Since its adoption, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) has periodically been attacked as unconstitutional on grounds that it violates the First Amendment right to free speech due to its content-based restrictions. Until today, those attacks have generally failed, leaving defendants with the threat of potentially crippling statutory damages. Today, the Fourth Circuit announced that part of the TCPA, an exemption for calls to collect government debts, is unconstitutional and will be stricken from the Act.

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A new report from the Wall Street Journal on FCC robocall enforcement set off a minor scrum over the effectiveness of the FCC’s TCPA efforts under Chairman Pai. The report claimed that, despite recent eye-popping enforcement actions and policy proposals aimed at curbing unwanted calls, the FCC collected only a fraction of those fines so far. Out of $208.4 million in fines issued since 2015 for violations of the FCC’s robocalling and associated telemarketing rules, the agency collected just $6,790, or less than one-hundredth of one percent. None of the over $200 million in robocall-related fines imposed under Chairman Pai’s leadership have been collected to date, including the record-setting $120 million penalty issued last year against a robocalling platform and its owner for placing over 96 million “spoofed” marketing robocalls.

This report prompted commentary from Commissioner Rosenworcel, who tweeted that these “measly efforts” were “not making a dent in this problem” and called for carriers to provide free call blocking tools to consumers. In our view, however, the report really doesn’t relate to the vigor – or alleged lack thereof – of FCC robocall enforcement efforts. Instead, the small amount of assessed fines that are actually collected starkly demonstrates the internal and external hurdles faced by the FCC, which impact all types of enforcement actions, not just robocalls. The report likely will rekindle Congressional criticism of FCC enforcement processes and calls for more systematic solutions to the problem of unwanted calls.


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“Yes FCC, we meet again old friends” was the message comedian John Oliver had for the FCC on his show Last Week Tonight, when he devoted nearly 20 minutes to an in-depth criticism of “robocalls” and the FCC’s approach to regulating such calls. (Oliver had previously taken aim at the FCC in multiple segments about net neutrality – which included comparing then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to a dingo – and he allegedly crashed the FCC’s comment system after encouraging his viewers to submit pro-net neutrality comments in the proceeding that led to the decision to revert back to light-touch regulation of broadband Internet access service.) He ended the March 10th segment by announcing that he was going to “autodial” each FCC Commissioner every 90 minutes with a satirical pre-recorded message urging them to take action to stop robocalls.

The irony of John Oliver making robocalls in order to protest robocalls is rather funny. But, it raises the question – are these calls legal? The fact that the calls appear to be lawful – and would be legal regardless of the action Oliver called for in the program – highlights that there is an important distinction between illegal calls and unwanted calls. In the end, Oliver’s segment demonstrates some of the problems with modern efforts to apply the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”), a statute that was adopted well before the proliferation of cell phones in America, and seems to deter many legitimate calls while not sufficiently stopping scam calls.


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[Spencer Elg co-wrote this post]

The current and future definition of what qualifies as an automatic telephone dialing system (“ATDS” or “autodialer”) remains a hotly debated and evaluated issue for every company placing calls and texts, or designing dialer technology, as well as the litigants and jurists already mired in litigation under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”). Last year, the D.C. Circuit struck down the FCC’s ATDS definition in ACA International v. FCC, Case No. 15-1211 (D.C. Cir. 2018). Courts since have diverged in approaches on interpreting the ATDS term.  See, e.g., prior discussions of Marks and Dominguez. All eyes thus remain fixed on the FCC for clarification.

In this post, we revisit the relevant details of the Court’s decision in ACA International, and prior statements of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai concerning the ATDS definition to assess how history may be a guide to how the FCC approaches this issue.


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With speculation running rampant that Chairman Pai intends to bring a remand order from ACA International v. FCC in January 2019, the FCC took a related step to reduce misdirected calls.  At the December Open Meeting, the FCC approved a Second Report and Order (“R&O”) to create a single, nationwide database for reporting number reassignments that will allow callers to verify whether a phone number was permanently disconnected before calling the number. The item is meant to reduce “wrong number” calls to mobile phones, i.e., where a caller has a legitimate reason for trying to reach a consumer but doesn’t realize that the number they have has been reassigned to someone else. The new rule would help eliminate a scenario where the new holder of the number receives an unwanted call and the prior holder never receives the call intended for them. The R&O is part of a broader effort by the FCC to address and stem the volume of unwanted phone calls in the United States.

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Full Spectrum’s “Inside the TCPA” podcast series offers a deeper focus on TCPA issues and petitions pending before the FCC. Each episode tackles a single TCPA topic or petition that is in the news or affecting cases around the country. In this episode, partner Steve Augustino discusses efforts by the FCC and private industry to

The Republican-led FCC’s effort to get out of the business of regulating broadband providers’ consumer practices took a step forward on Monday.  In an appeal that has been proceeding in parallel with the FCC’s “Restoring Internet Freedom” reclassification proceeding, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion giving the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) broad authority over practices not classified by the FCC as telecommunications services.  Specifically, the Ninth Circuit, sitting en banc, issued its long-awaited opinion in Federal Trade Commission v. AT&T Mobility, holding that the “common carrier exemption” in Section 5 of the FTC Act is “activity based,” exempting only common carrier activities of common carriers (i.e., the offering of telecommunications services), and not all activities of companies that provide common carrier services (i.e., rejecting a “status-based” exemption).  The case will now be remanded to the district court that originally heard the case.  Coupled with the FCC’s reclassification of Broadband Internet Access Services (BIAS) in the net neutrality/restoring internet freedom proceeding, the opinion repositions the FTC as top cop on the Open Internet and broadband privacy beats.

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As the second session begins, the 115th Congress will pick up where it left off on some key telecommunications and technology issues. In this episode of Kelley Drye’s Full Spectrum podcast, Partner John Heitmann and Jennifer McCadney, Special Counsel in Kelley Drye’s Government Relations and Public Policy group, examine the current status of these issues

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in a 3-2 vote, approved an order allowing “television broadcasters to use the ‘Next Generation’ broadcast television (Next Gen TV) transmission standard, also called ‘ATSC 3.0.’”  Described in the Order “as the world’s first Internet Protocol (IP)-based broadcast transmission platform,” the Next Gen TV standard is expected to allow broadcasters to provide more targeted advertisements to individual viewers.  Some had expressed concerns over the collection of the demographic and consumer data necessary for Next Gen TV targeted advertising, and applicable privacy safeguards for the new standard.  At this stage though, the FCC majority took a wait and see approach to privacy concerns.

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On November 1, 2017 the House Antitrust Law Subcommittee held a hearing to discuss the role of federal agencies in preserving an open Internet.

The core question discussed at the hearing was whether current antitrust law is sufficient to ensure net neutrality absent FCC rules. The panelists—including FTC Acting Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen and Commissioner Terrell McSweeney; former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell; and Michael Romano, NTCA Senior Vice President of Industry Affairs and Business Development—and committee members were generally divided down party lines, with Republicans arguing that FCC rules were both unnecessary and counterproductive and Democrats arguing that rules were necessary to ensure an open Internet, free expression, and innovation.  
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