Federal regulators approved new protections for consumers against unwanted phone calls and text messages, cracking down on a growing number of automatically dialed robocalls that have led to a flood of complaints.
"I detest robocalls. I'm not alone," said Jessica Rosenworcel, one of three Democrats on the Federal Communications Commission who approved the measure Thursday over Republican objections.
"It's time — long past time — to do something about this," she said.
The two Republican commissioners, Michael O'Reilly and Ajit Pai, agreed that robocalls were annoying.
But they said the new rules would make it more difficult for businesses to provide services and information to their customers and could lead to an increase in class-action lawsuits under the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said telemarketers have used new technology to get around restrictions in the law. The agency received about 215,000 consumer complaints last year about robocalls, more than on any other issue.
"There's a simple concept in the statute that we embrace today: You cannot be called unless you consent to be called. The consumer should be in control," he said.
Under the new regulations, consumers can stop robocalls by simply telling the caller "in any reasonable way, at any time" to stop calling. Companies often have required written notification to stop calls.
Companies that use automatic dialing technology also would have to stop calling a number that has been reassigned after making just one call.
And the FCC made clear that phone companies can offer blocking technology to their customers without violating rules about delivering calls.
But business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have complained that the new robocall regulations will make it tougher for companies to contact their customers.
O'Reilly and Pai noted that 37 million phone numbers are reassigned each year, and there is no reliable database of those changes.
"So even the most well-intentioned and well-informed business will sometimes call a number that's been reassigned to a new person," Pai said. Those businesses could be subject to lawsuits if they continue to call, even if the person doesn't answer or notify them that the number has been reassigned, he said.
Rosenworcel joined O'Reilly and Pai in criticizing an exception in the new rules for robocalls or texts from financial institutions and healthcare providers who could, for example, alert consumers about possible fraud to their bank accounts or remind them to refill prescriptions.
"Consumers have made clear — abundantly clear — they want fewer robocalls." Rosenworcel said. "So I do not understand why for some sectors of the economy this commission gives the green light for more robocalls when consumers want a red one."
The FCC also voted 3-2 to start formally considering an expansion of the Lifeline program, which provides subsidized phone service for low-income households, to cover high-speed Internet connections as well.
Paid for by a fee on consumers' monthly phone bills, the program has been strongly criticized by Republicans as wasteful and in need of reform.
The FCC took steps in 2012 to rein in the program. Its $1.7-billion cost last year was down from $2.2 billion in 2012, and participants were reduced to 12 million from 18 million.
Democratic commissioners said more low-income households needed access to broadband. But Republicans said the program should not be expanded until more is done to reduce waste, fraud and abuse and until its budget is capped.