A phone's caller ID displaying the words

Getty Images | Bill Oxford

“Bad-actor” phone companies that profit from robocalls could be blocked by more legitimate carriers under rules approved unanimously yesterday by the Federal Communications Commission.

Under the change, the FCC said carriers can block calls “from bad-actor upstream voice service providers that pass illegal or unwanted calls along to other providers, when those upstream providers have been notified but fail to take action to stop these calls.” Carriers that impose this type of blocking will get a safe harbor from liability “for the unintended or inadvertent blocking of wanted calls, thus eliminating a concern that kept some companies from implementing robust robocall blocking efforts.”

This expanded level of blocking—spurred by a new law in which Congress directed the FCC to expand safe harbors—could be implemented by companies that sell phone service directly to consumers. That includes mobile carriers Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile, traditional landline companies, and VoIP providers.

Carriers won’t be able to block calls from just any provider. As Chairman Ajit Pai explained, the safe harbor will be available in cases when the “bad-actor” telecom has been notified by the FCC that it is carrying illegal traffic and “fails either to effectively mitigate such traffic or to implement effective measures to prevent customers from using its network to originate illegal calls.”

Allowing carriers to block virtually all calls from a particular provider is a significant change in policy, the FCC said in a draft of yesterday’s order:

Until very recently, we have only authorized call blocking for particular calls, not based on the provider. In April of this year, the Commission’s Enforcement Bureau and the FTC jointly issued letters making clear that, in some instances, provider-based blocking is appropriate. Today, we clarify that voice service providers are permitted to block calls from “bad-actor” upstream voice service providers… The safe harbor thus provides protection to a voice service provider that blocks all calls from a bad-actor voice service provider.

Accused phone providers would be given 48 hours to “take effective mitigation measures” before other carriers can block their call traffic. The FCC identifies these bad-actor providers using traceback technology, in collaboration with the telecom industry. The new rules are scheduled to take effect 30 days after the FCC order is published in the Federal Register.

Despite the safe harbor, carriers will still have to “make all reasonable efforts to avoid blocking emergency public safety calls,” the FCC said.

FCC threats have been effective

Yesterday’s vote follows other US government efforts to cut robocalls off closer to the source. The FCC sent letters in April and May to six gateway phone companies, telling them to cut off scam robocalls or have all their calls blocked by other phone providers. “Within 48 hours of receiving the letters, each of the gateway providers confirmed they had terminated the robocall traffic,” the FCC said in the draft of yesterday’s order. The Department of Justice also sued two small companies that allegedly connected hundreds of millions of fraudulent robocalls from Indian call centers to US residents.

The new safe harbor is one of several measures adopted in yesterday’s FCC order. Another new safe harbor “protects phone companies that use reasonable analytics, including caller ID authentication information, to identify and block illegal or unwanted calls.” The FCC also laid the groundwork for future rulings by voting to seek public comment “on whether to obligate phone companies to better police their networks against illegal calls, and whether to require them to provide information about blocked calls to consumers for free.”



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