The latest advancement in irritating telemarketing schemes has arrived: ringless voice mails. It's a phone call without any expectation you will pick up — open your phone and magically find a new voice message without having your cell ring once. The Federal Communications Commission ought to stand up for consumers, find that a call without a ring is still a call, and reject this intrusion.
The technology allows calls to go directly to voice mail, giving callers no chance to block or stop the call. A ringless voice mail provider filed a petition to the FCC on March 31, arguing these are not technically calls and should not be regulated as such. If the FCC rules with the company, ringless voice mails would be exempt from existing consumer protection regulations. After receiving more than 75,000 public comments, the commission will now begin to consider a decision. Common sense should prevail, and the FCC should shut down this request for a special exemption.
But it's not always as simple as it should be. The company pushing for the exemption argues the technology allows it to bypass the call, so it's not technically a call. Therefore, they argue, it should be exempt from regulation for calls. The Republican National Committee also supports the concept, arguing that banning direct-to-voice-mail messages "would raise significant constitutional issues." With a commission made up of two Republicans and one Democrat, they could wind up siding with industry and partisan interests over consumer interests.
Yet regulation is essential. Robocalls are already the No. 1 source of complaints to the commission, according to a 2016 FCC report. On behalf of a dozen other consumer groups, the National Consumer Law Center pushed the FCC to deny the petition, saying these messages "are just as invasive, expensive and annoying as calls and texts." The attorneys general for New York, Massachusetts and Kentucky also have argued against an exception, saying these ringless calls "will undoubtedly harass, abuse and harm consumers." Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi should join them.
In 2015, the FCC ruled that mass automated texts would be treated the same as calls and regulated similarly. For the benefit of consumers, ringless calls should be treated in the same manner. The new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, has a penchant for deregulation. But he should remember what he said in April on net neutrality: "The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you are likely to get," he said.
That's exactly the point on ringless voice mails: The FCC should regulate them as strictly as possible so consumers do not have to deal with even more bothersome intrusions into their privacy.