Do Robocallers Dream of Electric Sheep?

retro robot on an old phone robot calls  toned image
He was very clear about my role here. About who I’m supposed to be loyal to. Guess you could call it . . . my core drive.

My kids call my mother-in-law Bebop. Long story. But relevant here, Bebop is not a shy woman. She has opinions. She likes to share them. And she does not have what my kids might call an “inside voice.”

Nor is Bebop a lonely woman. She has lots of friends and is very involved in the community.

And yet, as I learned this week, every few days she gets a call from a robot who starts their conversation by saying something like “DO NOT HANG UP THE PHONE.” The robot then tries to convince Bebop that it is a female human a calling on behalf of a consortium of other carbon-based humans known as the “Verizon,” and that this is Bebop’s FINAL NOTICE–

At around this point, Bebop engages. She and the robot talk over each other. Bebop explains that she would never hang up on the robot, in a tone that suggests offense at the very notion. She is a Southerner, after all. She was raised properly.

I assume the robot proceeds with its pitch, because the volume of Bebop’s voice starts to rise. The exchange makes less and less sense. Bebop politely but firmly asks to speak with the robot’s manager. Temper’s flare. A verbal standoff develops. I start to feel sorry for the robot. My thoughts drift to Blade Runner, then Westworld. What if it’s Dolores on the other end of the phone? Or Teddy? Dear, sweet Teddy?

Eventually, Bebop hangs up.

After seeing this narrative play out a few times, I tried to do Bebop a favor by adding her number to the Do-Not-Call Registry.

Turns out that she’s been on it since 2005.

This made me wonder two things:

  1. Will all these conversations be lost in time, like tears in rain?
  2. Are these robocalls illegal?

The first may be a question for the philosophers, but the second has an answer: Probably! The Telephone Consumer Protection Act  prohibits

  • Autodialed or prerecorded calls to cell phones and other sensitive numbers without the prior express consent of the called party;
  • Certain prerecorded calls (mainly telemarketing calls) to residential lines without prior express written consent; and
  • Telemarketing calls to consumers who put their names on the nationwide do-not-call list.

We’d want to know a little more about what the robot was trying to tell Bebop. But for purposes of our hypothetical, let’s assume it was telemarketing as opposed to, say, singing that song Mr. Langley taught it. If so, Bebop could sue under the TCPA.

Know-it-all defense types might try to tell you that Bebop lacks Article III standing under Spokeo because she didn’t suffer any harm. After all, the argument goes, she’s clearly a sadist who enjoys torturing the poor robot. I disagree with (at least part of) that argument, but that’s why my answer was “probably” as opposed to “heck yeah” or “Yahtzee.” We’d have to let the judge decide standing.

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