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FCC Vows to Implement 'Do-Not-Call' Measure

After the FTC is barred from enforcing the law, Powell pledges to do so starting Wednesday.

September 30, 2003|James S. Granelli | Times Staff Writer

National "do-not-call" rules to cut down on unwanted telephone solicitations may go into effect Wednesday after all -- but under the auspices of a different federal agency.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell said Monday that his agency would enforce the popular anti-telemarketing program that would put more than 50 million phone numbers off limits to most solicitors.

The future of the do-not-call registry was cast in doubt last week when two federal judges blocked the Federal Trade Commission from enforcing it.

The FCC is stepping in because "the law gave the FTC the ability to establish the list and told the FCC to coordinate rules and work with FTC on enforcement," said FCC spokesman Richard Diamond. Because the courts barred only the FTC from enforcing the list, the FCC will assume the primary role.

Meanwhile, California officials vowed to get a state registry running as quickly as possible.

Consumers cheered the news, and the telemarketing industry appeared resigned to enforcement.

"Today's action by the FCC may raise new legal questions, but it appears that this will become the law of the land on Oct. 1," Jerry Cerasale, a senior vice president for the Direct Marketing Assn., the nation's largest telemarketing trade group, said in a statement.

The organization has asked its 5,000 members to honor the wishes of those who have put their phone numbers on the registry. Another group, the American Teleservices Assn., has made no such request.

Telemarketers face fines of up to $11,000 per call for dialing any of the 50.6 million numbers listed on the registry, Diamond said. The numbers represent about 30% of the 166 million home phone lines.

The FCC has broad jurisdiction over telemarketers, with the ability to take action against telephone companies, banks and insurance companies as well as against marketers making in-state calls. Telephone companies are among the most prevalent telemarketers, according to an FCC study.

A company-specific do-not-call law has been in effect for more than a year and remains in effect, the FCC spokesman said.

Under that law, residents can tell any telemarketer who calls to put their number on the company's do-not-call list. The national list allows people to register once to stop about 80% of unwanted calls.

Last Tuesday, a federal judge in Oklahoma handed the FTC its first defeat by ruling that the agency didn't have the authority to enforce the list. Congress reacted swiftly to provide that authority, and President Bush signed the measure Monday.

A federal judge in Denver on Thursday also barred the FTC from enforcing the list because it could violate telemarketers' 1st Amendment free-speech rights.

Telemarketers separately challenged the FCC rules too, but the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver refused to grant a temporary halt, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer on Monday declined to overturn the appellate ruling.

The court actions last week sent California lawmakers scurrying to revive a statewide do-not-call list that was part of a law enacted two years ago. The state held back on implementing the law after Congress began work on a national law.

Gov. Gray Davis was about to sign a law last week making the state law comply with the federal law, but the court decisions stopped him.

Instead, he asked his staff to work with California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and the Legislature to identify and address any free-speech issues that could scuttle the law in court.

Sen. Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont), who sponsored the legislation, said the idea that the federal government would take on the cost of the program was appealing to a state strapped for cash.

But now, she said, the state will have to develop its own program.

"The governor has promised that this will be a priority issue," she said. "California will have to go on its own."

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