Controlling communications content

I hate getting those calls as much as the next guy. You know the ones I’m talking about: a static beep followed by the background noise of a call-centre boiler-room and the familiar words “air duct cleaning”; or, maybe it’s Jeanette from Credit Card Services with my last chance to save; or, the computer technical support department; or, the $999.99 credit I won toward my Mexican vacation resort.

Despite all the best efforts of legislation and regulation, authorities have not been able to stop the fraudsters, scammers and spammers.

In August, the FCC hosted the launch of “the Robocall Strike Force, an industry-led group that is committed to developing comprehensive solutions to prevent, detect, and filter unwanted robocalls.” Earlier in the summer, FCC Chair Tom Wheeler pledged to cut off robocalls, saying “Robocalls and telemarketing calls are currently the number one source of consumer complaints at the FCC.” At the final meeting of the Strike Force the update identified a number of areas where work activities remained open, including:

  • Consumer Access to Free Call Blocking & Filtering Solutions
  • Development of Network-to-Device Information Sharing Framework
  • Deployment of VoIP Caller ID Authentication

In Canada, the CRTC launched a consultation in July 2015, “Empowering Canadians to protect themselves from unsolicited and illegitimate telemarketing calls.” That resulted in the production of a summary database of “options and features that are currently available to help Canadians protect themselves from unsolicited and illegitimate calls.” Let me know what you think of the usefulness of that website.

Also arising from that consultation, earlier this week the CRTC issued Compliance and Enforcement and Telecom Regulatory Policy CRTC 2016-442, stating “The Commission finds that the technical solutions available to Canadians to protect themselves from unwanted unsolicited and illegitimate telecommunications are not sufficient.” The CRTC has asked CISC (the CRTC Interconnection Steering Committee) to “develop practices to block blatantly illegitimate calls at the network level”, effectively providing a Section 36 authorization for Canadian carriers to block calls. CISC is to report back within 90 days – early February.

What are blatantly illegitimate calls?

Blatantly illegitimate calls include calls that purport to originate from telephone numbers that

  1. match the telephone number of the person being called;
  2. are “spoofed” with a number that is local to the person being called, in the case of an incoming long distance call; or
  3. do not conform to the North American Numbering Plan (i.e. are non-dialable telephone numbers [e.g. 000-000-0000]).

There are clear problems with this. The CRTC justified its definition with a bit of bizarre logic.

  1. These three specific circumstances account for up to 35% of all complaints filed with the National DNCL Operator in 2015. The Commission considers that universal blocking of these types of calls would be consistent with
    • the UTRs, which require telemarketers to identify themselves and provide a telecommunications number where the originator can be reached; and
    • Telecom Decision 2007-48, which states that telecommunications numbers must conform to the North American Numbering Plan in order to be registered on the National DNCL.

Hold on. What is with the second bullet? Getting registered in the Do Not Call List refers to me, the person receiving the call, not the person calling me. Decision 2007-48 effectively says that Canada’s Do Not Call List is for Canadian phone numbers. Further, with respect to the first bullet, the logic only makes sense if the originator is a telemarketer. What if it is my daughter calling me from overseas? The CRTC has no control over the phone company or app with which she makes her call and by definition, as an overseas call, the originating number cannot conform to the NANP. A caller ID from outside North America cannot and should not conform to the North American Numbering Plan. Incoming calls from various long distance companies, or from VoIP apps (such as Skype and others), can deliver a range of non-conforming caller IDs. Will these be captured by the CRTC’s blanket ban?

While the CRTC claims the “use of universal blocking to prevent calls with blatantly illegitimate caller ID information also strikes an appropriate balance between the protection of individual privacy and the need to permit legitimate uses of telemarketing telecommunications”, it appears that there are bound to be legitimate calls blocked that did not originate from telemarketers.

As the Commission itself recognizes in the discussion about universal blocking:

  1. A number of parties expressed concern that universal blocking could prevent legitimate calls from reaching their intended recipient…

  1. Eastlink, Primus, and trueCall argued that universal blocking, if implemented broadly, would not reflect the distinct preferences of individuals, given that all calls would be blocked at the network level (i.e. affecting all subscribers) and that the blocking could not be customized by the consumer…
  1. Carriers generally argued that universal blocking is ineffective at combatting nuisance calls from callers who constantly change the numbers that they display on caller ID, which makes it difficult to determine which calls should be blocked…

So the CRTC is sending this off to CISC:

  1. Accordingly, the Commission requests CISC to
    • identify and develop a comprehensive list of attributes of calls that indicate blatantly illegitimate caller ID information and that can be universally blocked;
    • identify potential unintended consequences of universally blocking calls based on the list of attributes identified above;
    • as required, develop redress mechanisms to prevent and remediate these consequences when universal blocking is deployed, and approaches for monitoring their effectiveness; and
    • provide a report of its findings on the above to the Commission within 90 days of the date of this decision.

A much bigger scourge is that of phishing, with scammers spoofing the originating source of emails. Ottawa Police is circulating an educational video as part of an education process for users to recognize fraudulent messages. Should the CRTC be ordering ISPs to block blatantly illegitimate emails?

Ultimately, these efforts by the CRTC and by the police point to the ineffectiveness of legislation and regulation such as Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation and the Unsolicited Telecommunications Rules. Hopefully, CISC will report back about the risks of blocking legitimate calls from ordinary citizens and we can move on. But we need to consider the unnecessary costs these rules have imposed on legitimate businesses while the perpetrators of fraud and genuine consumer annoyances continue their practices unabated.

While it would be nice to find a regulatory solution or a novel technology, I continue to believe the most effective way to deal with nuisance calls was invented more than 130 years ago. Just hang up.

2 thoughts on “Controlling communications content”

  1. Pingback: Controlling communications content | Patrick Mitchell Blog

  2. Pingback: CRTC crackdown on phone fraudsters could snag VoIP calls … |

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