PD Editorial: Supreme Court tells robocallers go ahead and dial

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

Fed up with robocalls? Does the sun set in the west?

The next time you hang up on a recorded voice claiming to represent the Social Security Administration, urgently warning you about an expiring warranty you never purchased or ominously threatening imminent arrest by the Internal Revenue Service, thank the U.S. Supreme Court.

No, the court hasn’t started phishing for credit card numbers.

However, in a decision that put grammar ahead of common sense, the justices gutted a federal law intended to stop scammers from tying up your phone (and your time) with nuisance calls.

Congress can — and should — plug this new loophole right away.

The case involved the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, a law passed in 1991 that prohibits nonemergency calls using artificial or prerecorded voices “without the prior express consent of the called party.”

In a decision that turned on the placement of a comma in one provision of the statute, the justices ruled that the law applies only to calls made by equipment that dials phones at random or dials numbers sequentially. Calls dialed from a database of phone numbers are exempt, the court ruled in a unanimous decision.

At issue was a lawsuit filed by a Montana man who objected to text messages from Facebook warning that his account had been breached. He didn’t have a Facebook account, and it isn’t clearly why the social media giant had his cellphone number in its telephone database.

A district court dismissed the man’s lawsuit, but that ruling was overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which was in turn reversed by the Supreme Court.

In reaching its decision, the high court ignored a filing by 21 members of the House of Representatives who helped pass the measure in 1991. They said Congress intended to regulate all auto-dialed calls, not just randomly dialed calls.

“Simply put,” the House members wrote, “robocalls are not only a nuisance to those that receive them, they are threatening the viability of the telephone as a useful means of communication.”

Americans received 45.9 billion — that’s billion with a “b” — robocalls in 2020 and 152 billion over the past three years, according to figures compiled by YouMail, a private company that offers a robocall-blocking app for smartphones.

Given those numbers — about 455 robocalls for every man, woman and child in the country — it wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that the federal Do Not Call registry and other consumer-protection measures, including the law set aside by the Supreme Court, haven’t been very effective.

Even so, opening the floodgates isn’t going to reduce the already staggering number of unsolicited telephone solicitations. To the contrary, the National Consumer Law Center predicts that robocallers will soon be autodialing with a vengeance.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, say they will pursue legislation to close the loophole. Congress shouldn’t waste any time passing their bill.

Until then, we may to settle for a little schadenfreude. As Eshoo and Markey said in a joint statement, “if the justices find their private mobile phones ringing nonstop from now until our legislation becomes law, they’ll only have themselves to blame.”

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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