House Passes Comprehensive Anti-Robocall Legislation

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Still, experts say a dramatic reduction in the problematic calls likely won’t happen overnight.

House lawmakers passed comprehensive legislation to repress the robocall epidemic targeting phones across the nation. 

Approved almost unanimously Wednesday, the Pallone-Thune TRACED Act mandates new requirements for telephone carriers to verify and transparently block unlawful robocalls and pushes several federal agencies to more aggressively combat criminal callers. 

“These calls are not just annoying, in a lot of instances they are scams targeted at consumers.  And, unfortunately, these scams are becoming more sophisticated every day,” Rep. Frank Pallone’s, D-N.J., one of the bill’s namesakes who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee said. “All of these scams are different, and there won’t be a single silver bullet to fix them all, but the Pallone-Thune TRACED Act attacks the problem from multiple angles.”

Pallone and other committee-leading lawmakers announced late last month that the House and Senate had reconciled various anti-robocall bills that were separately passed in the two chambers this summer into one piece, and that the new act was soon to be released. The ultimate hope is that streamlining the legislation will boost its likelihood to be signed into law. 

The passage also comes after services Robokiller and YouMail, which track the pre-recorded calls that target consumers through computerized auto-dialers, revealed that Americans received more than 5 billion robocalls in November, a month after being targeted by a record-high of 5.7 billion. 

“According to Robokiller, a whopping 5.6 billion robocalls were made to Americans in November alone.  And in my district, according to YouMail, more than 200 million calls have been made to the 732 area code this year,” Pallone said. “That’s outrageous.” 

The bill lays out new requirements for carriers, including that they provide all users with call-authentication technology and robocall-blocking features that they can opt-in or out of using—at no additional charge. The act also calls on the Justice Department to crack down on criminal robocallers with tougher penalties and calls on the attorney general to stand up an interagency working group to thoroughly assess robocall-related prosecution. Further, it improves protections against unlawful robocalls explicitly targeting the health care space.

TRACED also solicits a variety of new measures from the Federal Communications Commission, including enhanced enforcement actions to stop the scams. It directs the commission to require “[providers] of voice service to implement the STIR/SHAKEN authentication framework in the internet protocol networks of the [providers] of voice service.” 

An acronym for two network protocols, Secure Telephone Identity Revisited and Signature-Based Handling of Asserted Information Using Tokens, STIR/SHAKEN is a “framework of interconnected standards” that helps certify that calls traveling through phone networks are from legitimate senders. The CEO of the robocall tracking and blocking app YouMail Alex Quilici told Nextgov that the legislation should force change over time, as it drives STIR/SHAKEN and authenticated caller ID by effectively forcing carriers to implement it, “with limited exceptions where it’s technically not doable.” 

At the same time, he said there could be “real challenges for many carriers to do what’s mandated in the bill,” and noted that STIR/SHAKEN might pose bigger issues down the road. Essentially, the framework works well over internet protocol, or IP networks (which the bill explicitly mentions), but not for companies that use traditional telecom services, for instance, those that are time-division multiplexing, or TDM-based—and there’s a ton of those, according to Quilici.

“It’ll be very interesting to see how that shakes out—as it will raise issues people don’t expect,” he said.  

Still, Quilici thinks the bill will certainly help curb some of the problematic and pesky calls if it’s fully passed, as it “gives enforcement more teeth,” and calls for more reporting and monitoring efforts from the carriers.

“It’s a good size speed bump, but no one should expect any sort of dramatic reduction,” he said.

Other industry experts also weighed in with support.

“Here’s why the Pallone-Thune TRACED Act is a massive achievement and a landmark consumer protection bill: It supercharges the technology and traceback tools we know will cut down the illegal robocalls that are hijacking our phones and polluting our communications networks,” Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom, the Broadband Association said in a statement. “The robocall battle won’t be won overnight, but today consumers notched a big victory against a determined enemy.”

The Senate still needs to vote on the reconciled bill.