HUFFPOLLSTER: New FCC Rules Could Make Polling More Expensive, Less Accurate

The FCC gives pollsters heartburn with new rules that toughen restrictions on the use of "autodialers" to call cell phones. Yet, surveys that don't use cell phones are less accurate, a study finds. And pollsters offer advice for reporting polls. This is HuffPollster for Friday, June 19, 2015.

FCC ACTS TO SHIELD CONSUMERS, COMPLICATES LIFE FOR POLLSTERS - As expected, the Federal Communications Committee adopted a set of new rules on Thursday designed to better shield Americans from unwanted calls and spam text messages. The FCC also gave telephone companies a green light to offer services that would allow customers to block "robocalls" and unsolicited text messages.

As of this writing, the FCC has not yet published the full text of the new rules, approved by a 3 to 2 party line vote. However, the changes described in an FCC press release and more than an hour of statements by FCC commissioners on Thursday generally confirm issues that previously led the Market Research Association to warn of "less accurate research results, higher costs, and more class action lawsuits" against survey call centers.

The crux of the issue for pollsters is the apparent toughening of a provision of the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) that prohibited the use of an “automatic telephone dialing system” to contact “any telephone number assigned to a …cellular telephone service” without “express prior consent” from the party being called. That provision has long prevented pollsters from dialing cell phone numbers when conducting fully automated, recorded voice polls. It also limited the degree to which live interviewer polls can use computer automation to call sampled mobile phone numbers.

Given the rapid growth of cell-phone-only households -- the latest CDC estimate shows 43 percent of American adults have only wireless telephones -- pollsters had hoped to convince the FCC to create an exception for legitimate survey research. The FCC's actions this week not only slam the door on those hopes, but also appear to toughen the "autodialer" definition in ways that could significantly increase costs for survey calls to cell phones.

As described in the FCC press release, the new rules "reaffirm" the already broad definition of an autodialer, defining it as "any technology with the capacity to dial random or sequential numbers."

"Clever lawyers have fed the explosion in robocalls," Commissioner Tom Wheeler explained, "by claiming that if the company substitutes software for hardware to drive the calls and/or doesn’t call from a list that they are exempt from our rules." The exploitation of that loophole, he added, "has fed the expansion of robocalls. It’s now closed.”

Two Republicans who opposed the rule warned that it would "dramatically expand" the reach of the autodialer definition. "Equipment that could conceivably function as an autodialer in the future counts as an autodialer today," Commissioner Michael O’Rielly argued. "Indeed, the new definition is so expansive that the FCC has to use rotary phones as an example of technology that would not be covered because the modifications needed to make an autodialer would be too extensive."

"After this order," Commissioner Ajit Pai added, "each and every smartphone, tablet, VoIP phone, calling app, texting app, pretty much any phone that’s not a rotary dial phone will be an automatic telephone dialing system. What does that mean in the real world? It means we’re taking our focus off of telemarketing fraud and sweeping all kinds of legitimate phone calls within the TCPA.”

If these new rules do in fact further restrict the use of technology in the dialing of mobile phones, the impact will be even greater costs for telephone surveys that include them.

While the new rules allow for "very limited and specific exemptions for urgent circumstances," such as automated emergency financial and medical alerts, according to the FCC press release, they make no exceptions for legitimate survey research. In fact, during more than an hour of statements, the Commissioners never used the words "survey" or "poll."

However, Chairman Wheeler told a reporter for The Hill why surveys would not qualify for exemption:

Wheeler said reporting fraud on your bank account is “a little different than, ‘Hello, tell me who you will vote for,’ or ‘Hello, let me do a push poll.’ That is a little different from, ‘Hello, you have a health emergency.’”

The FCC's "green light" to "robocall blocking technologies" involves an apparently simple rule change with harder to gauge consequences. Previously, telephone companies had refused to enable third party services that offered to block incoming calls from telemarketers. "The phone companies have resisted doing this," Wheeler explained," because they said the FCC wouldn’t allow them to do so. Well, today that issue is cleared up. Phone companies, please start letting your consumers request to have robocalls blocked."

