Despite high-profile arrests and protocols with smart names, the robotic scourge remains indomitable. On Wednesday, the president of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, presented a new proposal to make a dent in the problem. Stop if you have heard this before.
At first glance, Pai's proposal sounds attractive. It would allow operators to block automatic calls by default, instead of opting to participate. If you want an even more rigorous block, you could, under the proposal, choose to use your contact list as the so-called whitelist, bouncing off any number you do not yet know. And I would grease the skates so that the operators implement the standards known as "SHAKEN" and "STIR", which will make it easier to dial calls from forged telephone numbers. You know, those who are strangely so close to yours.
"This is not an easy problem to solve, and we always have to be thinking about what else we can do," Pai wrote in a blog post announcing the proposal. The FCC will vote on the matter on June 6.
These are all, in general, good ideas. But they are not new ideas, and Pai's proposal does not seem to offer solutions for what has made these rules difficult to implement in the past. And while it is almost certain that they will help to improve the current nightmare of robocall, assuming they happen next month, they will not finish it completely. In fact, they can create some new headaches along the way.
"Historically, once a technique stops working, the bad guys simply move on to a different technique."
Alex Quilici, YouMail
Without knowing the exact language of the proposed rule, it is difficult to say exactly how Pai's broad traits will develop in practice. But the idea that operators should block calls on behalf of consumers goes back to Tom Wheeler's FCC, which proposed it in 2016.
"It seems to follow President Pai's familiar pattern of taking things the Obama administration did, filing the serial numbers and trying to recognize them," says Harold Feld, senior vice president of the nonprofit group Public Knowledge. "There is a certain brazenness of having passed to the previous administration in a passionate campaign to undermine everything, and dissent from each order, to try to pretend that these are their own initiatives and take credit for them."
However, the operators have argued that the FCC does need to clarify if they can legally implement the blocking of robotic calls with the option of voluntary exclusion, after a legal challenge to the Wheeler rule left that in doubt. Solving the problem could stimulate action on your part. What is less clear is how effective it would be.
"Suppose that this rule allows telephone companies to implement a call blocking technology that blocks all counterfeit calls. That would be incredible, "says Margot Saunders, senior advisor to the advocacy group at the National Center for Consumer Law." What are the callers going to say about that, though? Because the law does not prohibit all caller IDs. "It only prohibits the identification of false calls with the intent to defraud."
So, yes, you could expect to see fewer incoming calls from numbers that look suspiciously like yours. But as Saunders points out, that's just a kind of robocall. If that attack path is cut, bad actors can always buy legitimate phone numbers by hundreds, or even thousands, to execute their scams instead.
"Historically, once a technique stops working, the bad guys simply move on to a different technique," says Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, a third-party service that offers phone call blocking. "It should help people in terms of the number of automatic calls that go through and annoy them, but I'm not sure that it reduces the actual volume of automatic phone calls." We saw this when "probable scam" and other tags came out of the carriers, and all of a sudden they all made more phone calls. "
Consumer advocates also wonder who will pay exactly for all this. Digging a pit against robocalls is not cheap, and positioning it as an exclusion service could potentially add another automatic heading to your monthly bill. "I have a strong suspicion that what operators really want is a skill, whether they want it or not, to put an automatic call blocking rate on their bill and charge them for that," says Feld. "There is no economic incentive for operators to improve the robocall block, as with many things, such as 911 or emergency services, it is a non-profit cost unless you obtain a permit to address this as a fee." .
Yes, in that scenario you could choose not to participate if you wanted to, and at least you would get fewer calls for theft as part of the deal. But consider how closely you see your mobile phone bill, and how often, and remember that any solution on the table at this time will help with the problem of robocall, but it will not solve it completely. The calculation suddenly does not seem so simple.
The good news is that those who spend their days mired in the nightmare of robocall generally agree that Pai's proposal is a good and important step. But context matters. These are solutions that have bounced back for years and that promise incomplete results at best. That is absolutely better than nothing. But it is still not as much as it deserves.
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