Editorial: The scourge of ringless voicemail

Friday, June 16, 2017

Email inboxes are like gardens: The longer you go without tending to them, the more daunting the task becomes. Until recently, voicemail boxes have been largely free of the kind of digital weeds that dominate most email inboxes, but that would rapidly change if the Federal Communications Commission decides to officially allow the practice of “ringless voicemail.”

Unfortunately, in this divided age even a general loathing of nuisance calls isn’t enough to unite left and right. This issue, too, is shaping up as a partisan fight over regulations.

Under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, it is against the law “to make any call (other than a call made for emergency purposes or made with the prior express consent of the called party) using any automatic telephone dialing system or an artificial or prerecorded voice” to a cell phone number. But providers of ringless voicemail claim the rule doesn’t apply to them because they are not actually making a call but rather leaving messages in voicemail boxes without the phone ever ringing.

With that argument in hand, a company called All About the Message is now petitioning the FCC to rule that the ringless voicemail service it provides is not prohibited under the 1991 law. The company is also asking for a retroactive waiver to head off the many lawsuits filed by frustrated and annoyed consumers.

Among ringless voicemail supporters are the Republican National Committee, which has argued that banning the practice would be a violation of free speech, and pro-business groups. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, called the Telephone Consumer Protection Act an “archaic statute.”

Although we are sympathetic to businesses looking for innovative ways to get their messages out, the argument that a call is only a call if the phone rings is specious at best. Logic says that a new voicemail in the box means a call was placed – and that’s true even if the message was delivered through a back door.

All four members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation agree, with Sen. Maggie Hassan and Rep. Carol Shea-Porter especially vocal in their opposition to ringless voicemail.

On Wednesday, Hassan and 10 other Democratic senators – including independent Bernie Sanders – sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai arguing that if the petition is granted, “telemarketers, debt collectors, and other callers could bombard Americans with unwanted voicemails, leaving consumers with no way to block or stop these intrusive messages.” If the petition is granted, they said, the Do Not Call List might not apply, leaving consumers no choice but to sift through their inboxes in search of messages that matter. In other words, it would give people another digital garden in constant need of tending.

For her part, Shea-Porter said she is concerned that the effort “appears to be aimed at allowing political robo-voicemails.” The people of New Hampshire, she said, “know better than anyone that we need more, not fewer, consumer protections to limit intrusive political advertising.”

We appreciate the delegation’s efforts to protect New Hampshire consumers from nuisance voicemail, and we hope New Hampshire voters of all stripes do as well. We urge the FCC to reject the petition filed by All About the Message and supported by the RNC and the U.S. Chamber. To do otherwise would have telemarketers, political action committees and debt collectors joyfully singing an old Jimmy Buffett song over and over again: “If the phone doesn’t ring, it’s me.”