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Republicans want to let robocallers spam your voicemail

The lock screen of an Apple iPhone is seen in this February 2016 file photo. The Republican National Committee is backing a petition that would allow political campaigns and businesses to leave automated messages on your voicemail, without your phone having to ring. (Photo by Erik S. Lesser/EPA)
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Dinner is set but the phone rings, and when you pick up it isn't a friend, or someone you know, sometimes it's not even a person. It's a robocall.

Robocalls for years have managed to catch people at the most inopportune moments, and the shift from landlines to mobile phones hasn't seemed to prevent all those fake tax collectors and mortgage vendors from calling in. While the law is supposed to prevent unwanted robocallers from reaching your cellphone without your consent, Republicans are supporting what consumer groups describe as a workaround.

The Republican National Committee is backing a petition that would allow political campaigns and businesses to leave automated messages on your voicemail, without your phone having to ring. Under consideration by the Federal Communications Commission, which has been asked to review ringless voicemail, the proposal would free telemarketers from restrictions that prevent them from robo-calling people's cellphones without first getting their permission.

For the RNC, which filed comments in support of the petition to the FCC last week, regulations designed to limit straight-to-voicemail messaging would hinder free speech, and raise constitutional questions about the rights of political organizations. Supporters of so-called ringless voicemail don't see them as robocalls or "calls" at all. "[D]irect-to-voicemail technology permits a voice message to go directly to the intended recipient’s mobile voicemail via a server-to-server communication, without a call being made to the recipient’s telephone number and without a charge," wrote the RNC.

And proponents argue that straight-to-voicemail messages don’t come with the same frustrating dinner-time disruptions that many associate with telemarketing calls.

But a host of consumer groups see the petition as an intrusive work-around, designed to skirt the law and the requirement to receive a consumers' consent. "Americans are already fed up with unwanted calls to their cellphones, which have become increasingly common in recent years," Maureen Mahoney, a policy analyst for the advocacy group Consumers Union, said in a statement Thursday. "The FCC shouldn't make this problem even worse by weakening consumer protections and opening the door to unwanted voicemail messages from telemarketers and debt collectors."

Roughly 2.4 billion robocalls are placed every month, according to the FCC, making them the top consumer complaint the agency receives. In March, the FCC proposed new rules designed to thwart harassing and fraudulent calls, allowing phone companies to block robo-calls coming from what look like illegitimate phone numbers. That move was widely celebrated among consumer groups. And phone companies were supportive too. Last year, AT&T helped lead an industry group to crackdown on robocalls, but regulators and advocates say more needs to be done to block unwanted calls.

Where the RNC argues that ringless voicemail is a "win-win for callers and their intended recipients," describing the use of voicemail messages as a way to help organizations “engage in normal, expected and desired communications,” consumer groups say straight-to-voicemail messages are even more invasive then robo-calls.

"You can block phone calls and you can block texts, but you can't block voicemail," said Margot Freeman Saunders, senior counsel to the National Consumer Law Center. "You would have less control over these voicemails than over automated calls and texts, so we think they are worse." Saunders added that the disruptive visual and audio notifications people receive when they get a new voicemail, and then having to access and listen to the voicemail, make them more cumbersome for consumers as well.

Bryan Quigley, head of communications at the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, which backs the petition, but doesn't support or oppose ringless voicemail, wants to see the debate settled in Congress, and not by the FCC. Quigley said that there has been a "litigation explosion" around robo-call violations, with legitimate businesses sometimes getting wrongfully sweeped up. If the FCC tightens restrictions on ringless voicemail, the US Chamber believes that move will have a chilling affect on new communications technology.

For now, the FCC has called for public comment on the ringless voicemail petition, which was put forth by marketing firm All About the Message, with replies due by June 2.