In March of 2018, Trump’s then-Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai praised a federal court decision striking down the Obama-era regulations against robocalls. Pai promised to figure out a free market, no-regulation way to curb the practice of robocalling. Everyone from comedian John Oliver to the entire Daily Kos community knew Pai and Donald Trump wouldn’t do it. They didn’t. Since that time, we have seen story after story about erroneous robocalling, frequently in the hopes of nefarious political gain, but also as calls for violence, as well as in service of classic scammery. While all of these cases feel like they should be criminal offenses, only some of them end with real consequences for the robocallers.
Early in March robocalls went out to seniors in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, from the Bucks County Republican Party. The calls were an attempt to get folks to come on out to GOP headquarters on March 5 and March 7 and sign petitions for candidates. It was a petition drive in the hopes of getting Republican-endorsed candidates on the ballots for future local elections. March 9 was the last day that Pennsylvania candidates could make their way onto the May 18 Republican primary ballot. You can hear the call, read by Bucks County GOP Chair Pat Poprik, here. The call seems innocuous enough—a standard “petition drive” by a local political party—until you realize why local residents were furious about the calls.
The Bucks County Courier Times reports that these robocalls came with a caller ID saying “Johnson and Johnson.” This, of course, is grotesque. With news sweeping the country that the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine has been FDA approved and is being shipped out to states for people to get, calling the most COVID-19 vulnerable demographic of people with that ID is unconscionable.
Poprik apologized, saying that the Johnson & Johnson caller ID was an "unintended technological error.” What exactly was the error? Is the Bucks County Republican Committee the source of vaccine announcements for private pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson? They aren’t. I don’t even have to look that up.
At issue is the practice of caller ID “spoofing.” This is when “a caller deliberately falsifies the information transmitted to your caller ID display to disguise their identity. Scammers often use neighbor spoofing so it appears that an incoming call is coming from a local number, or spoof a number from a company or a government agency that you may already know and trust.” The FCC, under Trump and Pai, made sure that the only spoofing that could be punished were irrefutably illegal scams. The language Pai’s FCC used for what is considered “illegal spoofing” is so vague as to be almost meaningless. By the current definition, the only way to illegally spoof is if you use a caller ID to trick someone into giving you money for an obvious scam (i.e., pretend you are a doctor or a person collecting money for something like medical fees or legal fees). The conservative deregulatory argument for not having stricter anti-spoofing definitions is that some people need to spoof numbers for privacy reasons. “Medical professionals spoofing their number to display their office number so as to not reveal their personal phone number.” This, of course, is something that would not be in jeopardy if more serious anti-spoofing regulations were employed.
Robocalls frequently target seniors and folks less aware of how deregulated and predatory our telecommunications systems are. Politicians know this and have used fearmongering by way of robocalls as a tool in their arsenal for years now. This latest move, playing both off the anxieties and hopes of people looking for a return to some normalcy, is truly horrendous. There is very well a chance that Poprik is telling the truth when she claims it was an "unintended technological error.” But why did they have it in the first place? Why did they even have access to it?
Published with permission of Daily Kos