THE FIRST official phone call ever — a shouted summons from Alexander Graham Bell to his lab assistant, Thomas Watson — was made in Boston in 1876. But the Scottish inventor probably never envisioned the pestilential scourge of telemarketing, which flooded consumers with an estimated 2.4 billion robocalls per month in 2016. Unfortunately, it’s about to get worse — a lot worse — if a company called All About the Message gets its way.
All About the Message wants to provide a new technology called ringless voice mail to telemarketers flogging sometimes questionable deals, many of them targeting vulnerable seniors. The technology, developed by Stratics Networks, allows messages to be delivered directly to voice mail without ringing through — a practice that will inevitably clog up landline inboxes and gobble up expensive cellphone data. The company argued in a recent petition to the Federal Communications Commission that ringless voice mails don’t amount to actual phone calls and thus should be exempt from the venerable Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991. That legislation, written by then-congressman Edward J. Markey, protects cellphone customers from just this kind of automated, robotic invasion. Think debt collectors, credit card companies, and scammers who claim that you owe the IRS money.
Fortunately, consumers, and their advocates in government, are pushing back. Markey, now the Commonwealth’s junior senator, is gathering signatures on an open letter urging the FCC chairman, Ajit Pai , to reject the marketing company’s petition. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and two other state AGs also came down hard, noting that ringless voice mail undermines “the best defense consumers currently have against robocalls — using call-blocking apps on their cellphone.”
And thousands of consumers bombarded the FCC website with comments. “It’s like being held captive in our own homes,” wrote Colleen Campbell, of Westminster, Calif. “And now you are considering a company/companies who want to sneak into our voice mail through an unlocked back door? Seriously?”
In the face of this rising tide of outrage, the Republican National Committee still put forth a breathless argument that preventing ringless voice mail could pose a burden on constitutionally protected political speech. It doesn’t — the TCPA has been upheld repeatedly against First Amendment challenges, according to Margot Saunders, senior counsel for the National Consumer Law Center.
Although Pai seemed to side with corporate interests on net neutrality, he should move swiftly in this case to reject ringless voice mail. While he’s at it, he could also fast-track solutions proposed by the Robocall Strike Force, which comprises huge providers like AT&T and Verizon, who nevertheless recognize that fed-up consumers are abandoning landlines to avoid telemarketers. It’s not freedom of speech, but freedom from speech, that’s at issue here. Consumers have the right to block telemarketers, without potential scammers sneaking in through a loophole.