Everybody hates telemarketers, but the classic stranger on the line phone call has an important limiting factor: humans. Somebody has to get paid to make those calls, so there are big financial reasons for the spammers to knock it off.

Robocalls, on the other hand, require much less manpower so the bad actors have incentives to make a lot of them—even when rarely successful. With that in mind, Google, Samsung, Apple, and several other major tech corporations are getting together to try to protect consumers from predatory robocalls.

This project was started at the request of the FCC, whose director Tom Wheeler says robocalls are the agency's top source of citizen complaints. The so-called "Robocall Strike Force" is being led by AT&T's CEO, Randall Stephenson. The other companies involved make for a rather star-studded list:

  • AT&T
  • Apple
  • ATIS
  • Bandwidth
  • Blackberry
  • British Telecom
  • CenturyLink
  • Charter
  • Cincinnati Bell
  • Comcast
  • Consumers Union
  • Cox
  • Ericsson
  • FairPoint
  • Frontier
  • Google
  • Inteliquent
  • Level 3
  • LG
  • Microsoft
  • Nokia
  • Qualcomm
  • Samsung
  • Silver Star
  • Sirius XM
  • Sprint
  • Syniverse
  • T-Mobile
  • U.S. Cellular
  • Verizon
  • West
  • Windstream
  • X5 Solutions

What's important here is that solutions that are implemented on a phone by phone or carrier by carrier basis are less likely to provide lasting fixes than ones that are cooperative and universal. For instance, Google's recent update to the dialer app that warns about potential spam calls and allows easy reporting would work better if it could draw from a collective database for warnings and contribute to the same collective database when reports are made. The strike force has all major American carriers, the makers of the top 3 mobile operating systems, and several other key players involved in this initiative.

In the near term, focus will be on VOIP calling. AT&T says the group will rapidly conform to caller ID verification standards once the standards are completed, saying a major vector for fraud currently is ID spoofing. They are looking into whether a "do not originate" list can be created, blocking the source of the call irrespective of how it may be routed to appear to be from a more legitimate source.

The group acknowledges that the aforementioned are fairly short-term solutions and even then, more information is needed to know how to implement them.

Dealing with the broad category of "unwanted calls" is difficult. First, any solution has to have a near-zero false positive rate. Just a single instance of perfectly legitimate callers being blocked from reaching one another presents a big headache, especially when the proposed designs keep the consumer from being aware that a call was attempted.

The second challenge is that there are two types of unwanted calls. There are those that are legal but potentially unwanted, like general solicitations, opinion polls, and the like. Philosophical and legal issues have to be sorted out when it comes to sweeping filters on those kinds of calls.

Beyond those, you have the patently illegal calls that are ignoring "Do Not Call" registries, lying about their origin, and similar issues. You want to block all of those, but it is less than clear just how you differentiate these two types of calls at the phone, carrier, and network levels—not to mention ensuring that they aren't wanted callers.

The group will be presenting more detailed plans and goals, which will include longer-term ideas for blocking at the network level, to the FCC on October 19th.