I hate unsolicited pre-recorded telephone calls. I’ve filed complaints with the FCC against callers, I’ve started an open-source project called Stop Rude Calls to screen out automated calls, and I’ve even been known to threaten callers with a few thousand return calls from my own equipment if they didn’t stop bugging me.
On the other hand, I also make pre-recorded outbound calls — to opt-in subscribers who thank me for the service. Every year, for fifty days after the beginning of Passover, subscribers around the world receive calls from me every evening (it’s a Jewish thing, ok?). This year I hope to charge subscribers a nominal fee as part of a charity campaign drive, or perhaps provide the service for free but tack on a solicitation for charity at the end of the call.
But a new US Federal Trade Commission rule may put the kibosh on my service and on many other related services. The FTC just proposed a new rule that severly restricts pre-recorded calls. Even if there’s a pre-existing business relationship, the FTC rule virtually eliminates pre-recorded calls that include a soliciation.
Well, my first reaction was “Bravo!” I hate calls, pre-recorded or live, from businesses with whom I have a “pre-existing relationship” that consists of filling out a registration card or purchasing a hard drive; it’s gotten so bad that I’ve started the Disposable Phone Number project so I can give businesses a number but then toss the numbers away. But after my friends and business colleagues at Voxeo chimed in I had second thoughts. Voxeo sounded the alarm with this analysis, and after a conversation with their in-house lawyer (a very sharp cookie) and a personal letter from the company CEO addressing some of my questions, I’m convinced they have some very legitimate concerns: The proposed FTC rule could kill many promising Phone 2.0 services, including my very own outbound calling service.
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I’ll summarize Voxeo’s arguments. The FTC rule prohibits pre-recorded calls that solicit sales, but many legitimate, non-annoying services can be construed as soliciting a sale. If your health management provider calls to tell you that you need to refill your prescription — a very valuable service for the Medicare set that ensures they don’t run out of inexpensive meds — then aren’t you actually soliciting the sale of the medication? What about a pre-recorded message from your auto mechanic, reminding you about an appointment that you made and also incidentally mentioning that you might want to consider also changing the timing belt before it snaps and blows the valve covers off the engine? That latter bit of “upsell” puts the whole message in violation of the proposed rule, and the unquestionably legitimate appointment reminder message becomes either (a) a violation of FTC rules or, if no upsell message is included, (b) more difficult for your auto mechanic to justify economically.
And what about my subscription-only opt-in service? If I decide to keep it free but tack on a solicitation on behalf of a local charity, I’m in violation of the proposed FTC rule. I suspect that readers of Emerging Telephony blog can easily think of a half-dozen other services that are endangered by the proposed rule.
Now, the FTC did include a loophole for pre-recorded outbound calls — if the outbound caller secures written permission to make the call. I understand the FTC’s concern; written permission is somewhat harder to forge than email or a database entry. But in a Phone 2.0 world, a written-permission requirement will make it impossible to offer services. My little outbound service has subscribers in Australia, and there’s no way I can afford the time and trouble of securing written permission. The FTC might as well require stone tablets delivered by carrier pigeon.
And the rule just stops pre-recorded messages, not voice spam. The CEO of Voxeo put it very nicely in his private letter:
Furthermore, the FTC is doing absolutely nothing to prevent even the
worst-case spammer type telemarketing calls. They are just saying
that such calls can only be done with call center agents from now on.
Calls to your house during dinner, as a result, won’t go down. You’ll
just get more calls from overseas call centers in Indian, Africa,
Latin America, and the Phillipines where labor is cheap instead of
getting them from an automated system - from people who you can’t
understand (and vice versa) and without an easy way to opt-out.
I should also mention that Voxeo isn’t engaged in special pleading here. Voxeo really doesn’t have much stake in outbound calls; it’s a small part of their business, and they don’t permit spam calls in any case. They’re more concerned about the industry as a whole. Voxeo’s suggestion of standardized opt-out procedures bears further thinking.
Now I’m concerned about my charitable works. I think I’ll follow Voxeo’s advice, toddle off to the FTC’s comment page for this rule, and enter my objections before the November 6 deadline.