Robo-calls could soon be headed to a cell phone near you. The House is considering legislation that would loosen some restrictions on using automated systems to reach consumers, students, and others who only use mobile devices.
As more and more people use cell phones as their primary or exclusive telephone, companies, schools, or other institutions need ways to reach their customers without breaking privacy laws, Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., one of the bill’s sponsors, said at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology on Friday.
He said some automated systems that notify students of emergencies, or that tell customers that their bank accounts are overdrawn, can run afoul of current law.
The bill, the Mobile Informational Call Act of 2011, would revise portions of the 20-year-old Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which is designed to protect telephone users’ privacy.
Terry said automated calls would only be allowed for "informational" purposes, and then only to people who give their permission. But the controversial measure was met with skepticism by consumer advocates and members of Congress who said that, as currently written, the bill could open a floodgate of unwanted calls.
“While I believe these changes in consumer behavior warrant our review of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, I’m concerned about the potential for misuse by modifying the act,” said the subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif. “In fact, my constituents have spoken very clearly—they don’t like this bill.”
Terry and the bill’s critics agreed that no one on the panel wanted to inundate cell-phone owners with unwanted calls. The bill has suffered from misunderstandings over its intention, Terry said.
But at Friday’s hearing, Delicia Reynolds Hand, legislative director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, argued that the bill’s current language does not protect consumers enough from unwanted calls.
“[The bill] will allow entities to use automatic telephone dialing systems, un-affectionately known as ‘robo-calls’ and automated messages on consumer cell phones under the guise of ‘consent,’ even though the consumer could never have envisioned such,” she said in her prepared statement. “Under this new bill, any transaction or relationship will constitute consent to repeatedly call the consumer's cell phone even if the consumer does not give out her cell phone number, in perpetuity, and regardless of whether the consumer asks that she not be called.”
At the heart of the debate is what constitutes “prior express consent.” The bill’s definition of such consent would include any time a customer provides a cellphone number as contact information.
That, said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who helped sponsor the original TCPA, would mean consumers could be getting calls from pizza-delivery companies or any other business to which they gave their phone numbers at one time or another.
There is a fine line between making sure laws account for the latest technology and protecting privacy, Terry said. He said he would work with critics of his proposals to craft language that will satisfy those concerned about privacy.
At least one member of the panel, however, expressed doubt that such a distinction could be effectively made.
“I think [this effort] is noble, but I don’t think you can draw that fine line,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. “Once you open the door to being used for reasonable reasons, I don’t see how you prevent it being used for less reasonable reasons.”