It is a truth universally acknowledged that unwanted telephone calls are among the most reviled annoyances known to man. But this does not mean that laws intended to prohibit these calls are themselves necessarily good. Indeed, in one sense we know intuitively that they are not good. These laws have proven wholly ineffective at curtailing the robocall menace — it is hard to call any law as ineffective as these “good”. And these laws can be bad in another sense: because they fail to curtail undesirable speech but may burden desirable speech, they raise potentially serious First Amendment concerns.
I presented my exploration of these concerns, coming out soon in the Brooklyn Law Review, last month at TPRC. The discussion, which I get into below, focuses on the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), the main law that we have to fight against robocalls. It considers both narrow First Amendment concerns raised by the TCPA as well as broader concerns about the Act in the modern technological setting.
It is hard to imagine that there is a need to explain how much of a pain telemarketing is. Indeed, it is rare that I give a talk on the subject without receiving a call during the talk. At the last FCC Open Meeting, after the Commission voted on a pair of enforcement actions taken against telemarketers, Commissioner Rosenworcel picked up her cell phone to share that she had received a robocall during the vote. Robocalls are the most complained of issue at both the FCC and FTC. Today, there are well over 4 billion robocalls made every month. It’s estimated that half of all phone calls made in 2019 will be scams (most of which start with a robocall). .
It’s worth noting that things were not always this way. Unsolicited and unwanted phone calls have been around for decades — but they have become something altogether different and more problematic in the past 10 years. The origin of telemarketing was the simple extension of traditional marketing to the medium of the telephone. This form of telemarketing was a huge annoyance — but fundamentally it was, or at least was intended to be, a mere extension of legitimate business practices. There was almost always a real business on the other end of the line, trying to advertise real business opportunities.
This changed in the 2000s with the creation of the Do Not Call (DNC) registry. The DNC registry effectively killed the “legitimate” telemarketing business. Companies faced significant penalties if they called individuals on the DNC registry, and most telemarketing firms tied the registry into their calling systems so that numbers on it could not be called. And, unsurprisingly, an overwhelming majority of Americans put their phone numbers on the registry. As a result the business proposition behind telemarketing quickly dried up. There simply weren’t enough individuals not on the DNC list to justify the risk of accidentally calling individuals who were on the list.
Of course, anyone with a telephone today knows that the creation of the DNC registry did not eliminate robocalls. But it did change the nature of the calls. The calls we receive today are, overwhelmingly, not coming from real businesses trying to market real services or products. Rather, they’re coming from hucksters, fraudsters, and scammers — from Rachels from Cardholder Services and others who are looking for opportunities to defraud. Sometimes they may use these calls to find unsophisticated consumers who can be conned out of credit card information. Other times they are engaged in any number of increasingly sophisticated scams designed to trick consumers into giving up valuable information.
There is, however, a more important, more basic difference between pre-DNC calls and the ones we receive today. Back in the age of legitimate businesses trying to use the telephone for marketing, the relationship mattered. Those businesses couldn’t engage in business anonymously. But today’s robocallers are scam artists. They need no identity to pull off their scams. Indeed, a lack of identity can be advantageous to them. And this means that legal tools such as the DNC list or the TCPA (which I turn to below), which are premised on the ability to take legal action against bad actors who can be identified and who have assets than can be attached through legal proceedings, are wholly ineffective against these newfangled robocallers.
The TCPA Sucks
The TCPA is the first law that was adopted to fight unwanted phone calls. Adopted in 1992, it made it illegal to call people using autodialers or prerecorded messages without prior express consent. (The details have more nuance than this, but that’s the gist.) It also created a private right of action with significant statutory damages of up to $1,500 per call.
Importantly, the justification for the TCPA wasn’t merely “telemarketing sucks.” Had it been, the TCPA would have had a serious problem: telemarketing, although exceptionally disliked, is speech, which means that it is protected by the First Amendment. Rather, the TCPA was enacted primarily upon two grounds. First, telemarketers were invading the privacy of individuals’ homes. The First Amendment is license to speak; it is not license to break into someone’s home and force them to listen. And second, telemarketing calls could impose significant real costs on the recipients of calls. At the time, receiving a telemarketing call could, for instance, cost cellular customers several dollars; and due to the primitive technologies used for autodialing, these calls would regularly tie up residential and commercial phone lines for extended periods of time, interfere with emergency calls, and fill up answering machine tapes.
