Congress Considers So-Called ROBOCOP Bills

by Dorsey & Whitney LLP

While the D.C. Circuit and the FCC have been in the limelight over the past few years for the regulation of automated calls, Capitol Hill is now abuzz with its own efforts to answer the clarion call of consumer complaints over the issue. Democrats in both the Senate and the House have decided to throw their hats in the ring by introducing legislation seeking to enhance protections for consumers besieged by the purported ongoing epidemic of “robocalls.”

On April 18, Senate Democrats introduced a bill entitled the “Repeated Objectionable Bothering of Consumers on Phones” Act (ROBOCOP) (S. 2705), which would require telephone companies to offer options to consumers that would block potential automated calls involving financial scams at no extra cost.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and co-sponsored by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), would specifically: (1) instruct the FCC to require phone companies to offer free technology that would block unwanted robocalls free of charge (with the exception of certain emergency or public safety calls); (2) require the FCC to ensure that telephone carriers verify the accuracy of how their contact information appears on caller ID systems; (3) authorize the FCC to compile a new, comprehensive nationwide system that would allow consumers to remain in control of calls and texts they receive; (4) require the FCC to formulate reports on whether its proposed new rules are effective; and (5) provide consumers with a private right of action against telephone carriers that allegedly violate the proposed law, thereby potentially opening the floodgates to litigation against telecom companies – similar to the landscape currently faced by debt collectors.

“The ROBOCOP Act restores power to consumers by requiring phone companies to provide effective technology that blocks unwanted calls at no cost to the consumer,” Senator Blumenthal said in a press release, adding that unwary consumers around the nation are “harangued” by millions of “nuisance” robocalls offering deceptive financial scams.

House Democrats also introduced a companion bill in the House (H.R. 5573).

Also on April 18, the Senate saw the introduction of the “Robocall Enforcement Enhancement Act of 2018” (S. 2694), which would enable the FCC to prosecute violators of autodialing laws without first issuing a citation. The proposed law would also increase the statute of limitations for the FCC to prosecute alleged automated telemarketing violations to three years from the current one-year limit, and extend the applicable statute of limitations from two to three years for prosecutions of so-called “neighbor spoofing” campaigns (wherein telemarketers use false caller ID information to make it appear that a call originates from a local (or nearby) area code). The bill was proposed by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Haw.) and co-sponsored by Sens. Baldwin, Blumenthal, Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Markey, Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

If enacted into law, the proposed bills would likely significantly increase compliance costs for telecom carriers and add further uncertainty to an already murky legal sphere. Indeed, during a related Senate hearing, Kevin Rupy – Vice President of USTelecom – expressed skepticism, contending that many telecom companies already offer the type of call-restricting technology contemplated by the bill. Mr. Rupy added that Congress should permit companies sufficient time to adapt to recent changes in the regulatory landscape, emphasizing that the “marketplace is deploying tools” to address the problem and that “[w]e’re not going to block our way out of this.”

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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