Bill Would Leave Cell Phones Open To Robocalls

Melissa Block speaks with Randall Stross about the "Mobile Informational Call Act of 2011." In his Digital Domain column for the New York Times, Stross writes that the act would clearly define what constitutes consent for receiving automated calls — also known as "robocalls" — on cell phones.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

Today, we're going to talk about a proposal to make your cell phone fair game for Robocalls. As federal law stands now, automatic dialers are prohibited from calling wireless phones - that is, unless you give your consent. But a bill before Congress would change that.

And joining us to talk about is Randall Stross. He's written about the bill in his Digital Domain column for The New York Times.

Welcome to the program.

RANDALL STROSS: Hi.

BLOCK: And, Randall, what type of calls would be allowed under this proposed legislation that we're talking about? Would telemarketers, for example, be allowed?

STROSS: Telemarketing calls would remain forbidden. But it would define a permissible call as anything that isn't a telemarketing call. So if a business were to call you for any reason other than making a direct pitch, it would now be permitted, as long as you have had, at some point, given your cell phone number to the business.

BLOCK: It sounds from reading your column, Randall, that you think this proposed law is a bad idea. You do not think that Robocalls should be allowed to go through to cell phones, right?

STROSS: That's true. I an concerned that this bill would make it possible for someone to hand over their phone number without realizing that in doing so, they're going to receive calls that they might not want to receive in the future.

BLOCK: And the argument in favor of this, of allowing Robocalls to reach cell phones is what? And it's coming from whom?

STROSS: There's a group of trade groups led by the financial services industry - groups such as the American Bankers Association and the Mortgage Bankers Association and a trade group that represents collections agencies - that would like to clarify that the very act of giving a business your phone number, your cell phone number, constitutes consent for not just the immediate purpose but for future purposes.

BLOCK: So, in other words, if you use your number for any sort of transaction, under the proposed law that would mean any business that has that number in the future could keep using it, could keep calling you.

STROSS: Correct. They say all calls that are not telemarketing calls are what they describe as an informational call, which sounds very innocuous, doesn't it?

BLOCK: Sounds innocuous but consumer groups are really concerned about it. They call the change a wolf in sheep's clothing. What's their argument about that?

STROSS: Well, all sorts of things could fall under informational calls. So they range from the welcome kind of call - your pharmacy calling you to say your prescription is ready. But there are also other kinds of calls that are not telemarketing calls that might not be so welcomed. So collections agencies, for example, would be able to call and leave a message saying you owe a lot of money. And they could make those calls presumably every day.

BLOCK: You know, it's interesting 'cause the cell phone industry says that the law, which goes back 20 years, is really out of date with the way we use cell phones now; that things have changed. We pay for our cell phones service in different ways, so incoming calls don't pose the same financial burden that they did before. Do they have a point with that?

STROSS: I think this would be a stronger argument if it had been made a few years ago, compared to now. But what we're seeing is more and more people are not using their phones to speak with, and the cell phone isn't really just like a landline phone without a tether, it's a much more personal phone. It goes with us wherever we are. So, a call that comes in is going to interrupt us literally wherever we are. And that isn't the case with the landline phone that sits on the kitchen counter.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Randall Stross who writes the Digital Domain column for The New York Times. But He's also a professor of business at San Jose State University.

Mr. Stross, thanks very much.

STROSS: Thank you.

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