The Federal Communications Commission must put an end to the growing and deeply annoying practice of ringless voicemail messages, a technology that allows a telemarketer to insert voicemails into cellphones without the phone ringing.
As reported in the New York Times, a ringless voice mail provider has asked the FCC to exempt these ringless robocalls from consumer protections under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991.
It is difficult to imagine anyone – including officials of the telemarketing and debt collecting companies likely to use the technique – in favor of receiving a flood of what amounts to surreptitious robocalls.
The ringless voicemail provider petitioning the commission, All About the Message, is using technology developed by another company, Stratics Networks. The latter company’s chief executive told the Times that its technology can “send out 100 ringless voice mail messages in a minute.”
The technology is now poised to greatly expand its reach, bombarding cellphone users with unwanted pitches at very low cost to the companies.
Providers of ringless voicemail and pro-business groups have argued that these unblockable messages should not qualify as calls, and therefore should be exempt from laws banning various types of telephone marketing. But advocates for the poor make a better argument that not all cellphone customers have unlimited talk time; some are using prepaid telephones, and having to use those minutes checking ringless voicemail messages costs more than they can afford. Or how about the person traveling out of the country and checking voicemail messages getting hit with roaming charges?
Not to mention the urgent argument that true priority messages – about an elderly parent or from a child’s school – could get lost amid the flood of ringless voicemail messages.
If the FCC exempts ringless voicemails from existing regulations, being on the “do not call” list would offer no protection, according to consumer advocates.
All About the Message has raised an important issue, and shows how technology is getting ahead of the law once again. If ringless voicemail had been in use back when the consumer legislation was written, Congress almost certainly would have put ringless voicemails on the same level as calls that ring the phone. Because the messages are not specifically banned, the company wants the FCC to rule in favor of one more intrusion into our daily lives. That would mean consumers would have to gird themselves for a torrent of sales messages.
The FCC is collecting public comments on the issue. New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and other state attorneys general have weighed in with their own letter to the FCC opposing the All About the Message petition. Commissioners should heed their argument that an exemption “further opens the floodgates to more harassing messages.”
Ringless voicemail messages essentially rob consumers of control over their cellphones. The FCC needs to head off this intrusion.