FCC May Ban Robocalls, Including Polling
The FCC appears set to "encourage" telephone companies to install robocall blocking technology. Pollsters are panicking.
The FCC appears set to “encourage” telephone companies to install robocall blocking technology. Pollsters are panicking.
POLITICO (“New ‘robocall’ rules could leave Americans in the dark“):
For many Americans, the idea of technology that can block automated telephone calls sounds like a solution to all those annoying “robocalls” and interrupted family dinners.But to the nation’s pollsters and campaign professionals, many of whom are gearing up for the 2016 election cycle, a federal government proposal circulated Wednesday to encourage phone companies to embrace the technology feels like an existential threat. As a result, they say, Americans might soon know much less about what they think about everything from which candidates are gaining or losing ground to what issues voters care about most. And political campaigns might be forced to abandon tools they currently use to reach large numbers of voters in a short period of time.
My late wife spent her career in the political polling business, so I’m highly sympathetic to the concerns of the pollsters. But they’re going to have to come up with a more persuasive pitch than “Americans might soon know much less about what they think.”
The Federal Communications Commission says it receives more complaints about unwanted phone calls than any other issue. As a response, the FCC is asking phone companies to offer services to their customers that block calls placed by an automatic dialer.
Pollsters are asking to be exempted from the new guidelines, arguing that legitimate researchers shouldn’t be grouped with telemarketers and debt-collectors. But, for now, the FCC has no plans to establish a carve-out for telephone surveys.
In a blog post on the FCC’s website on Wednesday, chairman Tom Wheeler said that the commission was “giving the green light for robocall-blocking technology.”
“The FCC wants to make it clear: Telephone companies can — and in fact should — offer consumers robocall-blocking tools,” Wheeler wrote.
The commission plans on considering the rules at a June 18 meeting in Washington.
But survey researchers say those tools would spell their doom: They would undercut a key element of the science behind modern telephone polling and make the work they can do cost-prohibitive.
When reached by POLITICO Campaign Pro, a few pollsters said they assumed that, as with the federal “Do Not Call” registry, the new guidelines would apply only to telemarketers, not to legitimate survey research.
Not so, says the research industry’s lobbyist in Washington.
The proposed rules are “potentially devastating to the survey, opinion and marketing research profession,” said Howard Fienberg, director of governmental affairs at the Marketing Research Association. “The FCC and the chairman are playing fast and loose with their terms, using unwanted calls, telemarketing calls, and robocalls interchangeably, and conflating illegal telemarketing scams with legitimate calls.”
Despite my ties to the industry, I find calls from pollsters annoying. Most of the time, it’s market research rather than public policy polling. And even much of the politically oriented calling is either a form of push polling or campaign-driven information gathering rather than an attempt to inform the public. Moreover, it’s never been obvious to me why pollsters or even charity fundraisers ought have the right to interrupt the activities of mass numbers of people in order to find the handful of people who will cooperate; they’re indistinguishable from spammers.
The FCC, which says the new rules would be a win for consumers and were informed by extensive public comments, declined to address pollsters’ claims that they are being unfairly lumped with telemarketers when it comes to blocking automated calls. But a fact sheet accompanying the proposal said there would only be “very limited and specific exceptions for urgent circumstances,” such as alerting bank customers to possible fraud or reminding patients about important prescription refills.
Fienberg says he plans to meet with commission staff over the next two weeks to convince them that legitimate survey research should be exempt, too.
Up to that point, I agree with Wheeler. While I detest robocalls—which not only make annoying mass numbers of people cheap and convenient, but make it impossible to express a desire to be removed from that company’s call list—I don’t mind legitimate notifications such as those described above or, say, reminders about medical appointments. There, the cheapness and efficiency of robocalling allow a useful public service that would be cost prohibitive and slow by standard means.
A robocall ban already exists for cell phones; the FCC requires pollsters to manually dial cell phone numbers, which makes including cell phones — an increasing necessity as Americans abandon their landline phones — much more expensive.
But here’s my problem: I’m increasingly getting robocalls on my cell phone, almost always during the workday. That’s already banned. Aside from manually blocking those numbers, there’s nothing I can do about the violation of FCC regulations. My presumption is that the call centers are based overseas and out of the FCC’s jurisdiction.
Maybe Wheeler’s proposal solves that by not only banning the calls but having them blocked using sophisticated technology located at my service provider. If so, I welcome it.
The FCC’s proposed rules would affect telephone polls of all kinds. Americans could block all automated surveys — which were already prohibited from calling cell phones — conducted by a recorded voice.
Polls conducted by live interviewers also use automated dialers — and the FCC’s Wheeler made clear those would also be affected, writing that the proposal would “clarify the definition of ‘autodialers’ to include any technology with the potential to dial random or sequential numbers.”
That random-dialing technology, pollsters say, is an underpinning of the science behind survey research. Using a random-digit dialer means that every phone number has an equal chance of being selected for the survey.
Here, I disagree with Wheeler and side with the pollsters. I have no inherent objection to automated dialing but rather to automated calling. While I don’t enjoy having my dinner interrupted by pollsters and fundraisers, it’s much more irritating to pick up the phone and be greeted with a recorded message. Not only does it make it impossible to get off their lists but it makes spamming cheap and easy. During election season in particular, I can get dozens of calls a day from campaigns and activist groups leaving recorded messages. That would go away if a human being had to read me the message live.
Given that the vast majority of calls to my home telephone are now of this variety, the telephone has gone from a tremendous convenience to a great annoyance. Indeed, I would have long since ditched my landline phone entirely if not for 9-1-1 service and the desire to have a backup in case of a cellular outage. Plus, my landline service is bundled with my Internet and it would actually cost me money to get rid of it. As it is, I have the ringers off on all my phones except the one in my home office.