Businesses in regulated industries rely on the advice of the regulating agency when making decisions. But, with so many businesses asking the agency for advice, sometimes the agency will need its professional staff (rather than the commissioners or other principals) to help answering questions. If a staff member issues advice, should that be considered the agency’s advice? If not—and if it can neither be relied upon for legal purposes nor be subject to judicial review—isn’t it worse than not getting any advice at all?
Soundboard Association, an industry group representing call centers and others using new phone-dialing technology, wants to know the answer to those questions. In 2009, a Federal Trade Commission staff member sent a letter to a telemarketing company that used soundboard technology. The letter stated that soundboard technology was not subject to regulation under the Telemarketing Sales Rule, which prohibits, with some exceptions, making phone calls that deliver a pre-recorded message. Although soundboard technology does deliver pre-recorded messages, a live operator selects which audio file to play in response to the customer’s answers. The staff member said that, because this made calls using soundboard technology “virtually indistinguishable” from calls between two people, they were not subject to the rule.
In 2016, seven years after that letter, the same staff member sent another letter to the telemarketing company. This letter said that, because the FTC had received complaints about soundboard calls, the technology would now be subject to the Telemarketing Sales Rule. The letter demanded that companies cease using the technology until the technology improved. But if the FTC wants to change its mind on a rule, there’s a process for that—the scope of judicial deference to agency reinterpretations is a live legal debate—and regardless, regulatory determinations are supposed to be subject to judicial review, if they’re final.