The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently confirmed that the COVID-19 pandemic constituted an “emergency” under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) allowing hospitals, health care providers, state and local health officials, and other government officials to lawfully communicate information about COVID-19 without violating federal law. With the FCC’s ruling, these organizations can use autodialers to communicate COVID-19 related information via calls and texts without getting consent of the end user. Ordinarily, opt-in is required for organizations to send these types of communications, something that Twilio requires in our guidelines for our customers, but these are not “ordinary” times. It goes without saying how COVID-19 has been a rapidly evolving situation with developments occurring on a daily - if not hourly - basis. Immediate, mass communications have been critical in trying to combat the spread of the virus. As such, we wholeheartedly support the FCC under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai for taking such vital and necessary steps to protect the American public at large.
Make no mistake: the FCC is not granting a free pass for a flood of unwanted marketing and promotional communications. This decision is limited to only certain types of organizations and certain types of communications -- again, all related to combating COVID-19. The stipulations include:
- The caller must be from a hospital, healthcare provider, state or local health official, or other government official.
- The content of the call must be solely informational and directly related to the imminent health or safety risk arising out of the COVID-19 outbreak. Examples include informing citizens of shelter-in-place requirements, quarantines, medically administered testing information, or school closures.
Calls or texts that contain advertising or telemarketing of services under the guise of COVID-19 related activities, such as advertising a commercial grocery delivery service, selling or promoting health insurance, promoting cleaning services, or selling home test kits, are still not permitted without gaining consent first from the person receiving the call or text.
Thinking ahead, in an effort to mitigate bad actors from taking advantage of the designated emergency, the FCC launched a Consumer Warnings and Safety Tips webpage to alert consumers about scam phone calls and texts related to COVID-19. Scams include promoting COVID-19 “cures,” offering fake test kits, sending hoax text messages, and generally preying on virus-related fears. Consumers who think they are receiving scam robocalls or texts are encouraged to alert the FCC by filing a complaint at http://fcc.gov/complaints.
Efforts like this are critical for ensuring the safety and health of individuals. However, as can sometimes be the case when trying to stop illegal communications, wanted communications inadvertently get blocked or are confused with scams. As such, at Twilio, we echo FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly’s call more enhanced labeling of legitimate calls so that when they arrive, they’re not labeled as “spam likely” because they arrive in an unsolicited manner. For example, in Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser sent out a robocall encouraging residents to stay at home due to COVID-19, and to many recipients, the call was labeled “potential spam,” potentially causing some folks to ignore the call and the critical information.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 and its ramifications will be felt for the foreseeable future. Now is time to perfect how calls and texts are categorized for more accurate labeling and possibly save lives.
In the meantime, our hope is that the new guidelines put forth by the FCC regarding the TCPA will supercharge the efforts by health organizations and government agencies using mass communications scalable to the dynamic threat posed by COVID-19.
Rebecca Murphy Thompson is head of Communications Policy, Global Public Policy and Government Affairs for Twilio. @RMTMobile