US Regulator Finds New Robocall Bogeymen: Foreign Owners

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the US regulator, is normally keen to garner maximum publicity for its efforts to reduce robocalls, so it was odd that last Thursday they made some important announcements about robocall prevention on the same day they blitzed the media with a new map showing mobile broadband coverage. One explanation is that they appear to be quietly doing the groundwork so they can later pull one of the oldest tricks that politicians use when policies fail: blame it on a foreigner.

The press release announcing their newest anti-robocall proposals says:

This proceeding proposes updates to FCC rules to require Executive Branch review before entities based outside the United States gain access to numbering resources, and would require that applicants for direct access to numbers disclose foreign ownership information.

Acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel (pictured) issued her own statement in support of the proposal. Rosenworcel is a Democrat, but she began with assertions that sound suspiciously like a dog whistle for those Americans who indulge in conspiracy theories about outside interference.

If you want to stop robocalls, you need to look far and wide. You need to identify every policy and every practice that makes it possible for these nuisance calls to get through.

Get through from where? The US has spent half a billion dollars on an anti-robocall, pro-STIR/SHAKEN strategy that only works when dealing with calls that are carried by IP networks from end to end, even though most countries are many years away from switching to an all-IP infrastructure. The idea is to attach a digital certificate to every call which is passed from source to destination so the origin can be validated. However, one of the architects of this strategy effectively admitted it will never be extended to non-IP networks during a recent FCC filing.

I remarked I very (sic) little confidence that, so called, Out-Of-Band STIR/SHAKEN solutions will work. In addition, they would be a waste of Service Provider capital that could be better spent on converting the PSTN to an all IP Network.

A strategy already predicated on both upgrading to all-IP networks and using STIR/SHAKEN to attach a certificate to every single call is no longer considered sufficient. We are now being told that US hopes of reducing robocalls also depend on the cheaper, older technique of being suspicious of foreigners. Rosenworcel’s subsequent choice of words were more anodyne.

We also propose an update to Executive Branch coordination when VoIP providers with substantial foreign ownership seek direct access to numbers.

Has anybody ever shown the slightest bit of evidence that the enormous number of robocalls received by Americans is linked to foreign ownership of businesses? Why has foreign interference never previously been mentioned during the several years the FCC has been promising a reduction in robocalls?

When she was in the minority, Rosenworcel was never shy of using her position as an FCC Commissioner to accuse the FCC’s leadership of lacking zeal in the fight against robocalls, but this is the first time she has implied they did not take enough action against foreign owners. It makes no sense to spend so much on authentication technology that cannot be usefully implemented across borders if the real cause of the robocall problem lies overseas. A rich country like the UK might be able to swap digital certificates with the USA by 2025; the majority of countries will not be able to do so until the following decade.

More evidence of the FCC’s confused thinking was circulated the same day. STIR/SHAKEN became mandatory for all larger US telcos with IP networks at the end of June. A private governance body has the authority to throw telcos out of the STIR/SHAKEN club by rescinding the tokens that are the technological foundation of the authentication process. A telco that loses their STIR/SHAKEN token would effectively become a law-breaker. That means people whose vested interests lie with the telcos who enabled their appointment to the governance body are now in a position where they can cause enormous and possibly fatal harm to rival telcos. But it only just occurred to the FCC that they need to give the telcos being thrown out the STIR/SHAKEN club a way of appealing against bad decisions! Per Rosenworcel’s understated statement of August 5:

Because due process matters, we clarify here the precise procedure to allow carriers with revoked [STIR/SHAKEN] tokens to appeal their decision to the FCC. This is the right thing to do.

Excuse me if I question why it took a crack team of FCC lawyers a whole month before they realized that telcos could be forced into a situation where they are breaking the FCC’s rules because of a decision imposed by a third party, and with no route of appeal to the FCC. If compliance became mandatory on June 30 then the appeals process should have been available on June 30.

I now believe that the US strategy for reducing robocalls is an unholy expensive mess that is doomed to fail. But you do not get to run a heavily-politicized regulator like the FCC without being a savvy politician. The one skill that all successful politicians have is the ability to pass the buck when something goes wrong. Weak politicians find scapegoats at the last minute, whilst canny politicians prepare them in advance.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.