Consumer Groups Attack Proposed Revisions to Telemarketing Rule

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Consumer groups are up in arms over a bill to relax requirements on calls to cellphones contained in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. The House Communications Subcommittee scheduled a hearing this Friday on HR-3035 to ask whether the TCPA went too far in restrictions on calls to wireless numbers. The subcommittee plans to ask whether the telemarketing rules' mobile restrictions "are inadvertently preventing Americans who rely on wireless phones from receiving useful information, such as alerting consumers of harmful activity on their bank accounts, data breaches, and other pertinent data affecting them directly," the Commerce Committee said. But consumer groups said the changes could reduce people's privacy.

HR-3035 is sponsored by Reps. Lee Terry, R-Neb., and Ed Towns, D-N.Y. It would exempt informational calls from the TCPA rule restricting auto-dialer and artificial/prerecorded voice calls to wireless. It also would tweak the definition of "prior express consent" and exempt equipment that's used to store predetermined numbers but that doesn't generate random or sequential numbers as in an auto-dialer. The bill would maintain the prohibition against technologies used to make telemarketing calls to cellphones. "Changing technology and consumer behavior have completely eroded whatever privacy and cost rationales may have supported the restrictions imposed on informational calls to mobile phones by the TCPA twenty years ago," it said. "And those trends have significantly increased the harms that the restrictions impose by hampering the ability of consumers to receive timely and important information."

The Terry bill is an "unnecessary attack on the TCPA that would effectively gut its privacy protections, prohibitions on nuisance calls and the requirement that companies get consumers' consent before calling their cell phones," said Carmen Balber, Washington director of Consumer Watchdog. Consumers Union regulatory counsel Iona Rusu warned that legislation could be too far-reaching. "There may be some valid reasons to update the rules that protect consumers from unsolicited cell phone calls — safety recalls and data breach notices, for example," Rusu said. "But if the legislation is too broad and permits companies to badger and harass consumers, then that would not be acceptable."

"The real purpose of H.R. 3035 is to open up everyone's cell phones, land lines, and business phone numbers, without their consent, to a flood of commercial, marketing and debt collection calls (to not only the debtor but everyone else)," several consumer groups said in a letter dated Oct. 27 to the House Commerce Committee. It was signed by Consumer Watchdog, Consumer Federation of America and nine others. The TCPA already has exemptions for emergency calls and calls made with the consumer's prior express consent, the groups said.

The purpose "is not to impact the existing regulations governing calls to landlines or business phone numbers, and especially not to permit marketing calls," Terry's office responded. "The bill "would not permit 'a flood' of calls. The legislation would only allow commercial calls that do not constitute a telephone solicitation, which, by their very nature, are only made by an entity with which a consumer already does business, such as an airline, a pharmacy, a utility company, a bank, an insurance company, a cable operator, or a car dealership." The TCPA's current exemptions are specific to a particular phone number and do not allow "prior express consent" to be transferred to a new wireless number, Terry's office added.

The bill is supported by an array of banks and other businesses. Supporters include Wells Fargo, the American Bankers Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Communications Subcommittee Ranking Member Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., hasn't taken a position on the bill, and plans to gather more information and evaluate the legislation at the hearing, her office said. The hearing is 9 a.m. Friday in Room 2123, Rayburn Building.

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