I am curious to know if US landline carriers have safe harbor for carrying illegal calls? That is, are the carriers somehow immune from an action when they carry illegal calls on their network?

The changing tide and specific details are (1) carriers are accepting and completing calls from known robocallers and other miscreants, and (2) the FTC's 2017 ruling that carriers can block the traffic at the network level.

The insight for (1) is, carriers have available lists of some robocallers and other miscreants. Two lists are (a) the FTC Do Not Call data files, and (b) reports of harassing calls from some robocallers and other miscreants via Unlawful Call Centers (i.e., *57).

The change for (2) is from the FTC. It is Advanced Methods to Target and Eliminate Unlawful Robocalls, CG Docket No. 17-59, published in FCC-CIRC1703-01. Specifically (D)(8) states:

To aid the Strike Force and other providers’ call blocking efforts, the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau (Bureau) released a Public Notice on September 30, 2016 clarifying that voice service providers may block calls using a spoofed Caller ID number if the number’s subscriber requests that they do so.[26] The 2016 Guidance PN built on the Commission’s earlier clarification,[27] which, among other things, clarified that nothing in the Communications Act prohibits voice service providers from offering call blocking tools to those consumers who request such services.[28] Following from that initial guidance, the Strike Force Report sought additional clarification regarding the permissibility of certain provider-initiated call blocking.[29] Specifically, it sought clarification that 1) providers may block calls where the Caller ID shows an unassigned number, and 2) providers may block calls that the provider has determined to be illegal robocalls, so long as the provider takes reasonable steps to confirm that the calls are illegal.

And to state the obvious, some of the robocalls violate the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and Truth in Caller ID Act of 2009. Additionally, if the inbound call is carried over a person's or business' VoIP or computer network, then it could violate Computer Fraud and Abuse Act also.

And I am also aware of the illegal spying campaign carried out with the US government. However, it literally took an act of congress to let the carriers off the hook for that illegal activity.


Yes. As a utility, telephone carriers (both landline and cell carriers) are immune from unlawful communications crossing over their networks. The responsibility of any illicit form of speech (such that there is in the United States. The most common is falsely calling 911 (true threat doctrine)), though I'm sure someone somewhere has discussed criminal actions over the phone as well.

Because the public would be disserviced from utilities discriminating against customers who might abuse the system to communicate illicit messages (if for no other reason than they may have to call 911 for an actual bona fide need), the governments will usually grant immunity from responsibility from illicit use of the service by a user. Just as one would not hold a phone company liable for a bomb threat that used their network infrastructure to reach it's recipient, an electric company or water company is not responsible for the use of their services to create artificial sunlight or water plants in a drug grow house.

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    Thanks. Do you have a citation for "telephone carriers ... are immune from unlawful communications crossing over their networks..."? Also, I believe the FTC's position and the new ruling makes some of your arguments null. I think your reasoning applied in the past, but not since 2017. CG Docket No. 17-59 is available online. – jww Nov 26 '19 at 15:01
  • @jww: I'm unaware of the FTC's position or rulings changing this, but the general concept of a utility is being discussed (a service upon which society relies on so much that it is better to immunize the service from abusive customers then to encourage even justifiable discrimination. Generally, the only reason these service should refuse a customer service is for lack of payment.). Source is based on multiple readings over years on the matter so I can't give you a reliable link at this time. – hszmv Nov 26 '19 at 15:08
  • Thanks again. For the FTC's new position, see Section III on page 5 of CG Docket No. 17-59. – jww Nov 26 '19 at 15:10
  • @jww: I'm also not sure on this point, but I do believe that it is possible for persons to have restraining orders against 911 if they are repeatedly making false calls to action, but equally, it's a crime so you can jail them. By law all phones regardless of service provider they connect too must be capable of dial 911 in the U.S, Canada, and Mexico (cellphones will put the call through even if the associated account is not activated. Landlines don't have this problem given it's physical connection). – hszmv Nov 26 '19 at 15:13
  • @jww: Having skimmed the document, it is qualified that the there has to be an objective reason for the calls to be blocked (an example given is that the spoofed phone number is not allocated to any phone and thus obviously faked. If the phone number was (area code) 555-5555, that's clearly not a valid number so any call with that number in meta-data can be blocked, while they have to show more evidence if the number was more legit looking. – hszmv Nov 26 '19 at 15:18

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