Innovative Solutions to Fight Illegal Robocalls

Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced the winners of its Robocall Challenge, the agency’s first public prize competition, which resulted in a tie between two promising solutions that can help block illegal robocalls.  

As many Americans know, advances in technology—amidst their numerous benefits to citizens—have had the undesirable side effect of making it cheap and easy to blast out millions of illegal pre-recorded telemarketing calls, or “robocalls.” The FTC has worked to combat this problem using all of the standard tools at its disposal– including strategic targeting, aggressive law enforcement, and coordination with experts to seek a technological solution. However, phones continue to ring with illegal robocalls. In fact, the FTC receives about 200,000 complaints each month regarding these harassing calls.

That’s why, on October 18, the FTC held a Robocall Summit in which it laid out the robocall problem and the full landscape of partial and potential solutions. At the summit, the FTC announced the Robocall Challenge, with a $50,000 prize for the individual or small group that could come up with the best technical proposal to help consumers block illegal robocalls.  Organizations with 10 or more employees competed on a separate track for the large-organization non-monetary award (bragging rights only).  The challenge criteria were straightforward: does it work? (50%); is it easy to use? (25%); and can it be implemented? (25%).

By the entry deadline this past January, the FTC received almost 800 diverse and creative submissions. On one end of the spectrum of submissions, consumers sent in practical tips about what they’re doing today to reduce robocalls. 

On the other end of the submission spectrum, the FTC received insightful long-term proposals about policy, regulatory, and technical changes. In an effort to ensure these ambitious ideas could feed the expanding public conversation about illegal robocalls, the FTC created an opportunity for challenge participants to file a public version of their submissions. 

Meanwhile, the Challenge winners designed products that can help consumers in the near term.  The Robocall Challenge judges – FTC CTO Steve Bellovin, FCC CTO Henning Schulzrinne, and All Things D’s Kara Swisher – found a tie for the Best Overall Solution monetary award.  The $50,000 will be split evenly between computer engineer Serdar Danis and freelance software developer Aaron Foss.  Two Google engineers, Daniel Klein and Dean Jackson, won the large organization award. 

The three winning solutions are variations of software filters that can block illegal robocalls using a combination of blacklists (lists of disallowed callers), whitelists (lists of allowed callers), captcha-like screening (simple steps callers can make to prove they are not machines), and other analytics.  Each solution has its own methods for deployment and dealing with difficult marketplace realities such as telephony infrastructure challenges and caller ID spoofing. 

We look forward to seeing the winning solutions made available to consumers soon, as demand for such products continues to increase.  The FTC’s first prize competition was an effective approach to stimulate the marketplace for innovative ideas to meet this growing demand.  

Prizes like the Robocall Challenge are now a standard tool for open innovation in every Federal agency’s toolbox. Federal agencies, in partnership with our private-sector and philanthropic partners, are using prize competitions to spur innovation, solve tough problems, and advance their missions. In fact, since its launch in 2010, Challenge.gov has featured more than 250 prizes offered by over 50 Federal departments and agencies.

Cristin Dorgelo is Assistant Director for Grand Challenges at OSTP

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