On Wednesday morning, after years of actively ignoring demands that phone companies be made to block robocalls by default, the head of America's telecoms regulator had a sudden change of heart.
"Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is proposing bold action to help consumers block unwanted robocalls," announced an official release from the FCC. "He has circulated a declaratory ruling that, if adopted, would allow phone companies to block unwanted calls to their customers by default."
On Tuesday night at past 2200 Washington DC time, reporters received an email inviting them to a press call at 0845 the next day, where Pai outlined his bold vision and claimed – to raised eyebrows – that "many voice providers have held off developing and deploying call blocking tools by default because of uncertainty about whether these tools are legal under the FCC's rules."
The sudden decision to put forward something that fellow FCC Commissioners have been demanding for years is all the more unusual given that just this week, in response to mounting pressure from lawmakers and state attorneys general, Pai had re-re-re-announced his "call" for the phone industry to adopt a call authentication system.
That so-called SHAKEN/STIR framework is a start, but would still leave Americans receiving billions of unwanted calls every year. What is really needed, many people have been at pains to point out, is a block on robocalls so that Americans don't even see them. The downside of that approach for the phone industry is that they don't make money from blocked calls; answered robocalls on the other hand are a significant source of revenue.
The big question is: why has Pai suddenly decided things have changed? And why the rushed announcement?
This is why
And that answer came literally an hour later when a subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing on "Accountability and oversight of the Federal Communications Commission" – the first such hearing in nine months. At the meeting Mike Doyle (D-PA) made it abundantly clear that he had had enough of robocalls and wanted something done about it.
"This problem is out of control," he said in his opening remarks. "Americans this year will receive 12 billion robocalls… We're passed the point of Band-Aids. We need real solutions to address the problem and real protections for the American people."
The session also had prepared remarks from the overall chair of the Commerce Committee, Frank Pallone (D-NJ) in which he slammed the FCC for having "repeatedly deferred to companies on voluntary measures to correct major consumer problems like robocalls" and accused it of being "derelict in its duty" as well as having "abdicated many of its important roles."
All of which, Pai could have – and usually would have – weathered given the excessively partisan nature of the United States' Congress. But Republicans have had enough too.
Crucially, while ranking member Robert Latta (R-OH) regaled the meeting room with the wonderful times he had spent with FCC Commissioners on the road looking at improving broadband across the United States, he also came down hard on the issue of robocalls.
"It is one of the biggest issues I hear when out in my district," he told the five assembled FCC Commissioners. "And it is clear my district is not unique. We must do everything we can."
And then he uttered the two words that every political acolyte fears – "bipartisan support" – and used it in relation to legislation that he was putting forward. It is called, bluntly, the Stop Robocalls Act, and Latta first proposed it 10 days ago.
So, this new law...
What Pai's office didn't know until last night however was that not only was Latta going to push the act at its hearing this morning but that the Democrats had decided to back it. If that wasn't bad enough, Latta told Pai that the purpose of the new law would be to "help the FCC identify robocall block technology."
In other words, Congress was going to not only tell the FCC to act but it was going to specifically identify what technical approach it should take. Check the logs of Pai's chief of staff Matthew Berry last night and you can expect to see calls from the top lobbyists at Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile going ballistic.
Whatever happened, after years of refusing to even consider default blocking of robocalls, last night the FCC leapt into action, producing a new announcement, set up a last-minute press call and came to the amazing realization that the real reason mobile companies aren't blocking calls isn't because it would cut off millions of dollars in revenue but because they were worried they would breaking FCC rules if they did so.
Pai even put out a statement in which he pretended all this had come as a big surprise: "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."
He goes on: "If this decision is adopted, I strongly encourage carriers to begin providing these services by default – for free – to their current and future customers. I hope my colleagues will join me in supporting this latest attack on unwanted robocalls and spoofing."
Even for Pai – a former general counsel for Verizon whose reign has been characterized by wildly pro-industry decisions – this is the most shameless water-carrying for an industry that he is supposed to oversee and regulate.
The goal of this decision is, of course, to kill the Stop Robocall Act legislation by offering a self-regulatory alternative, and then find ways to wheedle out of the agreement once the threat of actual laws is gone. ®