The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The FCC has a new plan to combat unwanted robocalls and spammy texts

Ever get a phone call from a number that looks suspiciously like your own? This video explains them, and what you should do about them. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

The U.S. government said Tuesday that it plans to take aim at the scourge of unwelcome phone calls and spam text messages plaguing millions of consumers — but one of its proposals drew sharp rebukes, with critics concerned that it could enable telecom giants to censor legitimate communications.

The first measure, announced by the Federal Communications Commission, aims to create a national database containing information about phone numbers that have recently been disconnected and reassigned to someone else. The effort aims to help businesses, such as banks and pharmacies, avoid dialing the wrong customers repeatedly.

The second, more controversial measure, however, would give text messaging the same legal status as high-speed Internet, in effect offering wireless carriers such as AT&T and Verizon added leeway to block and filter text messages they recognize as spam.

Combined, the two proposals could cut down on unwanted robo-calls and texts by empowering telecom companies to fight spam and by placing renewed expectations on businesses to look before they dial, said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who will bring the measures up for a vote in December.

But Pai’s plan targeting texts, in particular, drew fury from Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who slammed his rationale as “bogus doublespeak.”

“It’s brought to you by the same agency that gave broadband providers the right to censor your online activity by rolling back net neutrality,” she said in a statement. “Now, the agency wants consumers to believe that giving cell phone companies the ability to block your text messages is a good thing. This makes no sense.”

Detailing his plans on Tuesday, Pai stressed in a blog post that the FCC aims “to help shield consumers from unwanted contacts on their phones, no matter what kind of contact it is.” Earlier this month, he also warned AT&T, Verizon and other telecom giants that the agency would “take action” in 2019 if the industry fails to adopt additional robo-call protections of its own.

To clear up how carriers may handle spam texts, the agency said it hopes to classify text messages as a lightly regulated information service — the same legal category that the FCC applies to regulate Internet access. If adopted, it would be the first time the agency has given text messaging a formal classification, senior officials said Tuesday.

The move marks a setback for the cloud-based communications company Twilio, which in 2015 asked the FCC to impose stricter rules on text messaging so that competing wireless carriers could not block its services. That petition would be denied should the FCC move forward with Pai’s plan. In a statement Tuesday, the company said it “will be reviewing the FCC decision in detail when it is released.”

Pai’s move drew further fire from the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, which said the government had already made abundantly clear in 2016 that wireless carriers had narrow permission to block and filter unwanted texts. The new measure could instead give telecom companies wider latitude to block even legitimate text messages, said Public Knowledge, which submitted its own petition on the matter in 2007 and had supported Twilio’s effort.

“It wouldn’t be the holiday season without Chairman Pai giving a great big gift basket to corporate special interests at the expense of American consumers,” said Public Knowledge Senior Vice President Harold Feld. “Chairman Pai’s action would give carriers unlimited freedom to censor any speech they consider ‘controversial,’ as Verizon did in 2007 when it blocked NARAL.”

Verizon quickly reversed course and unblocked the group’s texts hours after the incident came to light. But the episode raised questions about the power of the telecom industry to discriminate against Americans and control their speech, Public Knowledge said in its 2007 petition.

Pai said the forthcoming “decision would keep the floodgates to a torrent of spam texts closed, remove regulatory uncertainty, and empower providers to continue finding innovative ways to protect consumers from unwanted text messages.” Other supporters of Pai’s proposal, such as the National Emergency Number Association, warned that 911 dispatchers could someday be “inundated” with spam texts if the FCC did not approve the measure.

With its proposed phone number database, meanwhile, the FCC is targeting “legitimate businesses” — including pharmacies that auto-dial customers to inform them that their prescriptions are ready, for example, or credit card companies that robo-call their cardholders with payment reminders. If it’s adopted, carriers would pool their knowledge about people who have changed their numbers into a searchable portal so that the new owners of that number don’t receive unwanted calls.

To senior FCC officials, the effort is meant to spare consumers from annoyances while helping businesses avoid lawsuits under federal rules to combat robo-calls. Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have supported the adoption of such a database, as have consumer advocates, including the National Consumer Law Center. Margot Freeman Saunders, senior counsel at the NCLC, said Tuesday that it could “help consumers quite a bit by stopping unwanted calls.”

Many details of its implementation, however, are unresolved, including how the FCC plans to enforce it. The FCC also opted against rewriting all of the government’s anti-robo-call rules, after a court challenge — chiefly brought by a trade association of debt collectors — tossed regulations adopted under President Barack Obama. Agency officials said such an overhaul is coming.

Reports of unwanted phone calls are rising. Nearly half of all cellphone calls next year will be spam, according to projections by First Orion, a caller ID firm.

Just 2.8 percent of text messages are spam, Pai wrote in his blog post. But, he added, that’s because wireless carriers have been working to block the unwanted messages and need greater certainty that their efforts will not result in an FCC violation.