A new federal rule about a way to block robocalls threatens to upend how pollsters conduct public opinion surveys, jeopardizing access to information about Americans' lives and opinions that shape policy.
The rule, which the Federal Communication Commission approved Thursday, gives telephone companies the go-ahead to offer to consumers technologies designed to block robocalls. Intended to address complaints about unwanted calls, the technology could force survey makers to adopt new, more expensive ways of conducting polls.
"It's really going to be a horrible thing potentially for the research profession and potentially for society," said Howard Fienberg, director of government affairs for the Marketing Research Assn., responding before the FCC vote, to the potential rise of the technology.
If costs go up, pollsters say, policymakers will understand less about what Americans think and what they say they need.
"If we lose the advantage of public opinion polling on issues of the day, it really has a profound effect on democracy," said longtime pollster Peter Hart. "The ability to understand whether Americans really, truly want to be involved with military troops in the Middle East is something important to understand."
Pollsters argue their work is especially important in elevating the voice of people who would not otherwise have easy access to elected officials.
"The rich always have a voice," said SurveyUSA President Jay Leve. "The average person has no voice except the voice given to them in opinion research."
Information collected by polls, others pointed out, also provides important data about policy.
Polls show "how many people have access to health insurance and … if people who have health insurance or don't have health insurance are getting access to cancer treatment," said Mollyann Brodie, who oversees public opinion surveys for the Kaiser Family Foundation. "The list is endless about just the basic statistics we learn."
Although some telecom firms already offer robocall blocking technology, many have been hesitant to do so without clarification from the FCC. Pollsters already are banned from auto-dialing cellphones, which makes calling them far more expensive.
The exact details of the technology phone companies might sell are unclear, but existing technology checks whether a person is making the call, rather than a computer. Getting around this likely would require pollsters to pay surveyors to hand-dial phone numbers instead of using software that autodials numbers and then connects them to someone who picks up the phone. Robopolls, a cheap but controversial method that uses prerecorded questions, also would likely be stopped.
It likely would take time for the technology to proliferate, meaning polling for the 2016 presidential election won't be affected.
The technology could, however, accelerate a move toward online polling, which some pollsters worry still leaves out the voices of those without computers.
Conducting polls online can make it difficult to identify the opinions of residents of smaller areas, such as individual cities or congressional districts, because it is difficult to attract enough online respondents in areas of that size to conduct a full poll.
Before the FCC vote, some pollsters criticized the FCC for what they see as a lack of transparency and poor communication about the rules. Initial confusion raised concerns among pollsters that all auto-dialing to landlines could be banned, a much more significant change than what's actually being proposed.
"We actually don't have a good idea of exactly how these are going to function," said Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center. "There's a relatively small amount of information out there about it."