The Federal Trade Commission is challenging the public to create an innovative solution that will block illegal commercial robocalls on landlines and mobile phones. As part of its ongoing campaign against these illegal, prerecorded telemarketing calls, the agency is launching the FTC Robocall Challenge, and offering a $50,000 cash prize for the best technical solution.
This is the agency’s first government contest hosted on Challenge.gov, an online challenge platform administered by the U.S. General Services Administration, in partnership with ChallengePost. Challenge.gov empowers the U.S. government and the public to bring the best ideas and top talent to bear on our nation’s most pressing issues.
“The FTC is attacking illegal robocalls on all fronts, and one of the things that we can do as a government agency is to tap into the genius and technical expertise among the public,” said David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, when he announced the challenge and prize this afternoon at the Commission’s Robocall Summit. “We think this will be an effective approach in the case of robocalls because the winner of our challenge will become a national hero.”
A commercial robocall is a telephone call that delivers a recorded sales message. These calls often are unwanted and frequently deceptive. Under the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule, the vast majority of commercial robocalls are illegal unless the recipient has given the caller advance written permission to call them.
The judges for the FTC Robocall Challenge are Steve Bellovin, FTC Chief Technologist; Henning Schulzrinne, Federal Communications Commission Chief Technologist; and Kara Swisher of All Things Digital. A complete list of official rules and frequently asked questions are available immediately on Challenge.gov.
The FTC Robocall Challenge is free and open to the public. Entries will be accepted beginning on October 25, 2012, at 5:00pm ET, until January 17, 2013, at 5:00 pm ET. Judges will evaluate the entries, and if a winning solution is identified, the FTC will announce the winner(s) early next April.
The Best Overall Solution prize will be awarded to an individual, team, or small corporation (an organization that employs fewer than 10 people) if a solution is developed based on the following criteria:
- Does it work? (50 percent)
- Is it easy to use? (25 percent)
- Can it be rolled out? (25 percent)
Additionally, organizations that employ more than 10 people may compete for the FTC’s Technology Achievement Award, which does not include a cash prize.
As part of the challenge, the FTC announced it will provide participants, or “solvers,” with data on de-identified consumer complaints about robocalls made between June 2008 and September 2012. Solvers interested in this data will receive periodic updates with contemporary data through December 31, 2012. The complaint data will include: date of call; approximate time of call; reported caller name; first seven digits of reported caller phone number; and consumer area code.
The FTC has also been working with industry insiders and other experts to identify potential solutions. However, current technology still allows shady telemarketers to cheaply autodial thousands of phone calls every minute and display false or misleading caller ID information. Among these are the famously annoying calls from “Rachel From Cardholder Services.” For more information about the FTC’s robocalls initiatives, see www.ftc.gov/robocalls.
Q&A Social Chats
On October 25, 2012, the FTC will host two live social media chats for 60 minutes each to answer questions about the challenge. Chat participants can follow the @FTC Twitter handle and are encouraged to ask questions beginning at 1:00 pm ET on Twitter using the hashtag #FTCrobo. Immediately after the chat, at 2:00pm ET, staff will answer questions on the agency’s Facebook page.