The FCC Might Have Just Killed Polling as We Know It—and That's OK

Pollsters like Nate Silver are understandably freaked out, but it's not the government's job to protect their business model.


a landline telephone

Nobody likes getting robo-called. But in an effort to protect Americans from the deluge of unwanted advertising and political recordings they receive, pollsters fear the federal government may have just dealt a fatal blow to the survey research industry as we know it.

Per a story from The Des Moines Register:

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday on a slate of increased restrictions on telemarketers who use robo-calls and auto-dialing. …

Among the new rules, the FCC said phone companies can start providing call-blocking technology to their customers without violating federal laws. 

FCC officials have said robo-calls are a top generator of complaints to the agency. Last year, the FCC said it received more than 215,000 complaints about unwanted calls.

The move was no surprise. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced in May that new rules were on the way. But what he called "another win for consumers" a number of prominent pollsters saw as "an existential threat," Politico's Steven Shepard reported at the time.

FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver reacted with frustration, writing that "the FCC probably ought to go back to policing 'wardrobe malfunctions' and not making pollsters' jobs any harder."

The source of the conflict is the difference between a robo-call and an auto-dial. The first, which anyone who's ever spent time in a swing state during an election year is all too familiar with, simply plays a recorded message when someone answers a call.

The second is an integral part of how modern telephone polling works. Via last week's HuffPost Pollster newsletter, auto-dialing happens when "a computer system dials pre-loaded phone numbers and waits until a live-person picks up the phone and says 'hello' before routing the call to a live interviewer." The survey is still administered by a human, but rather than having to manually type in each respondent's phone number, one at a time, then wait while it rings to see whether anyone will even answer, this system makes trying to reach hundreds or thousands of people—fewer than one-in-ten of whom will end up being interviewed—a whole lot more efficient.

If the FCC's rule change forces pollsters to hand-dial every single number, it will take significantly more man-hours (and therefore cost significantly more money) to conduct even basic surveys. This will lead to fewer polls overall—and as Silver points out, fewer polls means less information about the population's views on various issues of national importance.

Here's the thing: Contrary to the way this vote is being described in the press, the FCC isn't actually imposing new regulations on pollsters. What it's doing is clarifying that telephone service providers are in fact allowed to use robo-call- and auto-dialer-blocking technologies if subscribers ask for them.

From an FCC press release:

In a package of declaratory rulings, the Commission affirmed consumers' rights to control the calls they receive. As part of this package, the Commission also made clear that telephone companies face no legal barriers to allowing consumers to choose to use robocall-blocking technology.

In other words, the ruling empowers consumers to make use of new "market-based solutions" intended to help them screen out calls—including most (though not all) calls that originate from an auto-dialer if that's what they want.

There's no doubt this rule, if people take advantage of it, is bad news for pollsters. But the real problem the industry faces is not government giving people permission to use the commercial products of their choosing. Ultimately, the problem is that people can't be bothered to take polls.

Given the option to screen out numbers they don't know, a growing subset of Americans are already doing just that. People aren't willing to give up even a small amount of their time for the "greater good" of making public opinion known. It's obvious that the masses just don't share Nate Silver's impassioned conviction that polling is "essential to understanding public opinion on a host of issues that people never get a chance to vote upon" and that "without accurate polling, government may end up losing its most powerful tool to know what the people who elect it really think."

Perhaps in the future new forms of opinion taking, from web-based surveys to social media analytics, will take the place of traditional phone-based polling research. Perhaps the inability to reach large numbers of people via landline will spark the polling industry itself to develop innovative approaches for measuring what people think. Or perhaps pollsters will manage to persuade Americans that answering surveys—and electing not to block the auto-dialers that currently make those surveys possible—is an important civic duty, just as the majority of people believe voting is.

I don't know what the solution is. But using the threat of legal sanction to stop companies from giving their customers what they're loudly demanding definitely isn't it.

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  1. but it’s not the government’s job to protect their business model.

    It also isn’t the government’s job to ruin their business model.

    1. Unless they ruin their business model by restoring rights to consumers that they should have had all along, like call blocking technology.

      1. And if there’s call blocking technology, there will be call-blocking thwarting technology.

        1. No worries. That’s when we break out the call-blocking-thwarting-thwarting technology.

          1. Mark Wahlberg did it.

            1. That movie was underappreciated.

        2. I don’t think that there’s any company that offers a “pay us more money and you can block caller ID but still call people who block calls from people who block caller ID” service.

          1. Nope. And there’s a huge player behind call blocking technology. In my experience, Google Voice takes care of essentially all nuisance calls.

        3. That’s what I like about Android. If a number calls me more than once without leaving a voicemail, I put it on the reject list.

      2. You are not required to answer your phone when it rings. You don’t have a right to be offered call blocking technology from your phone service provider.

        1. “You don’t have a right to be offered call blocking technology from your phone service provider.”

          this is the wrong way to look at it.

          the provider DOES have the right to offer it to you. if they do and you find it attractive you have the right to buy it.

          what no one has the right to do is prevent the two of you from engaging in mutually consensual commerce that does not violate the rights of others.

        2. ^THIS. I am always blown away by how much people are affected by this. If I don’t know the number calling, I don’t answer. I keep my phone on vibrate. I don’t miss important calls and I don’t have to deal with annoying rings from calls I will ignore. I do the same with people knocking on the front door. If I don’t know you, I am not coming to the door.

