FTC Posts Bounty on Robocallers

You can win $50,000 and a trip to Washington. And the undying, everlasting gratitude of your fellow telephone subscribers.

Sometimes technology just takes a wrong turn. Yes, it has vastly improved our lives. No one wants to go back to the days before smallpox vaccine, or power steering, or existential cat videos. But technology also provides its share of daily annoyances. High on that list is the “robocaller”: a machine that dials your phone, and when you answer, delivers a recorded message.

The economics of robocalls works much like email spam: the perpetrators can reach so many people, at such a low cost per contact, that they don’t care if 99.9% hang up without hearing the message. But robocalls are much more intrusive than spam. They prompt the victim off the couch to answer a ringing phone. And, unlike other kinds of telemarketing calls, robocalls even deny us the satisfaction of telling off the person who called.

The Federal Trade Commission has decreed most robocalls to be illegal. But the rules do allow some kinds. Political parties can robocall at will, thanks to that pesky First Amendment – and in these final days leading up to an election, they exercise that right with a vengeance. Also legal are robocalls from charities and health care providers, and “reverse 911” calls that warn people about local emergencies – for example, calls to a particular neighborhood about contamination of the water supply.

But the FTC is confident that illegal robocalls make up the vast majority (even though it does not provide any hard supporting data). And enforcement has been lax. We know that because we get so many of them. As yet there is no easy way for the recipient to block robocalls – no equivalent of the email “junk filters” that protect us from most email spam.

That is where the FTC comes in.

In search of a solution, it has now turned to crowd-sourcing. The concept is simple: find the best way to block illegal robocalls, while letting the legal ones through, and the FTC will write you a check for $50,000 and pay your way to Washington to pick it up. It’s pretty much that simple, believe it or not, despite six dense pages of rules in the Federal government’s preferred font size (tiny).

Entries will be judged on three criteria:

Does it work? (50%) How likely is the entry to block all illegal calls and let all legal calls ring through? On how many kinds of phones does the proposal work (landline, cell, VoIP, etc.)? How easily can robocallers circumvent the scheme?

Is it easy to use? (25%)  How hard will it be for consumers to use the solution? What kinds of mistakes might consumers make, and how severe are the consequences? (Hint: keep it simple. The Federal government has a pretty low opinion of consumers’ abilities.)

Can it be rolled out? (25%) Will the solution work in the ecosystem as is, without having to change phone providers’ infrastructure? (Further hint: “yes” is a good answer here.)

If you have an idea, first read the rules (really), then wait till after 5 pm EDT on Thursday, October 25, 2012, and sign up here. The deadline for entries is January 17, 2013.

Oh, one more thing. We’d really appreciate it if you let us in on your idea right away. We promise not to submit it to the FTC. But we do want to install it on our phone.

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