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Republicans want to leave you more voicemail—without ever ringing your cellphone

U.S. President Donald Trump seated during the Arabic Islamic American Summit at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center in Riyadh on May 21, 2017.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump seated during the Arabic Islamic American Summit at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center in Riyadh on May 21, 2017.

For years, consumers have warred with telemarketers for ringing their landline phones at all hours of the day.

Pretty soon, though, they might find their mobile voicemail under the same sort of assault — that is, if the U.S. Republican Party and others have their way.

The GOP's leading campaign and fundraising arm, the Republican National Committee, has quietly thrown its support behind a proposal at the Federal Communications Commission that would pave the way for marketers to auto-dial consumers' cellphones and leave them prerecorded voicemail messages — all without ever causing their devices to ring.

Under current federal law, telemarketers and others, like political groups, aren't allowed to launch robocall campaigns targeting cellphones unless they first obtain a consumer's written consent.

But businesses stress that it's a different story when it comes to "ringless voicemail" — because it technically doesn't qualify as a phone call in the first place. In their eyes, that means they shouldn't need a customer or voter's permission if they want to auto-dial mobile voicemail inboxes in bulk pre-made messages about a political candidate, product or cause. And they want the FCC to rule, once and for all, that they're in the clear.

Their argument, however, has drawn immense opposition from consumer advocates.

"I think it's unfortunate that there's a push by any political party to reduce the protections in [the robocall rules] for cellphones," said Margot Freeman Saunders, who serves as senior counsel at the National Consumer Law Center.

In an interview, she stressed that robocalls are partly responsible for consumers' decision to drop their landline phones, and a relaxation of the rules as they apply to voicemail — backed by the RNC or anyone else — would leave many "completely overwhelmed by messages" that they can't block.

For now, the matter rests in the hands of the FCC. Back in March, a marketing firm called All About the Message LLC specifically asked the telecom agency to issue a ruling on the legality of its "ringless voicemail" technology. In its petition, the company said it doesn't cause "disruptions to a consumer's life," such as "dead air calls, calls interrupting consumers at inconvenient times, or delivery charges." And it stressed that its technology isn't even a "call" by conventional standards.

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As the FCC weighs those legal arguments, it has asked other companies and consumer groups to offer their views. Among those to signal support: The RNC, the Republican Party's powerful arm for recruiting political candidates and raising big bucks to topple Democratic officeholders.

In a comment filed with the FCC on Friday, the RNC said it felt the telecom agency should clear the way for organizations — including, apparently, itself — to auto-dial directly to voicemail inboxes with prerecorded pitches. Failing to permit the practice, the RNC warned, could threaten the First Amendment rights of political groups.

"Political organizations like the RNC use all manner of communications to discuss political and governmental issues and to solicit donations — including direct-to-voicemail messages," the RNC told the FCC. "The Commission should tread carefully so as not to burden constitutionally protected political speech without a compelling interest.

The RNC did not immediately respond to a request for comment — including about how it has previously used such a tool. An FCC spokesman also did not immediately respond to Recode.

Meanwhile, Democrats do not yet appear to have weighed in with the FCC on "ringless voicemail," but a ruling that its use doesn't violate the country's anti-robocalling law would certainly open the door for the party — and others — to tap the technology if they so desired.

It's not the first time this issue has come before the FCC. Another provider, called VoAPPs, sought the agency's blessings for "ringless voicemail" in 2014, but it never received a ruling. Since then, similar campaigns have drawn legal threats — including All About the Message LLC, which is facing a lawsuit for its use of the technology. To that end, it's also asking the FCC to spare it from any potential legal liability. (A lawyer for the firm did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

In doing so, its push for "ringless voicemail" has drawn new support from the business community's most powerful lobbying group in Washington, D.C. In its own comment to the FCC, also filed Friday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce lamented the rise of class-action lawsuits targeting companies under the anti-robocall law, called the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, or TCPA.

To that end, it also urged the FCC to stand down. "The Commission cannot continue to sweep new technologies into this technologically archaic statute," the Chamber said.

By Tony Romm, Recode.net.

CNBC's parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode's parent Vox, and the companies have a content-sharing arrangement.