By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Last Thursday saw 51 attorney generals, including those of all 50 states and DC, and thirteen phone companies – AT&T, Bandwidth, CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast, Consolidated, Frontier, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular, Verizon, and Winstream – enter into an agreement to stop robocalls.
I understand these are a big problem in the US, particularly for senior citizens. While visiting my mother, I’ve watched her field several such calls each day. The callers often claim to be from the IRS or Medicare and demand immediate attention. The local police force offers seminars explaining to people how to protect themselves from these cons. My Mom is already well up to speed on that score. She often makes it clear she knows when someone’s trying to scam her – such as the time she pointed out to the caller that the real IRS would be unlikely to ring anyone at 5:20 p.m. on a Friday afternoon.
Yet as will come as no great surprise to regular readers, the new robocall agreement is so weak as to be meaningless. Far be it for state regulators actually to try and regulate.
As Ars Technica reports in US phone carriers make empty, unenforceable promises to fight robocalls:
The top wireless carriers and home phone providers promised attorneys general from every state and the District of Columbia that they would offer free robocall blocking and take other steps to fight robocalls. But the agreement imposes no legally binding requirements on phone providers. “Failure to adhere to these principles is not in itself a basis for liability,” a disclaimer on the agreement notes.
Even if breaking the agreement was a basis for liability, there would be no deadline to comply. “Adherence to these principles may take time for the voice service providers to plan for and implement,” the disclaimer also said, while providing no specific timeline for the carriers to fulfill their promises.
Given that disclaimer, you’d think carriers actually agreed to make some major changes. But the agreement’s top promises are things the phone companies are already doing or in the process of rolling out.
Despite the Fact The Agreement is Weak and Unenforceable Doesn’t Stop the MSM From Pretending Otherwise
I note that telecoms companies are lauding the effort. Need I say more?
Over to the WSJ’s account, Large Telecoms, State Enforcers Make Pact to Combat Robocalls:
In statements Thursday, the companies praised the effort, which they said aligned with some of their previous public commitments.
“We remain committed to continuing to work with stakeholders at all levels of government and throughout the industry as we continue to fight this ongoing battle,” said a statement from Joan Marsh, executive vice president of regulatory and state external affairs for AT&T.
How About Some Actual Regulation? Please?
Rather than another virtue- signalling exercise, what’s needed is some actual regulation – as Ars Technica recognizes:
“Voluntary agreements are no substitute for enforceable rights,” Harold Feld, senior VP of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, told Ars. “This is the sort of smokescreen designed to stop Congress from passing more effective legislation, like the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act passed by the House [and pending in the Senate]. With nothing to force carriers to meet deadlines, nothing to force carriers to upgrade once robocallers figure out how to outwit the new technological measures, and nothing to stop carriers from walking away if it gets too hard or too expensive, I wouldn’t declare ‘Mission Accomplished.'”
Phone companies a venerable history of sidestepping liability – see more on this below, in an easy to take comic vein. This tendency has only extended to other parts of the economy — and is intertwined with corporate actors assuming greater monopoly power. But now that there’s more nominal competition in the sector that when I was a teenager – back when Carter was President – means that the nominally restructured industry just avails itself of today’s techniques for avoiding legal liability.
Another Brief Meander through My Employment History in Service of Some Larger Points
The failure of state AGs to force telecoms companies to take concrete action to stop robocalls has sparked another brief meander through my employment history, to the summer of ’79, and my first sit-down summer job, as a telephone operator.
The summer of ’78 had been one of intellectual stimulation, when I was awarded a spot in a National Science Foundation Summer Student Training Program (NSF SSTP), offered by the school of textile engineering, at the Georgia Institute of Technology. I think these programs are long gone – a consequence IIRC of the extreme budget-cutting instituted by the Reagan administration (and more or less pursued by most administrations since).
But it was an idyll for me, an overachieving high school student, bored to tears with high school – and a harbinger of what would follow, beginning with my matriculation at MIT in ’79. And in passing, I’ll note, I wasn’t the only one inspired by the short seven weeks of this NSF SSTP. Years later, lounging in a hot tub after a day’s skiing in San Moritz, I found myself in the midst of several scientists from CERN. To a person, all had participated in an NSF SSTP, to which each gave at least some credit for motivating him or herself to study science. (At that time, I was on a fellowship from what was then called the Graduate Institute for International Studies in Geneva to study the influence of business elites on shaping US trade policy, and I, along with lots of other Swiss university students, as well as the scientists from CERN, was enjoying staying at Swiss resort, in shoulder season, at bargain rates. In Switzerland, the pleasure of skiing isn’t limited to elites – at least not in those days, despite what now goes on in Davos every February.)
