Ringless voicemail messaging: Why advocates are speaking out for and against it

In the US, controversy once again erupts between privacy groups and telemarketers. This time it's about ringless voicemail messaging and the ability to put messages onto mobile phones without calling.

Why you should care about privacy

Messages are accumulating in voicemail systems, and people aren't sure why. The voicemail message appears suddenly, and no one has called. Before blaming the mobile device, it might be best to check out ringless voicemail messaging.

What is ringless voicemail messaging?

Something important to understand is that voicemail messages are not sent to or stored on mobile phones; instead, voicemail messages are delivered to a data center used by the phone owner's mobile telco provider. An alert is then sent to the mobile phone notifying the owner there is a voicemail message in the system. The owner dials the voicemail messaging system, enters a PIN, and retrieves the voicemail message. All of this activity is predicated on the phone owner, for whatever reason, electing not to answer the phone when it rings.

Ringless voicemail messages bypass the wireless (cellular) network. The message travels directly from a server at the ringless voicemail messaging center to the voicemail server of the targeted phone owner's mobile telco service provider. The mobile phone will not ring as with a normal phone call, but it will implement an alert announcing a voicemail message on the owner's mobile device.

SEE: Automated Mobile Application Security Assessment with Mobile Security Framework Online Course (TechRepublic Academy)

Why would telemarketers bother with ringless voicemail messaging?

Simply put, telemarketers are hopeful that individuals who are sent a ringless voicemail message are in a better frame of mind because they did not have to put up with what is often perceived as an annoying marketing call. Other advantages suggested by companies developing ringless voicemail systems are that no call appears on the phone-owner's bill, and no charge is assessed for the delivery or retrieval of ringless voicemail messages.

Is ringless voicemail legal?

For the time being, ringless voicemail messaging appears to be a legal method of marketing products and services for individuals and businesses; however, that may change. Once again privacy groups are lining up on one side of the fence, with marketing and telephone solicitors on the other side.

The law everyone is looking at is the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). As it stands, the TCPA disallows non-emergency calls to be made to a telephone number assigned to a wireless service without prior express consent using an auto-dialer, an artificial voice, or a prerecorded voice.

SEE: Privacy Policy (Tech Pro Research)

"It (ringless voicemail message) is not delivered to a wireless service, but to a voicemail service," writes William I. Rothbard, an attorney and regulatory compliance specialist, in his blog Ringless Voicemail: Clever and Cool, but Is It Legal? "Voicemail also has been traditionally classified as an 'enhanced or information service,' rather than a 'common carrier' service, like cellular telephone service. It thus has not been subject to FCC regulation, even if the provider of the voicemail service is a common carrier."

Rothbard suggests, for those reasons, ringless voicemail systems should fall outside the purvey of the TCPA, in particular, its prior express written consent requirement. Rothbard also mentions a petition has been filed by a ringless voicemail provider to obtain a ruling as to whether the technology is exempt or not from the TCPA.

On May 18, 2017, the FCC began asking for public comments about ringless voicemail messaging. By the June 2, 2017 deadline, the FCC had received over 100 comments. One person says:

"I am writing to encourage you NOT to impose the ringless voicemail option on robocalls and other nuisance calls. They are already flooding my voicemail, even though I have blocked the numbers. This only serves to load up one's voicemail box and takes valuable time to review and delete them. These parties who do this should NOT be permitted to decide when it's 'convenient' (NEVER!) to receive their advertisements, spam calls, or offers."

So the legal battle begins.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

How does the political wind blow?

The Republican National Committee (RNC) has voiced their opinion, supporting the petition of All About the Message, LLC. The RNC's brief states, "A contrary finding would not only restrict an important form of non-intrusive communication; it would have serious consequences for the First Amendment rights of those engaged in political communication via telephone."

SEE: The inevitable and inescapable rise of robocalls (TechRepublic)

Several Democrats, including Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.), are opposed, mentioning in this letter to the FCC, "Should this petition be granted, telemarketers, debt collectors, and other callers could bombard Americans with unwanted voicemails, leaving consumers with no way to block or stop these intrusive messages."

Is there any recourse?

According to several experts, there is currently no way to block ringless voicemail messages because blocking occurs on the phone, and voicemail messages go directly to the telco providers voicemail server. Even though the comment period has ended, those wishing to can file complaints with the FCC.

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