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Tom Still: Robocall relief may be coming, but it’s likely temporary and won’t be foolproof

MADISON — There are “four serious charges” against me, someone can sell me the answer to my “chronic back pain,” I can translate what sounds like Mandarin and I appear to have as many friends in Belarus and Lithuania as I do in Baraboo and Lake Mills.

How do I know all that and more? My robocalls.

Like most of the people in America, I don’t pick up my mobile phone to answer a call until checking first to see if I recognize the number.

It’s not just a time-wasting nuisance but a growing danger, especially to those who may fall for scams of all types.

Nearly 48 billion robocalls were placed in 2018, according to the YouMail Robocall Index, up about 57% from 30 billion calls in 2017. They range from alerts and reminders to telemarketing to pure scams involving health care, interest rates, student loans, travel, taxes and more.

They come from people who want you to give them your Social Security number. They come from faraway places with a single ring that tempt you to call back, meaning you might get stuck with paying a fee much like a 900 number.

They come from familiar area codes and prefixes, even though they originated far away. That trick is called “spoofing” and it can get past filters otherwise in place. My wife once got a robocall that purported to be from her own phone.

If there is an issue that can unite Republicans and Democrats alike, it might be robocalls.

That’s happening in Congress, where U.S. Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., have co-sponsored the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act — which goes by the acronym of TRACED — to curb illegal calls and spoofing.

Specifically, the bill would require providers of voice services to use authentication protocols, one of which goes by the James Bond-inspired nickname of STIR/Shaken.

That system has been installed by at least one mobile carrier with more to follow soon, but it’s not compatible with all devices and must also be adopted by those who operate in the cable and voice-over-internet worlds to be most effective.

Among the 54 attorneys general in the United States and its territories who have endorsed the TRACED bill is Wisconsin’s Josh Kaul. Brad Pfaff, the secretary-designee for Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, has done the same.

“Telemarketing complaints have nearly doubled in Wisconsin since 2015, and the vast majority of these are illegal robocalls,” Pfaff said.

Nationally, the story is very much the same: Robocalls are the No. 1 source of consumer complaints to the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission.

The Wisconsin Legislature has also taken notice. State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, and Sen. Dale Kooygenga, R-Brookfield, have introduced a bill aimed at preventing telemarketers from displaying a false phone number on the recipients’ caller ID — spoofing.

The bill would also prohibit telemarketers from blocking their caller ID information altogether.

In case you’re wondering, this is one national problem that can’t be blamed on President Trump ... at least, not for the first 10 years. The phenomenon has been growing since 2006, with FCC and FTC misfires every few years after the first version of STIR/Shaken was unveiled to regulators.

Then again, it’s no guarantee that government intervention would have solved the problem then — or now. Whether it’s federal or state actions, such measures assume robocallers will follow laws and regulations (unlikely, without sharp teeth) or not invent smarter technical work-arounds.

In the meantime, people can sign up for the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry or download apps such as RoboKiller, Verizon’s CallFilter, AT&T’s CallProtect and T-Mobile’s NameID. Again, none of those solutions is perfect, but they can be better than nothing until a better protocol comes along.

Robocallers may be doing what the nation needs most: Uniting people around a common scourge. It’s not climate change, the deficit, immigration or trade, but maybe it’s a start.

Jon Healey: Just how much might Apple owe you for inflating the price of iPhone apps?

A divided Supreme Court ruled Monday morning that iPhone users can sue Apple for allegedly abusing its control over iPhone app sales to inflate the price of those ubiquitous nuggets of software. In doing so, however, the justices left open the vexing question of how to calculate the damage Apple inflicted on its customers.

That question appears to have been the reason the court split, with rookie Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh joining the court’s four Democratic appointees in the majority. The issue before the court was whether federal antitrust law and Supreme Court precedents allow consumers to sue Apple for alleged price gouging even though Apple doesn’t set the price for the apps sold through the App Store.

But “apps sold through the App Store” is redundant, isn’t it? Apple doesn’t allow iPhone apps to be sold anywhere but its App Store; only those apps can be loaded onto an iPhone without circumventing the operating system. And circumventing the operating system not only voids the Apple warranty, it also has the potential to turn one’s extremely expensive smartphone into a non-functional monument to one’s appetite for risk.

That’s the heart of the antitrust case against Apple, and the court didn’t rule on the merits of that claim. Instead, it dealt only with Apple’s motion to have the price-gouging lawsuit brought by an iPhone user named Robert Pepper and three other consumers thrown out because they weren’t “direct purchasers” injured by the alleged monopolistic behavior.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Apple’s argument, as did the Supreme Court’s majority. It seems obvious that consumers purchase apps directly from Apple — the company decides what’s available, collects the payments and delivers the software merchandise. And Apple imposes what amounts to a 30% tax and an annual membership fee on app developers, so it’s fair to assume that consumers are paying more for apps than they might if they could buy them from the developers’ websites.

But how much more? Apple doesn’t allow prices that end in anything other than .99, so it’s well-nigh impossible for a developer to pass along Apple’s 30% tax precisely. It’s also conceivable that they’re simply swallowing the Apple tax, as Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote in the dissenting opinion.

The real victim of Apple’s behavior, the dissenters argued, are app developers. By allowing consumers to sue as well as developers, Gorsuch wrote, the court’s majority may be forcing courts to answer a highly speculative question — just how much of Apple’s 30% tax was passed on to consumers — while also raising the possibility that Apple would have to pay twice (to consumers and to developers) for the same injury.

Ugh. How is a court supposed to divine how much a developer would have charged for an app had it been able to sell it on marketplaces other than the App Store?

