FCC Gives Phone Companies Okay to Block Robocalls, But Will They?

Image: A pedestrian uses a smartphone as he walk

A pedestrian uses a smartphone as he walks along Market Street on June 5, 2013 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images, file

The Federal Communications Commission has given the nation's phone companies the green light to block those annoying and illegal robocalls - as well as unwanted spam text messages.

By a 3 to 2 vote, the FCC told the companies Thursday that they are legally allowed to provide this service to customers who request it in order to take back control of their phones.

Just because the phone companies have permission to use this screening technology, however, doesn't mean they will. The FCC can't force them to do it. And so far, there's been no indication they plan to provide this service.

The technology already exists to protect customers from unwanted and illegal robocalls that are often used by scammers, but wireless and landline phone companies have not embraced it.

Landline phone companies have refused to do it or to allow third-party screening software to work on their networks. They've insisted that federal law and FCC regulations require them to deliver every call and specifically prohibit them from blocking any calls, even those consumers don't want.

Independent companies have created apps for wireless phones and a service called Nomorobo is available for Internet (VoIP) telephone customers.

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The Commission received more than 215,000 complaints last year about unwanted phone calls, more than any other issue.

The FCC's decision tells the phone companies in no uncertain terms that it's legal for them to screen and block robocalls and spam texts -- a service that could be greatly appreciated by their customers.

"Phone companies, please start letting your consumers request to have robocalls blocked," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in voting for the rule changes.

"I detest robocalls and I am not alone," said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. "It's time, long past time, to do something about this… to honor our cherished right to be left alone."

The FCC decision also reaffirms that robocalls and text messages to cellphones are not allowed without the customer's consent. The Commission did allow text messages without prior consent for data breaches or suspected fraud, or emergency messages from health care providers, as long as the customer is able to opt-out of these text alerts in the future.

A coalition of consumer groups issued a statement praising the FCC's decision. Linda Sherry, director of national priorities at Consumer Action, said the FCC sent "a clear message to the industry that consumers have the right to control the calls and texts they receive."

"Since the FCC has now clarified that telephone companies can block these types of calls, we expect the companies to act quickly to implement blocking options for their customers," said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America.

Say goodbye to annoying robocalls 0:26

Will this ruling make any difference?

Companies that use robocalls to sell something are prohibited from dialing both landline and cell phones without the owner's written permission. Fraudsters, who are often overseas, don't follow the law and they thumb their noses at the federal Do Not Call Registry.

Consumer advocates and numerous members of Congress believe the only way to stop these intrusive and illegal calls is to block them -- similar to the spam-blocking service provided by your Internet service provider.

What do the phone companies think about the FCC's ruling?

CTIA, The Wireless Association, told NBC News it was not commenting on the FCC vote.

United States Telecom Association (USTelecom), a trade group which represents landline phone companies issued this statement following the vote:

"We appreciate the FCC's action today to clarify some aspects of the agency's interpretation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Eliminating illegal or unwanted robocalls is a shared goal of industry, government and consumers. Unfortunately, there is no single technological solution to solving this problem, particularly given the recent widespread abuse of spoofed numbers by robocallers. USTelecom's members will continue to develop and deploy tools to their customers in order to address these unwanted calls. We look forward to continuing collaboration with government, law enforcement and technology providers to eliminate illegal robocalls."

Robocalls on the rise

Critics say the phone companies just don't get it

When the issue of call screening was first raised, the landline phone companies told NBC News it did not make economic sense to invest in call-blocking technology for their old-fashioned analog networks when they were spending billion to switch to Internet phone service.

They also point out that they already provide customers with several ways to block unwanted calls -- such as those from a short list of specific numbers, or all anonymous calls. Critics say that's not sufficient to block the ever-increasing volume of robocalls.

Aaron Foss provides a free robocall blocking service, Nomorobo, for VoIP telephone customers. Foss started the service after winning the Federal Trade Commission's Robocall Challenge. In almost two years, he's blocked more than 26 million robocalls.

Foss wants to provide the service for landline and cellphone customers, but he needs cooperation from the phone companies -- something that has not happened.

Foss told NBC News he does not expect landline carriers to do anything in response to the FCC's decision. He said, however, that he is "cautiously optimistic" the FCC's action will give the wireless carriers the prod they need to allow better call-screening technology on their networks.

Speaking at Thursday's meeting, FCC Chairman Wheeler made it clear he hopes America's phone companies will finally get the message.

"Listening to Congress and the American people, the message is clear: No unauthorized, automated calls. Stop it, and stop today."