Tele-Town Halls Effectively Blocked for Politicians

The Federal Communications Commission has effectively banned the tele-town hall, a common method of reaching out to constituents that members of Congress have used for years, the agency's chairman, Tom Wheeler, told the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee on Tuesday.

"Those are prohibited and your contention is always have been?" asked the subcommittee chairman, Republican Greg Walden of Oregon, apparently surprised by the revelation.

"Yes, sir," responded Wheeler, arguing that the statute governing such calls was very clear.

"Wow, that's interesting," said Walden. "That will be news to a lot of people."

In June, the FCC offered a reinterpretation of the rules stemming from that statute, known as the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act (PL 102-243). The agency said in that reinterpretation that autodialing consumers on their cellphones, without their express permission, is illegal.

Politicians are exempt from the Do Not Call List rules, which are overseen by the Federal Trade Commission under a separate 2003 statute (PL 108-10), but not the robocalling restrictions for cell phones the FCC is now enforcing. So politicians in theory could continue to call land lines, but not cell phones, which likely would be very difficult to do, members indicated at the hearing.

It would also be very difficult to obtain permission from everyone who's called.

In addition to the restrictions on autodialing cell phones, the rules also bar "prerecorded telemarketing calls to residential wireline numbers."

However, an FCC spokesman said after the hearing that tele-town halls should be able to continue, despite members' interpretation that the town halls will be effectively blocked, judging from Wheeler's comments.

“The Commission’s recent robocall clarifications didn’t impose new restrictions on tele-town halls or congressional outreach to constituents," said the spokesman, Will Wiquist. "Since 1991, informational calls to landlines have been permitted without restriction, while such calls to mobile phones have required consumer consent. As long as vendors for tele-town halls continue to adhere to the decades-old rules, use of these services should pose no issue.”

Walden said he didn't want to permit just anyone to robocall cell phones, but that the reinterpretation went too far. "There's an issue here where we need to take a look at this law," he said.

Democrats were dismayed as well.

Ben Ray Luján, who represents the northern half of New Mexico, said that towns in his district were hundreds of miles apart, making the tele-town hall the most effective way to hear his constituents' views. Sending out letters to hundreds of thousands of constituents to ask if they'd be willing to take calls is unrealistic, he said: "I hope we can look at this to see how we can address this."

In announcing the reinterpretation last month, Wheeler said that the agency was responding to what has become its No. 1 consumer complaint: unwanted robocalls and texts. Last year alone, the agency received 215,000 such complaints, he said: "These rulings have a simple concept: you are the decision maker, not the callers."

The new interpretation also says that phone providers can offer consumers call blocking technology that detects robocalls and blocks them before a consumer's phone rings. Phone companies have long worried they could be fined by the FCC for not putting all calls through.

Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai opposed the policy change, arguing that it would encourage lawsuit abuse. He cited an example of a class action suit brought against the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team for acknowledging, with a reply, text messages it had received as part of a fan contest.

And he said that the new rules were so vague that now "every smartphone, tablet, VoIP phone, calling app, texting app -- pretty much any calling device or software-enabled feature that's not a rotary-dial phone -- is an automatic telephone dialing system."

The other Republican commissioner, Michael O'Rielly, noted that the rules would make it more difficult to contact consumers for legitimate reasons, requiring consent for schools to call parents with alerts, for instance, or companies to notify consumers of product recalls.

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