Why Companies Can’t Spam You With Robocalls, But the Government Can

(The Washington Post) —

Be ready: Your phone might soon start ringing with a few more unsolicited robocalls.

Government employees, and any contractors working on their behalf, are now officially exempt from regulations on robocalls designed to protect consumers from annoying phone spam under a new, federal clarification on who is and isn’t allowed to place autodialed phone calls and text messages.

The clarification comes from the Federal Communications Commission, which issued the ruling late Tuesday. Many corporate robocalls are annoying and spammy, and those are technically illegal if the person on the receiving end didn’t explicitly sign up to receive those calls.

But because the regulations only apply to “persons” – meaning “an individual, partnership, association, joint-stock company, trust, or corporation” – and the government is none of those, the regulations don’t apply to the government, the FCC said in its decision. The only way that situation would change is if Congress passed legislation explicitly saying so.

Don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. That’s because many lawmakers rely on robocalls themselves, inviting constituents to join outreach meetings with them to discuss hot-button issues. It’d be against the rules for members of Congress to use robocalls as part of their election campaigns – but so long as they’re just using the technology to do their jobs, they’re fine, according to the new FCC clarification.

The implications of the decision could be far-reaching. It validates the ability of federal agencies to perform surveys and polls on the effectiveness of their programs (perhaps such as the Affordable Care Act). It also affirms the ability of contractors to make robocalls to inform people of their Social Security benefits.

But at the same time, they could also lead to unsolicited calls from debt collectors and student loan companies. The industry and the Education Department both argue that these calls would help prevent people from falling behind on their loan payments. Consumer advocates say those calls would not only be annoying, but expensive to low-income Americans for whom the calls and text messages might cost money.

Wherever you fall in this debate, the rules are clearer than ever: The government has a special status when it comes to blasting out phone calls to the public.

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