Back to the issue at hand. Whereas the summer of ’78 was one of intellectual awakening, by contrast, the summer of ’79 was all about earning money. I was off to MIT in the fall, and I wanted to sock away as much cash as possible before starting school. And so I was lucky to land this summer gig as a telephone operator, at a union rate of minimum wage plus $1 per hour – a pretty good wage in my small NJ town, especially as I was still kipping at my family home and could bank most of what I earned.
But whereas I thought all I was doing that summer was merely earning money, what I didn’t realize then was I was also absorbing some lessons, equally as important and long-lasting as the ones I learned at Georgia Tech.
What were some of these lessons?
First, never trust the phone company. Now, this was in the last stages of Ma Bell’s market dominance. Later in this post, we’ll have a bit of fun remembering what those years were like, using as a tour guide through those dark ages – “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there “ – Ernestine, Lily Tomlin’s Ma Bell operator, to remind us that for things to stay the same, they needed to change.
But I never worked for Ma Bell. We lived in one of the minuscule pockets not served by AT & T but where the local carrier, United Telephone, was allowed to survive, so that Bell could pretend it didn’t in fact completely dominate the US market. United Telephone was a terrible carrier in terms of the quality of telephone service they provided.
I attended my first union meeting, an assembly during which the membership debated whether to call a strike. I can’t actually remember whether they did or not. If so, it was very short-lived, a matter of hours, not days, before the company and membership came to agreement. It was clear that there were two camps, management and labor. And that your manager wasn’t your friend.
More on that point: the supervisors had the means to monitor any activity on your switchboard. And they did. This had bad sides: making sure you didn’t sneak in personal calls, even a quick call to Mom during a slow stint, letting her know when you might be heading home, and whether she needed me to pick up anything at the grocery store. But it also had positives: one operator consistently monitored her boyfriend’s line, but had to make sure she didn’t attempt any such shenanigans when certain supervisors were on duty.
But supervisors weren’t always paying attention, and Iearned it was at that time virtually impossible to maintain privacy from the telephone company. I’m not here addressing legal eavesdropping: wiretapping. But operators could – and did – often listen in on calls. And there was no safeguard other than sporadic monitoring by their supervisors to prevent that.
This all being said, the telephone company – even sad little United – was an integral part of the community, and took its community obligations seriously. Perhaps this was a phenomenon unique to living in a small town. But in those days, I learned that many people, when faced with a problem, dialed zero for the operator, and expected her — and incidentally, at that time we were all women – to solve the problem. United made clear that was what they expected its operators to do: it wasn’t about to leave us off the hook.
So, when a call came in, I would answer, “Your number, please?” And then we would go from there. Sometimes, it was matter of helping clear a line left off the hook. Others, it was a matter of following the correct procedure to cut into a long-winded call when the person calling had an urgent need to break through and reach the party. Occasionally, it was necessary to muster emergency services – the fire department, an ambulance.
And then there were the uncategorizable calls: I realized I’d made my operatorial bones when someone called the operator to ask what to do when a snake was hanging out on hisfront porch. Without missing a beat, I connected him to Fred Space, owner of Space Farms, the local game park. I held the call on my switchboard position during the next twenty minutes as the problem was discussed and finally resolved. I didn’t ask how. Don’t know whether the snake survived, but am reasonably sure the caller avoided a potentially dangerous encounter.
Is This the Party to Whom I am Speaking?
Those of us of a certain age will remember Ernestine. I realize the phone universe has shifted a bit since the days Lily Tomlin created her iconic Ma Bell operator.
For some laughs, I offer up a couple of clips. And a reminder that an omnipotent telecoms presence – and crapified customer service – are not recent phenomenon. One running gag is that the ‘phone company knows everything and listens in all the time.
Here, Ernestine rings up J. Edgar Hoover and offers him ‘phone company intercepts.
Another classic: Ernestine berates a customer for not paying a bill, referring to the ample privileged financial information to which she has access: bank balance, assets, income tax return.
And: “Now, Mr. Veedal, I want you to understand something, we are not subject to city, state, or federal regulations. We are omnipotent. Omnipotent. That’s potent with an omni in front of it.”
Plus ça change.
What Is to Be Done?
I’m not herein trying to endorse an omnipotent telecoms sector. Now, years after Ernestine made her calls, government and telecoms companies hoover up more info and data than she and J. Edgar ever imagined. I guess I just don’t believe present telecoms providers don’t have the ability to figure out who’s making robocalls – and shut them down. Or at least shut some of them down. A little liability might go a long way in figuring out how to solve this problem.
Until that happens, my mother will continue to have her day interrupted by the “IRS”, and “Medicare”, and lots of other scamsters who operate with impunity because the regulators, state and federal, aren’t doing their jobs.
Over to Congress. Is anyone listening?
A bonus video: Ernestine calls Gore Vidal.