Call-blocking technology — to which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has recently given a “green light,” according to the FCC Chairman — may pose a significant threat to the use of survey, opinion and marketing research by phone. This technology could enable millions of households to block all research calls.

However, many MRA members noticed that the recent comments filed jointly by MRA and CASRO with the FCC1 did not address the subject, as those comments focused on the TCPA restrictions on using autodialers to call cell phones.

The TCPA rule changes, approved by the FCC on June 182 and 3 are themselves significant, but as many people have since asked, did we just forget to address the call-blocking rule change4 in our comments? Actually, no. While threats still exist in the rules as we understand them, call-blocking technology is less a regulatory/legal problem than a consumer/industry challenge.

MRA originally treated call-blocking as a legal problem, filing comments in January in opposition when the National Association of Attorneys General first proposed it to the FCC.5 However, numerous telecommunications lawyers, both inside and outside the FCC, insisted that (1) multiple companies, including telecommunications providers, already offer call-blocking services and (2) such services already are legal. From that standpoint, the FCC is merely providing extra clarification to Title II of the Communications Act, which already allows for call-blocking with the subscriber’s consent. The conclusion we reached was that call-blocking is already happening, and while the new clarification may popularize such services, it is not something for which you can simply blame the FCC.

In this case, consumers are asking for what they think they want. In many instances, consumers just hate robocalls. In others, they don’t want to receive calls from anyone they don’t already know. Both preferences, when activated through call-blocking services, will also block telephone research calls, whether intentionally or not.

There is no evidence that call-blocking systems targeted at robocalls could or would differentiate between telemarketing robocalls and research calls using an autodialer. Widespread adoption of such blocking will probably block most autodialed research calls. With call-block services already in place like Google Voice, a service that screens all calls and could lead to the blocking of most unrecognized numbers, the blocking of unrecognized callers already exists in the marketplace, whether manual, autodialed or robocalled and whether consumers might want to receive those calls or not.

In the years ahead, what percentage of households will adopt call-blocking technologies and will they be individually configured to accept or reject research calls?

If you’ve ever screened a call by evaluating the displayed caller ID before answering, you’re already call-blocking, albeit manually. But if a consumer never receives a call in order to make a decision to accept or reject it, they cannot know what they are missing. While some call-blocking service providers have said they keep a whitelist of approved numbers, including a few prominent public opinion pollsters, most research calls would likely be blocked right along with everything else.

What can the research profession do about call-blocking technology?

That leaves the research profession with a dilemma that isn’t likely to be remedied through the government regulatory system. Instead, it requires broader, more challenging efforts.

As an industry, we need to consider multiple options, some of which are more feasible than others.

Work with the call-blocking technology developers and service providers to better understand how their systems operate. Telephone researchers need to learn how blocked calls are treated within the telecommunications infrastructure. Do blocked calls register as a “blocked call,” as just a “dead line” or as a “no answer?” Can the systems evolve so that the numbers do register as blocked to the dialer, such as by returning a specific code, tone or signal? If an RDD sample of 2,000 people returns 1,995 results of simply “no answer,” clients will not be happy at the cost of producing a replacement sample and they might doubt the wisdom of working with that call center or sample provider. More seriously, a bank conducting customer satisfaction research to a list of its customers who specifically opted-in to research by phone might never be able to reach them, with the opt-in achieved by the bank being unknowingly countermanded by the customers’ opt-out via call-blocking. Either way, researchers would never know why people could not be reached. Without a technical way to quantify the impact of call-blocking technology, researchers will struggle to account for it in their research studies.

Convince call-blocking technology developers to provide (preferably default) opt-ins for consumers for legitimate research — not sales — calls.

Produce an industry whitelist of legitimate research providers (to facilitate option 2), with the understanding that the unified self-regulation necessary to make it work and gain acceptance would not be easy.

Convince consumers to trust their phone lines again. Years of studies of respondent cooperation and respondent attitudes toward research have showed unhappy trend lines, and overall response rates reflect those trends. Could we reverse the trend lines, waging a public relations campaign to pitch consumers on the value of research participation, while also campaigning for federal and state authorities to more aggressively prosecute telephone-delivered scams, usually from overseas, that prey on respondents? Unfortunately, to be effective, this advocacy campaign would likely be prohibitively expensive.

Recruit respondents proactively to become telephone research respondents, similar to the functionality of online panels, and have the respondents add the researchers to their own whitelists. Unfortunately, this counters the presumed advantage of telephone research over online research: a statistically representative random sample.

Develop an industry-wide opt-in registry of respondents willing to receive calls from legitimate researchers, or a similar government-run registry. The federal government already operates a registry of people who don’t want to receive a certain kind of call (telemarketing), so why not a registry of people who want to receive a certain type of call (research)?

There may be other remedies. What are your suggestions?

There are no easy answers. We are facing a social and technological revolution and need to learn more, quickly, before we take our next leap.

NOTE: A version of this article was originally published for MRA members only on June 16, 2015

1 “CASRO/MRA Urge FCC to Modernize the TCPA Regulations for Calling Cell Phones.” June 12, 2015.

2 “Statement by CASRO and MRA Regarding the FCC’s June 18 TCPA Vote.” June 19, 2015.

3 “Compliance Considerations for New TCPA Regulations and Telephone Research.” July 16, 2015.

4 “FCC v. Telephone Research Common Sense: New rules could block most calls, make compliance more complicated, and invite more class action lawsuits.” May 29, 2015.

5 “Call-Blocking Technology Could Block Marketing Research Calls, Even Though Intended to Fight Telemarketing Robocalls.” January 27, 2015.