Google Wins FTC Award for Robocall Prevention Technology

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2013-04-03

Google Wins FTC Award for Robocall Prevention Technology

Google has won an FTC Technology Achievement Award from government regulators who are seeking better technologies to fight annoying, illegal robocalls that harass consumers in their homes and on mobile phones.

The robocalls inspire about 200,000 complaints to the Federal Trade Commission each month, which is why the agency announced the first-ever contest in October 2012.

"The FTC Robocall Challenge called for 'solutions and proofs of concept' for reducing robocalls on mobile and landline phones," Rob Mahini, policy counsel for Google, wrote in an April 2 post on the Google Public Policy Blog. "Recognizing that innovative solutions often rely on data analysis, the FTC also made over four years' worth of consumer complaint data about robocalls available to challenge participants."

The calls not only are annoying, they also can be a vehicle for cheating consumers and stealing their identities, Mahini wrote. "While law enforcement agencies work to crack down on these fraudsters, unscrupulous robocallers continue to find ways to swindle consumers."

That's where the Google proposal came in, with Google engineers submitting an idea for a "crowd-sourced solution for consumers to avoid robocalls," Mahini wrote. Some 800 ideas were submitted into the competition.

The Google team won the  FTC's Technology Achievement Award for its submission, which recommends the creation of a system where users could report such calls to an online database system, while allowing users' telephones or external hardware to automatically query the database about the telephone number of an incoming call before the phone even rings. If the caller has been flagged as a spammer by other users, it could be blocked or rejected as a spam call.

The recommended system would allow users to make reports of spam calls and inquire if others have reported a caller as a spammer, according to Google's description of the proposal. "While the first few people called would get spammed, after a sufficient number of reports are made, further calls would be blocked," Google stated.

The system would work with any kind of phone system, and it would also contain a means to whitelist specific numbers such as emergency numbers so they will always be completed.

That description, however, doesn't sound entirely new, according to several comments left on the FTC announcement Website by visitors.

"There are a number of applications out there that already do this," user Bev E wrote on the Website. "The problem is spammers keep changing their phone number ... sometimes with each call. How do you stop that? You could stop it entirely if you require the phone companies that own these spoofed numbers to make sure the numbers they own do not get stolen or spoofed. Make it the responsibility of big business to come up with a solution."

Kati Daffan, an attorney with the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, told eWEEK that more details about the Google proposal were included in much broader technical paper that accompanied the entry.

"I think a lot of the confusion here is that what's available publicly is very limited information about the Google submission" because many details will be part of pending patent applications for the technology, Daffan said. "That's where the real meat of the solution is," such as intricate details of the whitelists, blacklists and other methods that will be used to ferret out and block robocalls.

"That is a big part of the challenge that the Google project did a good job with," she said. "A lot of the most interesting details are also the ones they want to patent and protect."

The contest's judges "really did think that these were groundbreaking solutions, and that they contained new ideas that were really exciting and that could be game-changers," Daffan said.

Google Wins FTC Award for Robocall Prevention Technology

Several IT analysts said they saw the Google proposal as at least partially a means of working more closely with a government agency, which ultimately would play into the search giant's future plans.

The blacklisting and whitelisting approach taken by Google in the proposal isn't entirely new, said Dan Maycock, an analyst with Slalom Consulting. "It makes me think there are other things at play," such as gaining "another foothold with another government agency by entering the competition."

Such participation gives Google greater access to government agencies and leaders, he said. "The solution itself is pretty passé. These things already exist. They certainly have more things to do with their time than to build another solution to robocalling."

Google especially wants to make deeper connections with government agencies, Maycock said, because of potential legal and regulatory battles they might ultimately have to fight over some of the company's other innovations, such as the controversial Google Glass project.

Last month, a ban on the use of Google Glass while driving was introduced before the West Virginia legislature, but so far it has not come up for full consideration. Such proposals, however, could become more of an issue in the future after Google Glass is available to more users.

Jeff Kagan, an independent telecom analyst, told eWEEK in an email that he has similar concerns.

"Robocalls are a real problem for the consumer," Kagan wrote. "A few years ago we had a real solution and it worked, for a while. It no longer works and we are all bombarded with unwanted calls."

That's changed as calls became cheaper to make using voice-over-IP (VoIP) and computer technology, so the incentives to stop are gone, he wrote. "Having this call for ideas is a great idea. It gets lots of smart people together competing for the winning idea. We expected lots of new ideas and innovation."

The problem, according to Kagan, is that he's not sure that Google's idea for user reporting of robocalls was recognized for what it was.

"Perhaps this would use a new Google telephone system using VoIP or something like it, and give them the ability to have complete control," he wrote. "While this idea is not new, combining it with a Google phone system is new. So even though this may be a solution, it could also become another growth engine for Google. What, you thought Google was just doing this from the goodness of their hearts? Think again."

In October 2012, the FTC announced a $50,000 bounty to seek good ideas for stopping robocalls.

Rocket Fuel