Q: What are the rules on robo-calls?
A: Federal law requires that groups making automated calls identify themselves at the beginning of the call and provide a call-back number. The FEC says that a disclaimer must accompany public communication made by political committees or individuals. However, specific regulations for political robo-calls vary from state to state.
Can you clarify the legal rules on robo-calls? Does the robo-caller need to declare what type of political committee they are with? Do they have to say who paid for the call? I know they can lie all they want, but are there legal political campaigning rules that they have to follow?
Robo-calls are automated telephone calls made by a computerized dialing machine that delivers a prerecorded message. More commonly associated with telemarketing, these types of calls are also used in political campaigns. Sometimes they're used to simply remind people to go to the polls and vote; other times they're used to spread a particular message in favor of or against a political candidate. During election years, potential voters can be bombarded with robo-calls several times a day, and in many instances there isn't much they can do about it.
At the federal level, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 has some basic rules that apply to all automated calls, but it is up to the states to decide how they will regulate automated calls of a political nature. According to the TCPA: "All artificial or prerecorded telephone messages (i) shall at the beginning of the message, state clearly the identity of the business, individuals, or other entity that is initiating the call, and (ii) shall, during or after the message, state clearly the telephone number or address of such business, other entity, or individual."
In addition, the Federal Election Commission, which doesn't specifically mention robo-calls in its regulations but does consider them a form of public communication, requires that a call made by a political committee or individual that "expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate or solicits funds in connection with a federal election" include a disclaimer, which "identifies the person(s) who paid for the communication and, where applicable, the person(s) who authorized the communication."
Specific state laws regulating prerecorded calls vary. The nonpartisan, anti-robo-call group Citizens for Civil Discourse provided factcheck.org with a memo on the existing laws affecting political prerecorded calls. It shows that three states ban the practice: Laws in Arkansas, Montana and Wyoming prohibit the use of automated telephone equipment to make calls in connection with political campaigns. Other states either allow political calls or allow them with certain stipulations. Some states allow them if consent is given by the person called, if the call is not conducting a poll, or if the recipient does not appear on a do-not-call list.
Recently, the Nebraska government passed a law that requires automated calls be made between 8 a.m and 9 p.m. and begin with the name of the person paying for the call, as well as provide a phone number other than that of the machine making the call. Those regulations will take effect in 2009. Several states have bills pending that would allow people to add their names to a do-not-call list to block the calls.
But do-not-call lists are not foolproof. For those looking to avoid political calls altogether, a caller identification or voice messaging system may be the best option. As the Federal Trade Commission explains, placing your number on the National Do Not Call Registry won't necessarily put an end to such calls. In effect since Oct. 1, 2003, the Do-Not-Call Registry exempts customers from receiving calls from telemarketers. However, limitations in jurisdiction prevent the FTC and the Federal Communications Commission from restricting calls from political organizations, as well as charities and telephone surveyors.
Attempts at regulations on robo-calls at the federal and state level are controversial and have been labeled by some, citing the First Amendment's protection of free speech, as unconstitutional. But most state regulations pertaining to the political calls don't restrict the content, instead they outline what time of day the calls can be made and require that those receiving them give consent. Earlier this year, the Robocall Privacy Act of 2008, a bipartisan effort, was introduced in the U.S. Congress. If enacted into law, the act would stipulate that calls can only be made twice a day to the same number, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m., and it would require the disclosure of the party responsible for the call, their phone number and the fact that the call is prerecorded. The bill would allow the FEC to impose civil fines against violators and would allow individuals to sue to stop the calls.
- D'Angelo Gore
Telephone Consumer Protection Act 47 U.S.C. § 227.
S.2624: Robocall Privacy Act of 2000. Introduced 12 Feb. 2008.
Federal Election Commission. Special Notices on Political Ads and Solicitations. Oct. 2006, accessed 22 May 2008.
"Restrictions on automated calls approved." Associated Press, JournalStar.com, 17 April 2008.
Darner, Michael. "In Defense of the right to robocall." Politico.com, 31 March 2008.