The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House lawmakers unveil bipartisan anti-robocall bill

A call log displayed via an AT&T app details suspected robocalls. (John Raoux/AP)

House lawmakers on Thursday announced a new bipartisan compromise on a bill to combat robocalls, a proposal that Democrats and Republicans hope will lessen interruptions from the automated calls that rang Americans’ smartphones nearly 5 billion times in May.

The measure — put forward by the leaders of the tech-focused House Energy and Commerce Committee, and slated for an early panel vote next week — aims to outlaw a wide array of robocall practices adopted by fraudsters and legitimate businesses alike while empowering the government to issue tougher penalties against callers who violate the law.

House Democrats and Republicans unveiled the so-called Stopping Bad Robocalls Act at a moment when Washington is under heavy fire for failing to swiftly stem the tide of unwanted spam calls. The nearly 5 billion robocalls that targeted Americans’ mobile devices last month is roughly double the amount from the same period two years ago, according to YouMail, which offers a smartphone call-blocking app.

Such disruptions have become more than a mere annoyance. They result in the theft of Americans’ personal information each year, and they threaten to overwhelm the country’s most critical communications lines, including at hospitals, which recently have reported a significant uptick in robocalls targeting administrators, doctors and patients, The Post has found.

Robocalls are overwhelming hospitals and patients, threatening a new kind of health crisis

“Americans deserve to be free of the daily danger and harassment of robocalls,” New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, the committee’s Democratic chairman, and Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, its top Republican, said in a joint statement. “It’s time we end the robocall epidemic and restore trust back into our phone system."

Their legislation would require the Federal Communications Commission to update the definition of what qualifies as a robocall, a move that could subject a wider array of companies to requirements they obtain consent before calling a consumer. The FCC also would have to ensure it outlaws any attempts to circumvent its rules using new or different robocall technology.

Margot Saunders, senior counsel at the National Consumer Law Center, pointed to a lawsuit that her organization has supported against Hilton Grand Vacations Company. Advocates charge that Hilton designed its system in such a way that it narrowly avoided the government’s definition of a robocall — by having a human worker essentially just click a button. As a result, they say Hilton never obtained the consent of the consumers it called. Hilton has denied it violated the law.

“We think this bill is a significant step toward stopping unwanted robocalls,” she said.

The bill also would start the clock on telecom giants such as AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, requiring them to implement new technology to authenticate if calls are real or spam a year and a half at most after such the proposal becomes law.

Those carriers for months have promised to implement one such standard, known as STIR/SHAKEN, that will alert consumers whenever they’re receiving a call from a dubious source or potentially block it outright, though the government so far hasn’t mandated it. In addition, lawmakers would task the FCC to figure out alternate options for rural carriers that can’t adopt the technology due to cost or technical limitations.

And the bill would make it easier for federal officials to investigate, then enforce, the country’s anti-robocall rules, removing some of the hurdles that currently limit the time that law enforcement may investigate or the manner by which they issue fines.

The House’s newly bipartisan proposal comes almost a month after the Senate adopted its own legislation, known as the TRACED Act, almost unanimously. The Senate’s anti-robocall measure differs from the House in some ways: It does not, for example, require the FCC to rethink what counts as a robocall or how consumers give and withdraw their consent to real businesses that auto-dial them for payment or prescription reminders.

Robo-callers rang Americans’ phones 26 billion times last year. Now, Congress is taking aim.

At the same time, the FCC has forged ahead with some improvements of its own, including an order in June that allows wireless carriers to enable, by default, services that automatically block suspected spam calls on behalf of consumers. The agency, however, opted against requiring that AT&T, Verizon and other carriers offer those services without charge. House lawmakers have proposed prohibiting companies from imposing fees for such services.