidently “share[d] this sentiment” with Justices Tymkovich, Briscoe, and Murphy, but also figured that he was “not the only one suffering from [defendant]’s vexatious robocalls” and brought a putative class action. Id.
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.
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.
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.
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.