Reacting quickly to a joint request by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) (collectively, the Health Agencies) last Thursday, the FCC released a Public Notice on May 3, 2022, inviting comments about how it should clarify “that certain automated calls and text messages or prerecorded voice calls relating to enrollment in state Medicaid and other governmental health coverage programs are permissible under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).” Recognizing the time-sensitive nature of the Health Agencies’ request, the FCC established a short cycle for public comment – comments are due in 14 days on May 17, 2022, and any reply comments are due on May 24, 2022.
The FCC’s TCPA dockets did not witness many developments from the beginning of 2022 until February. However, beginning in February and into March, Chairwoman Rosenworcel’s office and the Enforcement Bureau were busy negotiating new robocalling partnerships with state regulators and issuing enforcement orders against suspected or apparent violations. Those activities expanded in April by the issuance of new guidance and a new pricing structure for the Reassigned Numbers Database. We cover each of these topics below.
State-Federal Partnership on Investigations
Since Chairwoman Rosenworcel’s confirmation as the FCC Chair in December 2021, she has put on the top of her agenda building a partnership with state regulators – attorneys general and enforcement agencies. During February, March, and April 2022, Chairwoman Rosenworcel signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) designed to allow greater cooperation and sharing of information and other investigation intelligence with regard to illegal robocalls and telephone scams. These MOUs also reflect the intention of close collaboration to enforce consumer protection laws concerning robocalls. The FCC currently has MOUs in place with twenty-eight (28) states and more could be in the offing.
After years of discussion and planning, the FCC’s Reassigned Numbers Database opened for commercial use on November 1, 2021. Now business callers can register for a paid subscription with the FCC’s designated Administrator, SomosGov, to query both the connection and permanent disconnection status of over 152 million U.S. telephone numbers through this web-based platform. This information can let subscribing callers know whether customers who had previously given consent to receive calls and texts from the business have disconnected their phone numbers and whether these phone numbers have since been reassigned to others. By reducing the likelihood of unwittingly making calls to unintended recipients, the Reassigned Numbers Database is expected to prevent millions of “unwanted calls intended for someone who previously held their phone number,” which should provide callers some protection against TCPA allegations of calling without adequate prior consent.
Initially adopted in December 2018, the Reassigned Numbers Database proposal and framework underwent many rounds of public comments on various aspects of its implementation, had nearly three years of preparation, and had a three-month beta test. Since April 2021, nonexempt communications service providers have been reporting permanent disconnections to the Reassigned Numbers Database each month, accumulating data about over 152 million U.S. telephone numbers (including toll-free numbers). Smaller communications service providers began reporting their records into the Reassigned Numbers Database on October 15, 2021.
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.
The TRACED Act’s December 30, 2020 deadline was not the end of the FCC’s recent series of actions to bring more clarity to certain forms of TCPA exemptions. Most recently, on January 15, 2021, the FCC issued a Declaratory Ruling “clarify[ing] that a call to a residential telephone line seeking an individual’s participation in a clinical pharmaceutical trial is not subject to the TCPA’s restrictions on prerecorded calls.” Instead, the FCC stated that these calls are eligible for exemption from the TCPA’s prior express written consent requirement as other calls to a residence that do not constitute telemarketing.
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 FCC in 2016 determined that the federal government was not a “person” subject to the TCPA, and that by extension, federal contractors working within the scope of their delegated authority were also not bound by TCPA restrictions. This Broadnet Declaratory Ruling was the subject of at least one prominent dissent. At the time, then-Commissioner Ajit Pai observed: “[I]t is odd to suggest that a contractor’s status as a ‘person’ could switch on or off depending on one’s behavior or relationship with the federal government.” The National Consumer Law Center and Professional Services Council both filed petitions for reconsideration and this issue was again joined on December 14, 2020, when the FCC issued a Reconsideration Order stating that government contractors – but not federal or state governments themselves – “must obtain prior express consent to call consumers” when making calls on behalf of the government.
Over the years, one of the biggest challenges many businesses face when assessing TCPA risks posed by a new calling or texting campaign has been determining whether the proposed use case can defensibly rely on one of the exemptions adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). That is because the FCC has repeatedly cautioned that any exemptions it adopts apply only to the specific set of facts considered by the agency. Sometimes the jigsaw puzzle pieces align, but other times they do not perfectly fit together, making exemptions less useful than they might otherwise be.