The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why companies can’t spam you with robo-calls, but the government can

(Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Be ready: Your phone might soon start ringing with a few more unsolicited robo-calls.

Government employees, and any contractors working on their behalf, are now officially exempt from regulations on robo-calls designed to protect consumers from annoying phone spam under a new, federal clarification on who is and isn't allowed to place auto-dialed phone calls and text messages.

The clarification comes from the Federal Communications Commission, which issued the ruling late Tuesday. Many corporate robo-calls are annoying and spammy, and those are technically illegal if the person on the receiving end didn't explicitly sign up to receive those calls.

But because the regulations apply only to "persons" — meaning "an individual, partnership, association, joint-stock company, trust, or corporation" — and the government is none of those, the regulations don't apply to the government, the FCC said in its decision. The only way that situation would change is if Congress passed legislation explicitly saying so.

Don't expect that to happen anytime soon. That's because many lawmakers rely on robo-calls themselves, inviting constituents to join outreach meetings with them to discuss hot-button issues. It'd be against the rules for congressmen to use robo-calls as part of their election campaigns — but so long as they're just using the technology to do their jobs, they're fine, according to the new FCC clarification, which it says is consistent with a recent Supreme Court ruling on similar issues.

The implications of the decision could be far-reaching. It validates the ability of federal agencies to perform surveys and polls on the effectiveness of their programs (perhaps such as the Affordable Care Act). It also affirms the ability of contractors to make robo-calls to inform people of their Social Security benefits.

But at the same time, they could also lead to unsolicited calls from debt collectors and student loan companies. The industry and the Education Department both argue that these calls would help prevent people from falling behind on their loan payments. Consumer advocates say those calls would not only be annoying, but expensive to low-income Americans for whom the calls and text messages might cost money. (The FCC is currently exploring separate regulations to limit these types of calls.)

Wherever you fall in this debate, the rules are clearer than ever: The government has a special status when it comes to blasting out phone calls to the public.