The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The FCC wants to make it easier for AT&T, Verizon and other carriers to block robocalls by default

Federal Communication Commission Chairman Ajit Pai. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday proposed granting AT&T, Verizon and other telecom carriers clearer powers to block suspected spam calls from ringing consumers’ phones, a move that comes a month after robocallers dialed Americans nearly 5 billion times, according to one industry estimate.

The idea put forward by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai — and pending approval from the agency’s commissioners — encourages carriers to enable their anti-robocall technology by default, as opposed to waiting for consumers to turn on those features themselves.

Currently, consumers often must elect to use carriers’ robocall-blocking tools, some of them costing a monthly fee, which means “fewer people are using these services,” Pai said. While the chairman said the agency is going to “encourage companies to offer this for free,” the FCC’s forthcoming directive does not require them to do so.

The FCC said the order still could help telecom carriers and their customers battle back against robocall fraudsters that use a tactic known as spoofing, which makes it appear as if they're calling from a legitimate number that's similar to the one they're trying to target.

The agency also plans to use the order to encourage AT&T, Verizon and others to develop tools that limit the calls a consumer can receive to only the contacts in their phones, a technical restriction that Pai said could help certain smartphone owners, such as the elderly, who are most at risk of fraud.

"The American people are fed up with illegal robocalls," Pai told reporters. "We believe we need to make it easier for phone companies to block these robocalls."

Die, robocalls, die: A how-to guide to stop spammers and exact revenge

The FCC’s efforts come in response to a growing chorus of critics who feel the U.S. government hasn’t acted swiftly or aggressively enough to punish scammers who place unwanted calls or texts to consumers -- or prod telecom carriers to improve their anti-robocall technology.

In recent months, though, Pai has sought to pressure the AT&T, Verizon and other companies to adopt new technology that would present consumers with an alert when they’re receiving a call that’s coming from a number believed to be fraudulent. The FCC reiterated last week that it expects the system for fingerprinting phone calls, known within the industry as SHAKEN/STIR, to be implemented this year.

To that end, Pai on Wednesday also put forward a proposal that allows telecom companies using the new, call authentication technology to block suspected spam calls on behalf of consumers. All of the agency’s new anti-robocall efforts will be teed up for a vote at its next meeting on June 6.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, lawmakers have proposed a slew of bills that would upgrade federal anti-robocall rules. One proposal in the Senate would grant the government more power to pursue robocall fraudsters, while another set of proposals in the House would take additional aim at legitimate businesses, such as debt collectors, that ring smartphone owners excessively. None of the proposals, however, has come to a full vote in either chamber of Congress.

The issue looms over Pai as he prepares to testify to Congress on Wednesday morning. In prepared remarks, the chairman plans to stress the agency’s work to combat illegal robocalls.