But that’s really a problem for consumers who might want to sue Apple, not for the folks in black robes. Would-be plaintiffs will have to come up with a way not just to prove that Apple’s behavior was illegal and that they were damaged, but also to quantify that damage.

Good luck with that. Yet I think Kavanaugh’s argument is stronger than Gorsuch’s. If the court didn’t allow consumers to sue Apple, they would have no recourse at all — the app developers aren’t the alleged monopolists here. Yes, developers are arguably more injured than consumers are, but it’s still hard to imagine that Apple’s 30% tax isn’t costing the people who buy at the App Store. And that situation exists only because Apple forces people to shop there if they want to use the smarts in their smartphone.

Jon Healey

Sen. Amy Klobuchar: How to protect US elections from foreign interference

We now know for certain that Russia invaded our democracy. They didn’t use bombs, jets or tanks. Instead, they planned a mission to undermine the foundation of our electoral system. This mission, according to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, was “sweeping and systematic,” yet the U.S. remains vulnerable to many of the same tactics utilized against us in 2016 and 2018.

This isn’t a partisan issue. In the last presidential election, Russia aimed its attack at the Democratic candidate; next time it could be the Republican. But there are steps we can take to help protect the electoral process.

Russia’s 2016 assault was carefully planned. In 2014, Russian agents landed on U.S. soil in order to gather information — to learn how to mimic us — so that their social media posts would be more believable. They developed a sophisticated network of online personas backed by bots designed to make hateful and divisive posts go viral.

According to disclosures made to Congress, 126 million Facebook users saw posts linked to Russia. That’s more than a third of the U.S. population. There were also thousands of Russian-sponsored YouTube videos and tens of thousands of tweets aimed at swaying the election. But all of this wasn’t fully understood until it was too late.

And the threat isn’t over. Last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray described the 2018 efforts by Russia to interfere in American elections as “a dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020.” We need to take action now to prevent a recurrence of 2016 — or something even worse.

Currently, political ads sold on TV and radio are required to disclose the organizations that paid for them. This is a simple requirement that the Supreme Court — including the late Justice Antonin Scalia — upheld. But right now, the same rules don’t apply to ads sold online. This leaves a huge loophole in the law — especially because online ads have become more popular than ever. In 2018, an estimated $2.3 billion was spent on online ads, compared with $1.4 billion in 2016, and just $71 million in the 2014 election cycle. For the 2020 election cycle, online ad spending is projected to reach nearly $3 billion.

While some social media companies have taken steps to implement new transparency rules, we need more than a patchwork of company-generated solutions to ensure that political ads purchased by our adversaries are exposed. We need rules of the road that apply to all social media companies.

The bipartisan Honest Ads Act, which I introduced this week with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), would shine a light on the dark money being used to buy online political ads.

The goal is simple: to bring our laws into the 21st century to ensure voters know who is paying to influence our political system.

The legislation would achieve this by amending existing laws that now apply to political ads sold in print and on TV and radio, and extend their reach to online political advertising.

The Honest Ads Act would require digital platforms with at least 50 million monthly viewers — which includes major tech companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter — to maintain a public file of political ads sold on their platform by a person or group who spends more than $500 on political ads in a year. The file would contain a digital copy of the advertisement and key information about who paid for the ad and who the ad was designed to target.

The bill would also require online platforms to do a better job when it comes to making sure that foreign individuals and entities are not purchasing political advertisements in order to influence the American electorate.

A lasting legacy of the late Sen. John McCain is the bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 — also known as McCain-Feingold — which, among other things, required politicians to say, “I approve this message,” and required more transparency for political ads.

The law was intended to ensure that voters know who is paying to influence our political system.

McCain knew the next frontier of campaign finance reform would be closing the loopholes that are currently being exploited by foreign adversaries to sow division among Americans. That’s why he was the lead Republican sponsor of the Honest Ads Act when we first introduced this legislation in the last Congress. It didn’t become law in that Congress, but we are hopeful it will now.

At the time, McCain said, “I have long fought to increase transparency and end the corrupting influence of special interests in political campaigns, and I am confident this legislation will modernize existing law to safeguard the integrity of our election system.”

This modernization cannot come soon enough.


1776, Virginia authorized its delegation to the Continental Congress to support independence from Britain.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed an act establishing the Department of Agriculture.

In 1886, poet Emily Dickinson died in Amherst, Massachusetts, at age 55.

In 1911, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Standard Oil Co. was a monopoly in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, and ordered its breakup.

In 1930, registered nurse Ellen Church, the first airline stewardess, went on duty aboard an Oakland-to-Chicago flight operated by Boeing Air Transport.

In 1940, DuPont began selling its nylon stockings nationally. Richard and Maurice McDonald opened the original McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino, California.

In 1955, the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France signed the Austrian State Treaty, which re-established Austria’s independence.

In 1963, astronaut L. Gordon Cooper blasted off aboard Faith 7 on the final mission of the Project Mercury space program.

In 1970, just after midnight, Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green, two black students at Jackson State College in Mississippi, were killed as police opened fire during student protests.

In 1972, Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace was shot and left paralyzed by Arthur H. Bremer while campaigning for president in Laurel, Maryland. Bremer served 35 years for attempted murder.

In 1975, U.S. forces invaded the Cambodian island of Koh Tang and captured the American merchant ship Mayaguez, which had been seized by the Khmer Rouge. All 39 crew members had already been released safely by Cambodia; some 40 U.S. servicemen were killed in connection with the operation.

In 1988, the Soviet Union began withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, more than eight years after Soviet forces entered the country.

In 1991, French President Francois Mitterrand appointed Edith Cresson as France’s first female prime minister.