How ringless spam voicemails became a partisan issue

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Writer
Sen. Chuck Schumer has been very outspoken against robocalls and ringless voicemails. Source: AP

If there’s anything good about ringless voicemails, it’s the fact that they bring people together. These voicemails that simply appear on your phone seem to invite universal hatred.

Indeed, the FCC has gotten almost 2,800 complaints about ringless voicemails in June alone. Among the complaints: lost business due to spam clogging the mailbox, added data costs from checking messages, mailboxes flooded to capacity unable to receive messages from family.

“My phone — bought and paid for by me — exists for my convenience, and not to provide a portal into my life for unsolicited contacts of any nature,” said one Georgian to the FCC.

The robocall war has been hard enough to fight with the support of the FCC. (Recently, the FCC scored a win in this war, slapping a $120 million fine on a robocaller after TripAdvisor tracked down the culprit.) And now ringless voicemails have become the latest battleground for telephone annoyance since the FCC was asked in late March to consider exempting ringless voicemails from its do-not-call rules by a marketing company called All About the Message, LLC. (The Do Not Call Registry provides telemarketers with a list of numbers it’s illegal to dial.)

Perhaps unexpectedly, however, the ringless voicemail debate suddenly became a partisan issue.

Ringless voicemails go viral

On May 18, the Republican National Committee got involved, filing comments with the FCC in support of All About the Message saying the “delivery of a voice message directly to a voicemail box does not constitute a call,” and is not subject to telephone consumer protection rules. RNC chief counsel John R. Phillippe, Jr. wrote that a contrary ruling “would have serious consequences for the First Amendment rights of those engaged in political communication via telephone.”

The RNC’s comments seemed suggested its support was to solidify its own strategies with ringless voicemail, but the issue snowballed as corporate interests also submitted similar letters of support. The US Chamber of Commerce and the American Financial Services Association joined in writing letters in support of the FCC not regulating ringless voicemails.

The RNC’s letter sparked a small-scale political firestorm, escalating the issue and inflaming the public. “My guess is [the RNC] had no idea their comments would generate the reaction that they had,” said Margot Freeman Saunders, senior counsel at National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), who wrote a letter against efforts to deregulate ringless voicemails. “It was their comments that triggered the first big news stories, they really made it go viral.”

After the RNC’s missive, Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey wrote a letter to the FCC opposing the petition to exempt ringless voicemails from consumer protection. The letter was signed by eight other senators. A similar letter from the House led by Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois had 14 signatories. Neither letter was signed by a Republican. The attorneys general of New York, Massachusetts, and Kentucky also sent a letter. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, a robocall critic, called on the FCC to reject All About the Message’s request.

Democrats hate them. Republicans like them?

At a glance, it’s hard to see how something universally reviled by anyone with a phone could fall along the same political lines as healthcare or taxes.

“When you see the number of [FCC] comments people have made against the use of this technology, you can see that there is broad public opposition,” Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America. “Although we don’t know the parties who have commented, it’s a technology that’s deeply unpopular so I would think that no business or political party or other entity would want to be using this technology.”

Some people actually have looked into some of the FCC’s comments. In a letter to the FCC, the NCLC’s Saunders highlighted the breadth of the complaints. Consumers of various backgrounds and income levels seem to be in agreement. The comments, Saunders said, are “very compelling. I think it shows that this isn’t a partisan issue, it’s a consumer vs. business issue.”

Despite near universal agreement that ringless voicemails are a nuisance, support for them has fallen along partisan lines for politicians. Curiously, no one Yahoo Finance spoke with could quite explain how such an issue turned political.

The closest thing to an answer was a finger to the almost-literal elephant in the room.

“I don’t think anyone would be surprised that the RNC is more favorable towards business and Dems are more favorable to consumers,” Saunders said.

For now, however, the matter is somewhat shelved. On June 20, All About the Message withdrew its petition to the FCC. Still, it’s possible this issue could re-awaken if the FCC decided to visit the issue on its own, without a petition, or that another firm could file a petition. “It’s very likely that they’ll consider it in the future,” said Saunders. 

Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, tech, and personal finance. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann. Got a tip? Send it to tips@yahoo-inc.com.

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