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 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.
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.
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.
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.
The FCC released two notices of inquiry (NOIs) related to TCPA issues last week: one on how to better track reassigned numbers, and another on tightening industry wide techniques to discourage Caller ID spoofing, one category of illegal robocalls. Each NOI seeks public comment. Continue reading
On November 15, the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau denied a petition by Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) that sought an exemption from the FCC’s prior express consent requirement for non-telemarketing residential mortgage servicing calls to wireless numbers. In its Order, the Bureau concluded that MBA had failed to show (1) that the calls om question would be free of charge to consumers; and (2) that the parties seeking relief should be able to send non-time-sensitive calls to consumers without their consent.
The Bureau’s Order explained that the TCPA “reflects Congress’ recognition of the potential costs and privacy risks imposed on wireless consumers from the use of autodialer equipment, which can generate large numbers of unwanted calls,” and accordingly, the FCC has generally attempted to balance and accommodate the legitimate business interests of callers in addition to recognized consumer privacy interests. Continue reading
As we previously reported, the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held oral argument this morning in the consolidated appeal from the FCC’s July 10, 2015 Declaratory Ruling and Order. The issues before Judges Srinivasan, Pillard, and Edwards were: (1) the definition of an ATDS, particularly the Order’s treatment of the terms “capacity” and “using a random or sequential number generator;” (2) the identity of the “called party” from whom consent must be obtained and the impracticality of the Order’s one-call safe harbor provision; (3) the means by which consent may be revoked; and (4) whether healthcare-related calls should be afforded the same treatment they receive under HIPAA.
Paul Werner from Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP argued on behalf of petitioner Rite Aid, Shay Dvoretzky from Jones Day argued on behalf of the remaining joint petitioners, and Scott Noveck argued on behalf of the FCC. Although the argument was scheduled to last only forty minutes, it quickly became apparent that Judges Srinivasan, Pillard, and Edwards had concerns about portions of the Order and numerous questions for both parties. The argument ended up lasting more than two and half hours, the majority of which was devoted to what types of equipment qualify as an ATDS, and whether the one-call safe harbor provision strikes a tenable balance between protecting consumers and protecting callers that have been threatened with potentially annihilating liability for calling numbers in good faith that have been reassigned.
An audio recording of today’s argument is available here.