In the United States, about 30 billion robocalls (pre-recorded automatically dialed solicitations) are placed each year, and similar conditions hold across much of the world. In the U.S. and many other countries, most commercial robocalls are illegal. As part of an ongoing campaign against these illegal robocalls, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is launching its Robocall Challenge, seeking a solution that blocks illegal robocalls on cell phones and on landlines. It is offering a US$50,000 cash prize for the best practical solution.
A commercial robocall is a telephone call sent by a computerized autodialer that delivers a recorded sales message. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has rules for telemarketing that make such unwanted and frequently deceptive robocalls illegal, unless the caller has been given written permission in advance by the owner of the landline or cell phone number. Many other countries, including Canada, Australia, and the U.K. also regulate against unauthorized robocalling.
Despite this, robocalling is very popular with a certain class of marketers whose services or products usually teeter on (or fall off) the border between misleading information and scams. The number of such calls (which cost a few cents each to place) has skyrocketed with advances in technology, and government agencies are receiving huge waves of protests and complaints from their beleaguered citizens.
This has prompted the FTC to resort to using an innovation challenge for the first time. Hosted on Challenge.gov, it joins other government-sponsored challenges designed to empower the public to bring their best ideas and talent to bear on our nation’s most pressing issues. The FTC Robocall Challenge is free to enter and open to the public, and also to companies having ten or fewer employees. Entries will be accepted until January 17, 2013, after which judges will evaluate the entries. If a winning solution is identified, the FTC will announce the winner(s) early next April.
A complete list of official rules and frequently asked questions are available on Challenge.gov, but here are the basics. The challenge is to develop a solution that will block illegal robocalls on landlines and/or mobile phones (preferably without blocking allowed robocalls or other desired calls) and which can operate on a proprietary or non-proprietary device or platform.
The proposals will be judged based on three criteria:
- 1) Does it work? (50 percent of total score) – includes such issues as effectiveness, universality, and robustness.
“The FTC is attacking illegal robocalls on all fronts, and one of the things that we can do as a government agency is to tap into the genius and technical expertise among the public,” said David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, when he announced the challenge and prize at the Commission’s Robocall Summit last month. “We think this will be an effective approach in the case of robocalls because the winner of our challenge will become a national hero.”