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Robocalls To Cellphones? States Marshal Opposition

A bill before Congress that would allow some types of "robocalls" to be made to cellphones if consumers have given companies their numbers doesn't have many sponsors and wouldn't seem to be the kind of legislation that would stand much of a chance of passing when an election year looms.

But it's getting an increasing amount of attention this week thanks to something that's very rare these days — bipartisan opposition.

A letter signed last week by the attorneys general of every state except Nebraska and Virginia urges members of Congress "to reject the Mobile Informational Call Act of 2011 (H.R. 3035)." The AGs write that:

"Currently, federal law bans robocalls to cell phones unless the consumer gives prior express consent. H.R. 3035 would change the law and undermine federal and state efforts to shield consumers from a flood of solicitation, marketing, debt collection and other unwanted calls and texts to their cell phones. In the process, H.R. 3035 also would shift the cost of these calls — such as debt collection and marketing calls — to consumers, placing a significant burden on low income consumers. Furthermore, H.R. 3035 will create obstacles to effective enforcement of state consumer protection laws. H.R. 3035 goes far beyond the stated goal of giving debt collectors a new avenue to contact debtors and unnecessarily allows businesses to robocall or text consumers without the consumers' prior express consent.

"We urge you to reject H.R. 3035 as harmful to consumers."

As New York Times Digital Domain columnist Randall Stross told All Things Considered in November, under the legislation "telemarketing calls would remain forbidden. But it would define a permissible call as anything that isn't a telemarketing call. So if a business were to call you for any reason other than making a direct pitch, it would now be permitted, as long as you have had, at some point, given your cellphone number to the business."

Among the bill's proponents, MSNBC's The Bottom Line blog says, "are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Air Transport Association, as well as groups that represent bankers, mortgage lenders, college loan programs and debt collectors." They want changes in existing law "to facilitate the delivery of time-sensitive consumer information to mobile devices, while continuing to protect wireless consumers from unwanted telemarketing calls."

The bill's main sponsor is Rep. Terry Lee (R-Neb.), who makes the case in a statement on his website that:

"People need to be reached in real time if their flight is delayed, their credit card numbers have been compromised, their medications have been recalled, their electricity restored, and for other time-sensitive information they may be interested in. This bill will help consumers receive timely and accurate information as soon as possible.

"The bill strictly prohibits telephone solicitations and businesses must have prior express consent to contact consumers. The President has made a similar proposal in his deficit reduction plan."

As for the two attorneys general who didn't sign the letter, they are: Nebraska's Jon Bruning and Virginia's Kenneth Cuccinelli, both Republicans. A Bruning spokesman told the Lincoln Journal Star that his boss is waiting to see "what the final bill looks like."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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