Sep 26, 2022 - Technology

FCC takes long-delayed step against spam text surge

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

The Federal Communications Commission approved a long-delayed proposal to crack down on spam texts Friday night after Axios asked agency members why it hadn't moved on the issue.

Why it matters: The number of spam text messages — which can include links or other tricks designed to steal money or personal information — has exploded, with the volume now exceeding that of robocalls.

Driving the news: The proposal, which passed on a 4-0 vote, seeks comment on requiring cellphone companies to block texts from numbers known to be illegal or fraudulent. It had been awaiting a vote at the FCC for nearly a year.

  • The FCC will review feedback on the proposal before writing final rules, a process that can take months.
  • The measure also seeks comment on whether carriers should use third-party analytics providers to inform blocking efforts, and whether the agency should push the wireless industry to authenticate text messages like it does for phone calls to deter robocalls, a senior FCC official told Axios.
  • "The American people are fed up with scam texts, and we need to use every tool we have to do something about it," chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, told Axios ahead of the agency's vote.

Context: The FCC's consumer advisory committee began reviewing the issue in April, and issued a study at the end of last month.

  • The committee recommended the commission urge widespread adoption of wireless trade group CTIA's best practices for messaging, which includes obtaining consumer consent and honoring consumer opt-out requests.
  • The FCC's proposal incorporates some findings from the committee, an agency spokesperson said.

What they're saying: “You need rules in place to shut this stuff down rapidly," Public Knowledge director of government affairs Greg Guice told Axios.

  • "That’s the importance of these [regulations] — so there are rules of the road that companies have to comply with.”

By the numbers: More than 10 billion spam texts were sent in the month of August alone — nearly 39 spam texts for every person in the U.S., according to data from RoboKiller, an app that blocks spam calls and texts.

  • RoboKiller reported just over 7 billion robocalls that month.
  • The FCC saw a nearly 146% increase in the number of complaints about unwanted text messages in 2020.

The intrigue: Many of the regulations related to spam texts and calls stem from a 1991 law, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, that does not account for the technology used today.

  • But Congress is unlikely to pass updated legislation against unwanted texts because politicians benefit from them, Margot Saunders, senior counsel to the National Consumer Law Center, told Axios.
  • "Politicians themselves want to be able to send these texts without fear of being sued," Saunders said.

Congress passed the TRACED Act in 2019 that in part ordered the FCC to consider rules to protect consumers from receiving unwanted texts from unauthenticated phone numbers.

  • But Saunders pointed out the law doesn't give the FCC any new tools to use to stop unwanted texts.

What's next: The commission will seek comment on the proposal before deciding on final regulations.

  • In the meantime, the wireless companies urge consumers to forward spam messages to 7726, which the industry uses to identify and block the messages.
  • “I look forward to quickly finalizing rules that crack down on illegal robotexts,” Republican commissioner Brendan Carr told Axios.
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