What will remain unclear, even when the rule language becomes available, is how quickly such services will become available and how they will affect surveys. As NBC News reports, landline phone companies previously said "it did not make economic sense to invest in call-blocking technology for their old-fashioned analog networks when they were spending billion to switch to Internet phone service." NBC also reported the reaction of Aaron Foss, who currently operates a call blocking service Nomorobo for VOIP systems:

Foss wants to provide the service for landline and cellphone customers, but he needs cooperation from the phone companies -- something that has not happened. Foss told NBC News he does not expect landline carriers to do anything in response to the FCC's decision. He said, however, that he is "cautiously optimistic" the FCC's action will give the wireless carriers the prod they need to allow better call-screening technology on their networks.

In a previous HuffPollster report, Voss said his service maintains a "white list" of approved callers that includes legitimate survey organizations.

MEANWHILE...POLLS THAT DON'T CALL CELL PHONES ARE LESS ACCURATE - Sean J. Miller: "Pollsters must abandon their traditional methodology or risk survey inaccuracies like they had in 2012. That’s according to Ole Forsberg and Mark Payton, professors in the department of statistics at Oklahoma State University who published a study Monday that explored how pre-Election Day battleground state polling in the 2012 cycle wound up favoring Mitt Romney over President Obama. The culprit, they said in their study published on the website of Statistics and Public Policy, is cellphones. 'The cellphone-only households don’t poll the same as the landlines, in general,' Payton told C&E. 'If [pollsters] continue to do business like they did in 2012, I expect they’ll have some bias [this cycle].'...Political researchers say they’ve tried increasing the number of interviews being conducted via cells in their surveys, but blame FCC restrictions and higher costs for the underrepresentation of CPO households in polling." [Campaigns and Elections]

POLLSTERS GIVE ADVICE ON HOW TO REPORT ON POLLS - Brian Resnick and Nora Kelly: "Polls are snapshots, meant to capture voter sentiment at a particular moment. These snapshots can be aggregated to chart trends, but only in retrospect...Be skeptical if a polling organization makes it difficult to find [methodological information]: the complete data set; the exact wording of the questions; the margin of error; and who paid for the poll, if it was paid for...To make a sound comparison between two polling numbers, you want to hold as many variables constant as possible. Citing two different polls in one comparison introduces a whole mess of variables." [National Journal]


-A Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation survey of college students finds 20 percent of women and 5 percent of men report being sexually assaulted either by physical force or while incapacitated. [WashPost]

-Opinions on the health care law remain closely divided and most Americans haven't heard much about the Supreme Court cases challenging its existence. [Kaiser]

-Americans' confidence in all three branches of government remains near an all-time low. [Gallup]

-Forty-two percent of Americans express confidence in organized religion, the lowest confidence on record for Gallup. [Gallup]

-Democrats have grown increasingly liberal in recent years. [Gallup]

-Obama's job approval rating struggles to improve as perceptions of economic recovery stall. [National Journal]

-The percentage of Republicans who say they'd be enthusiastic about or satisfied with Rand Paul as their nominee has dropped since his April announcement. [HuffPost]

-A history of debt may play better than personal wealth for 2016 candidates. [HuffPost]

-Suffolk University finds Bernie Sanders running 10 points behind Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire. [Suffolk]

-The Monmouth University poll finds "no top tier" of GOP candidates in 2016. [Monmouth]

-Hillary Clinton continues to lead the Democratic field, while the GOP remains crowded. [PPP]

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THIS WEEK'S 'OUTLIERS' - Links to the best of news at the intersection of polling, politics and political data:

-The Bernie Sanders surge is limited to New Hampshire, says Harry Enten. [538]

-Kathleen Weldon summarizes historical polling data on American's beliefs about the afterlife. [HuffPost]

-The Republican party eliminates the Iowa straw poll. [HuffPost]

-How much do Americans dislike Donald Trump? A lot. [HuffPost, part 1, part 2]

-Mark Mellman (D) reviews the politics of trade. [The Hill]

-Democrats Jefrey Pollock and Geoff Garin sign to poll for Priorities USA, the super PAC backing Hillary Clinton's campaign. [Politico]

-Dan Diamond reviews the methods of surveys that estimate the percentage of Americans without health insurance. [Forbes via Alan Reifman]

-Mark Penn (D) forms a new digital marketing investment group. [WSJ via Opinion Today]

-The new book by Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, is available for pre-order. [The Selfie Vote]

-Axis Maps offers a guide to making thematic data maps. [ via FlowingData]

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