It is no secret that the TCPA was not particularly successful. As the technologies for making robocalls improved throughout the 1990s and their costs went down, firms only increased their use of them. And we were still in a world of analog telephones, and Caller ID was still a new and not universally-available technology, which made it exceptionally difficult to bring suits under the TCPA. Perhaps more important, while robocalls were annoying, they were not the omnipresent fact of life that they are today: cell phones were still rare; most of these calls came to landline phones during dinner where they were simply ignored.
As discussed above, the first generation of robocallers and telemarketers quickly died off following adoption of the DNC registry.
And the TCPA is proving no more effective during this second generation of robocallers. This is unsurprising. Callers who are willing to blithely ignore the DNC registry are just as willing to blithely ignore the TCPA. Every couple of months the FCC or FTC announces a large fine — millions or tens of millions of dollars — against a telemarketing firm that was responsible for making millions or tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of calls over a multi-month period. At a time when there are over 4 billion of these calls made every month, such enforcement actions are a drop in the ocean.
Which brings us to the FIrst Amendment and the TCPA, presented in very cursory form here (see the paper for more detailed analysis). First, it must be acknowledged that the TCPA was challenged several times following its adoption and was consistently upheld by courts applying intermediate scrutiny to it, on the basis that it was regulation of commercial speech (which traditionally has been reviewed under that more permissive standard). However, recent Supreme Court opinions, most notably that in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, suggest that even the commercial speech at issue in the TCPA may need to be subject to the more probing review of strict scrutiny — a conclusion that several lower courts have reached.
But even putting the question of whether the TCPA should be reviewed subject to strict or intermediate scrutiny, a contemporary facial challenge to the TCPA on First Amendment grounds would likely succeed (no matter what standard of review was applied). Generally, courts are very reluctant to allow regulation of speech that is either under- or over-inclusive — and the TCPA is substantially both. We know that it is under-inclusive because robocalls have been a problem for a long time and the problem is only getting worse. And, at the same time, there are myriad stories of well-meaning companies getting caught up on the TCPA’s web of strict liability for trying to do things that clearly should not be deemed illegal: sports venues sending confirmation texts when spectators participate in text-based games on the jumbotron; community banks getting sued by their own members for trying to send out important customer information; pharmacies reminding patients to get flu shots. There is discussion to be had about how and whether calls like these should be permitted — but they are unquestionably different in kind from the sort of telemarketing robocalls animating the TCPA (and general public outrage).
In other words the TCPA prohibits some amount of desirable, Constitutionally-protected, speech in a vainglorious and wholly ineffective effort to curtail robocalls. That is a recipe for any law to be deemed an unconstitutional restriction on speech under the First Amendment.
Good News: Things Don’t Need to Suck!
But there is another, more interesting, reason that the TCPA would likely not survive a First Amendment challenge today: there are lots of alternative approaches to addressing the problem of robocalls. Interestingly, the FCC itself has the ability to direct implementation of some of these approaches. And, more important, the FCC itself is the greatest impediment to some of them being implemented. In the language of the First Amendment, restrictions on speech need to be narrowly tailored. It is hard to say that a law is narrowly tailored when the government itself controls the ability to implement more tailored approaches to addressing a speech-related problem. And it is untenable to say that the government can restrict speech to address a problem that is, in fact, the result of the government’s own design.
In particular, the FCC regulates a great deal of how the telephone network operates, including over the protocols that carriers use for interconnection and call completion. Large parts of the telephone network are built upon protocols first developed in the era of analog phones and telephone monopolies. And the FCC itself has long prohibited carriers from blocking known-scam calls (on the ground that, as common carriers, it is their principal duty to carry telephone traffic without regard to the content of the calls).
Fortunately, some of these rules are starting to change. The Commission is working to implement rules that will give carriers and their customers greater ability to block calls. And we are tantalizingly close to transitioning the telephone network away from its traditional unauthenticated architecture to one that uses a strong cyrptographic infrastructure to provide fully authenticated calls (in other words, Caller ID that actually works).
The irony of these efforts is that they demonstrate the unconstitutionality of the TCPA: today there are better, less burdensome, more effective ways to deal with the problems of uncouth telemarketers and robocalls. At the time the TCPA was adopted, these approaches were technologically infeasible, so the its burdens upon speech were more reasonable. But that cannot be said today. The goal of the FCC and legislators (both of whom are looking to update the TCPA and its implementation) should be less about improving the TCPA and more about improving our telecommunications architecture so that we have less need for cludgel-like laws in the mold of the TCPA.