Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced the Robocall Privacy Act on Wednesday, July 13, which will tighten controls on automated political calls. Robocalls are prerecorded messages from commercial or political organizations that automatically dial phone numbers and play the message when the receiver is picked up.
A law that went into effect on Sept. 1, 2009 banned commercial telemarketers from using robocalling unless the consumer gives permission in writing and a Dec. 2008 law requires an opt-out statement at the beginning of the message and provision of an automated key or voice activated mechanism to do so.
The Robocall Privacy Act takes the 2009 regulations into the political arena by setting restrictions on calls made by political organizations. It provides for a fine for violators and allows voters to sue but not to receive a monetary award.
Feinstein's concern stems from complaints she received last November from Los Angeles residents who said they received robocalls in Spanish that told them to vote on Wednesday, Nov. 3. The election was held on Nov. 2. Such fraudulent and misleading calls are of particular concern to her.
"In recent election campaigns, troubling stories about people being inundated with robocalls at all times of day or the use of robocalls to mislead and confuse potential voters have been reported with increasing frequency," Feinstein stated. She said that it is not "acceptable for campaign vendors to deliberately mislead voters with inaccurate information about an election."
Feinstein gave similar examples from other states: On election day in 2010, a robocall told 110,000 Maryland voters, two hours before the polls closed, that the election had already been decided and to stay home. Voters Kansas were told by a robocaller a few days before the 2010 midterm to bring proof of voter registration and home ownership to the polls on Wednesday. Such identification is not required and the election was on a Tuesday. In Missouri, a fraudulent number came up on the caller ID.
The Robocall Privacy Act would ban automated political calls between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m.; disallow more than two robocalls per day to the same number from the same campaign or group; ban robocallers from blocking the caller ID number; and require an announcement at the beginning of the call that identifies the individual or organization that is making the calls and states that the message is prerecorded.
Though such legislation is welcome, how much good it will do remains to be seen. California already holds political callers to the same standards as commercial callers. Both the Federal Trade Commission and some statesÂ—California includedÂ—have "do not call" registries which enable government agencies to fine telemarketers who do not comply.
As anyone with a landline knows, these registries and the current laws do little to stop automatic dialing and recorded messages. Consumers can file complaints, but it is nearly impossible to find contact information on the callers.
It is hoped that Congress, if the Robocall Privacy Act is passed, will give the FTC some teeth to enforce it.