Forget a dystopian robot future. The present, in which it is impossible to sit down to dinner without a machine calling your smartphone, is troubling enough. The scourge of robocalls has worsened in recent years, but stirrings in Congress suggest spam-slammed Americans may finally find some relief.
Consumers frustrated with the constant flow of unwanted calls have technology to thank. Gone are the days when clunky hardware meant autodialing was a hassle, and when long-distance fees could cost a marketer more than they could hope to make. Now, spammers can target thousands of phones an hour with only a click, almost for free, no matter where they are - and spoofing software allows them to do it while concealing their identities. Any solution, then, will have to tackle two problems at once: run-of-the-mill spammers who do not spoof and the fraudsters who use fake numbers for their scams.
Thankfully, proposals in both chambers of Congress offer some hope. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., introduced a bill in the House last week to close the loophole on autodialers who today take advantage of outdated legal language. That should deter legitimate businesses from abuse. As for the spoofers, major carriers could deploy a technology as early as this year that will tell consumers whether an incoming call comes from a verified number. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai had already urged carriers to adopt these authentication systems, but he stopped short of mandating it. Pallone's bill would do just that, as would legislation co-written by Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and John Thune, R-S.D. And Pallone's sensibly would require phone companies to provide blocking services against spoofers, free of charge.
The bills would also help with enforcement: The House proposal would grant the FCC the ability to fine rule-breakers at first offense, and the Senate counterpart would allow the agency to levy fines of $10,000 per call, up from $1,500. Both bills would extend the statute of limitations on violations.
The Federal Trade Commission could benefit as well from additional authority, not included in either bill, to go after telecommunications companies that are grossly negligent in stopping robocalls on their services. Resources to facilitate international cooperation, often necessary for catching a scammer, are also crucial.
Robocalls offer an easy opportunity for bipartisan consensus. After all, politicians have not been spared from the onslaught of unwanted ringing. Legislation that combines the most promising aspects of the House and Senate proposals, carving out appropriate exceptions for legitimate uses of autodialing, would be a win for every human against today's most bothersome bots.
This editorial first appeared in The Washington Post.