The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) is back in the news following a letter sent to PayPal from the Enforcement Bureau of the FCC. At issue are amendments that PayPal intends to introduce into its end user agreement. Specifically, PayPal is planning on including an automated call and text message system with which it would reach out to its users to inform them of account updates, perform quality assurance checks, and provide promotional offers.
Enter the TCPA, which, as the Enforcement Bureau noted in its letter, has been used for over twenty years by the FCC to “protect consumers from harassing, intrusive, and unwanted calls and text messages.” The FCC has two primary concerns in its warning to PayPal. First, there was no formal agreement between PayPal and its users that would satisfy the FCC’s rules and allow PayPal to use an automated call system. And, perhaps most importantly, PayPal is not entitled to simply attach an “automated calls” clause to its user agreement as a condition of providing the PayPal service (as it clearly intends to do with its amendments).
There are a number of things wrong with the TCPA and the FCC’s decision to enforce its provisions against PayPal in the current instance. The FCC has the power to provide for some limited exemptions to the TCPA’s prohibition on automated dialing systems. Most applicable here, the FCC has the discretion to provide exemptions where calls to cell phone users won’t result in those users being billed for the calls. Although most consumers still buy plans that allot minutes for their monthly use, the practical reality for most cell phone users is that they no longer need to count minutes for every call. Users typically have a large number of minutes on their plans, and certainly many of those minutes can go unused. It seems that the progression of technology and the economics of cellphones over the last twenty-five years should warrant a Congressional revisit to the underlying justifications of at least this prohibition in the TCPA.
However, exceptions aside, there remains a much larger issue with the TCPA, one that is also rooted in the outdated technological assumptions underlying the law. The TCPA was meant to prevent dedicated telemarketing companies from using the latest in “automated dialing” technology circa 1991 from harassing people. It was not intended to stymie legitimate businesses from experimenting with more efficient methods of contacting their own customers.
The text of the law underscores its technological antiquity: according to the TCPA, an “automatic telephone dialing system” means equipment which “has the capacity” to sequentially dial random numbers. This is to say, the equipment that was contemplated when the law was written was software-enabled phones that were purpose built to enable telemarketing firms to make blanket cold calls to every number in a given area code. The language clearly doesn’t contemplate phones connected to general purpose computing resources, as most phone systems are today.
The modern phone systems, connected to intelligent computer backends, are designed to flexibly reach out to hundreds or thousands of existing customers at a time, and in a way that efficiently enhances the customer’s experience with the company. Technically, yes, these systems are capable of auto-dialing a large number of random recipients; however, when a company like PayPal uses this technology, its purpose is clearly different than that employed by the equivalent of spammers on the phone system. Not having a nexus between an intent to random-dial and a particular harm experienced by an end user is a major hole in the TCPA. Particularly in this case, it seems fairly absurd that the TCPA could be used to prevent PayPal from interacting with its own customers.
Further, there is a lot at stake for those accused of violating the TCPA. In the PayPal warning letter, the FCC noted that it is empowered to levy a $16,000 fine per call or text message that it finds violates the terms of the TCPA. That’s bad, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it could get. The TCPA also contains a private right of action that was meant to encourage individual consumers to take telemarketers to small claims court in their local state. Each individual consumer is entitled to receive provable damages or statutory damages of $500.00, whichever is greater. If willfulness can be proven, the damages are trebled, which in effect means that most individual plaintiffs in the know will plead willfulness, and wait for either a settlement conference or trial to sort the particulars out.
However, over the years a cottage industry has built up around class action lawyers aggregating “harmed” plaintiffs who had received unwanted automatic calls or texts, and forcing settlements in the tens of millions of dollars. The math is pretty simple. A large company with lots of customers may be tempted to use an automatic system to send out account information and offer alerts. If it sends out five hundred thousand auto calls or texts, that could result in “damages” in the amount of $250M in a class action suit. A settlement for five or ten million dollars is a deal by comparison. For instance, in 2013 Bank of America entered into a $32M settlement for texts and calls made between 2007 and 2013 to 7.7 million people. If they had gone to trial and lost, the damages could have been as much as $3.8B!
The purpose of the TCPA was to prevent abusive telemarketers from harassing people, not to defeat the use of an entire technology that can be employed to increase efficiency for businesses and lower costs for consumers. The per call penalties associated with violating the TCPA, along with imprecise and antiquated language in the law, provide a major incentive to use the legal system to punish well-meaning companies that are just operating their non-telemarketing businesses in a reasonable manner. It’s time to seriously revise this law in light of the changes in technology over the past twenty-five years.