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FCC’s Default Robocall Blocking: Bold or Blind?

The ‘bold’ blocking of all robocalls shows a lack of understanding for consumer preference on wanted communications and available robocall identification technologies

May 16, 2019

Imagine a world where you, as a consumer, recently visited your doctor as part of a scheduled visit. After your visit, a new prescription was called in and you were told you’d receive a call-back to discuss the results of your lab work.

But no one ever called. About the prescription pick-up… or the lab work.

Later that day, while working on your to-do list, you went online to schedule an in-home estimate for window replacements.

But no one ever called.

Later that evening, while you were out, your security system picked up some unauthorized activity taking place on your property. You had previously requested a notification call when any suspicious activity was detected.

But no one ever called.

This is the world we could be living in if the FCC’s newly proposed default blocking of robocalls moves forward.

Image credit: Numeracle, Inc.

The FCC’s Declaratory Ruling: how far does it go?

As defined by the FCC Fact Sheet on Advanced Methods to Target and Eliminate Unlawful Robocalls, this new declaratory ruling, if adopted, would:

  • Clarify that voice service providers may, as the default, block calls based on call analytics that target unwanted calls, as long as their customers are informed and have the opportunity to opt out of the blocking.
  • Clarify that voice service providers may offer customers the option to block calls from any number that does not appear on a customer’s “white list” or contacts list, on an opt-in basis.

In a statement this week describing the proposed default robocall blocking ruling, FCC Chairman Pai commented:

“Allowing call blocking by default could be a big benefit for consumers who are sick and tired of robocalls. By making it clear that such call blocking is allowed, the FCC will give voice service providers the legal certainty they need to block unwanted calls from the outset so that consumers never have to get them[.] And, if this decision is adopted, I strongly encourage carriers to begin providing these services by default — for free — to their current and future customers.

Of course we’re all sick of receiving chronic back pain scam calls, the one-ring hang-up calls, and the slew of other illegal, fraudulent and victimizing robocalls. But the FCC’s proposed default blocking of robocalls is missing the mark on what constitutes a ‘robocall’ and/or what constitutes ‘unwanted.’ Prescription reminders, delivery notifications, security alerts… these are all technically ‘robocalls!’ And these are calls we want, yet under this doctrine, we may no longer receive.

Call labeling technology is only as strong as its weakest link

Included in the rationale behind the default blocking of all robocalls was this explanation by Chairman Pai of the technologies which would support this ruling:

This blocking could be based on analytics and consumer “white lists.” Similar analytics are currently used by third-party developers in call blocking apps. Consumer white lists could be based on the customer’s own contact list, updated automatically as consumers add and remove contacts from their smartphones.

Let’s disassemble this statement in two parts:

1. Analytics used by third-party developers and call blocking apps:

These analytics are not bullet-proof and they even know they are generating false positives.

Based on Numeracle’s assessment of a cross-section of legal call originators who are placing calls across a variety of intents including healthcare reminders, security alerts, financial notifications, and a number of other consumer-requested call-back services, anywhere from 25% and more of these calls are improperly blocked and labeled as scam, spam, fraudulent, or nuisance calls.

Is this really the technology ‘basket’ in which we should be putting all of our ‘eggs?’

The declaratory ruling also states that consumers will be given the option to opt-out of default blocking, but how will consumers be informed of how they are being affected by this new call filtering? Will they be notified when calls have been blocked from reaching them? How will they be given the ability to decide whether or not they would want to opt-out of default call blocking if they have no visibility into the types of calls that are being screened prior to delivery?

2. White lists generated from consumer contact lists:

Are we seriously saying that unless a phone number is previously identified in a consumer’s contact list, they will not be able to receive a call? How would a recent college graduate belonging to an employment recruitment service, for example, possibly be able to proactively identify the phone numbers of all potential employers who may be reaching out to offer placement? The list of examples goes on and on, but the baseline issue is that of consumer communication preference.

If I, as a consumer, have signed up for, or belong to any number of organizations offering opt-in communications or notifications to be delivered on any range of topics, shouldn’t I be able to receive those according to my preference? Isn’t that what this is all about, being able to control the types of communications I do and do not want to receive?

On a more personal note, I hope my cell phone battery never dies, forcing me to call a friend, loved one, or business associate from a borrowed phone or pay phone…sounds like those calls would go into the black hole of ‘unknown’ calls that the FCC has decided I shouldn’t be ‘bothering’ my family with.

Blanket blocking: where’s the quality control?

In Chairman Pai’s “Blocking and Tackling Robocalls” blog post, he cites examples from the FCC consumer complaint database. One such example is as follows:

“I now find that my cell phone is becoming useless as a telephone.”

The entire focus of this ‘Blocking and Tackling’ approach is based on the assumption that all robocalls are fraudulent and unwanted, but we must look at the flipside of this approach to consider the legal, wanted calls. It’s an obvious statement that blocking all illegal robocalls would be advantageous, but the fact is, the industry doesn’t currently have a solution which can, without an unacceptable margin of error, accurately identify the truly illegal calls from all of the other calls.

“Relying on call labeling analytics to identify and filter ‘unwanted’ robocalls is not the answer, as this technology has not been developed to the levels of accuracy we must reach in order to avoid catastrophic destruction of the voice channel,” said Rebekah Johnson, Founder & CEO, Numeracle, and IP-NNI Task Force Member. “This entire dialog needs to shift from its sole focus on ‘how to eliminate all robocalls’ to ‘how to protect the delivery of consented calls while also blocking the truly fraudulent calls.'"

The need for accuracy and accountability is paramount

Numeracle 100% believes in the need to stop illegal, fraudulent, and scam robocalls from victimizing consumers, but we urge the industry to acknowledge the consequences of blocking all calls without regard to the proper methodology to identify and protect the legal, wanted calls.

To learn more about Numeracle’s mission to return trust and transparency to voice channel communications across the security, healthcare, resort, utility, retail and financial industries, get in touch.

©Numeracle 2020
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