          1. But there are better options than simply not answering calls from people you don’t know, options that should be available in a free market. Unfortunately, a lot of those better options are unavailable due to government regulations.

        3. My provider would probably love to offer me much better blocking options; it is FCC rules on how phone service must be provided that keeps them from doing that.

      3. I didn’t get a harumph out of that guy.

    2. The government is not ruining their business model. The marketing companies have ruined their business model by annoying people to such an extent blocking such calls entirely looks like a god solution.

      1. “blocking such calls entirely looks like a god solution.”

        A rather felicitous typo (if it was a typo).

    3. haha Nate thinks that when the government gets information about what the masses think, that the government then earnestly proceeds to please the people to the utmost of their ability.

      does anyone else think that is a wee bit naive?

      1. Not only naive but also hypocritical since it is at the behest of those same people the FCC is making this ruling. Funny how that works.

    4. You are saying it is their job to ruin the business model of companies providing call blocking services?

  2. This is bullshite. How will big donors know where to herd before caucuses and primaries start? How will I get my horse race journalism during campaign season? I blame the Brits.

  3. When can we expect the postal service to allow consumers to block junk mail?

    1. You can do it now. But the one newsletter you love is the same kimd of mail as that annoying cataloge you get four of,,amd the process of blocking just the ones that annoy you is time consuming, so most people bitch instead of doing.

    2. Shouldn’t you be wearing the bucket?

    3. Why block junk mail? It makes excellent kindling.

    4. Cosmo Kramer tried that once. I don’t recall it ending well for him.

  4. I get robo calls from government. I’m sure there will be exemptions such that government gets to bypass call blocking technology.

    1. This is all quite odd. I get robo-calls all the time (at least four or five a week) and I never answer them (or hang up as soon as I hear silence after my ‘Hello’) because on the few occasions I’ve actually gotten a human being, it turns out they were selling something or soliciting for something. I’ve never received a poll robo-call–I’d probably answer one of those just to screw with their numbers.

      1. “Libertarian? The closest I have to that answer is “not sure.” Does that sound right?”

      2. Rule of thumb: Say ‘Hello’. If a regular person does answer within two seconds, *CLICK*.

        Works just fine for me.

      3. If they are selling something, maybe you might want or need it, if not, then you don’t need to buy it. Some of my best adventures came as a result of solicitations.

        1. I’ll bet.

    2. There was a similar change to legislation recently here in Canada.

      And yes, the political class granted themselves an exemption.

    3. I’m sure there will be exemptions such that government gets to bypass call blocking technology

      And political campaigns too.

      1. And political campaigns too.

        Only government approved political campaigns.

  5. As long as I don’t get robo-called to support robo-sexual marriage.

    1. I’m always getting calls from 1-900-ROBOSEX

      Hey baby, what voltage are you running on? Me? I’m on a skimpy 3.3V DC trickle charge!

      Does that make you want to pop your caps?

      Listen I’ve got a DB9 Male to DB9 Male strap on adapter that is just made for you and me. You know you want to!

      1. Be sure to watch “Electrogonorrhea: the noisy killer” before sealing the deal.

  6. Phone pollsters should be alotted a unique area code similar to 800, as an easy and verifiable ID.

  7. Again, Nate Silver isn’t a pollster. All he does is run Monte Carlo simulation software (than anyone can download free) on the polls that the real professionals do.

    1. Nate Silver understands both the stats and manipulative intentions behind all polling. Maybe “without accurate polling, government may end up losing its most powerful tool to know what the people who elect it really think” reveals too much but it is absolutely accurate.

      The ONLY way for individuals to reverse centralization and top-down mass manipulation and power transfers to governments is – to lie to pollsters. Not to refuse to answer pollsters (that merely raises the costs of polling – but not the certainty/reliability of the results) – but to politely answer their questions with lies.

      If big centralized whatever is gonna fail, it has to be both certain about what it thinks it knows – and wrong. And yes this applies to both parties, big gummint, big corps – everything that ultimately relies on polls for its communications/persuasion/advertising/etc.

      I will know the libertarian moment is truly here when Reason’s polls of millennials produce transparently silly results. Then I will have hope for the future.

      1. How much more transparently silly can you get than socialism?

  8. I don’t give a fuck what happens to pollsters, but I am getting really tired of bureaucratic agencies issuing new rules by decree that everyone else has to follow.

    I’m not sure if any other bureaucratic agency is quite as worthless and powerful as the FCC. It has no value whatsoever and ridiculous authority that it seems to just claim on a whim.

    1. Did you even read the article? This is just giving companies the ability to sell consumers stuff they want to buy that previous idiotic decrees were blocking. This is a win for sanity. Embrace it.

    2. as rudehost said, before customers were asking the phone company “is there anything I can do to block these calls?” and the reply was “nope, the FCC says we can’t offer that to you”. The FCC is now deregulating

  9. TCPA cases are the hot thing right now. Eight figure settlement a-plenty.

  10. But, but…. my dentist uses a robo-dialer to send check-up reminders, I’ll never remember to see my dentist again!

    * runs around wailing and gnashing my (soon to be missing) teeth hysterically*

    1. If you don’t have your dentist on your white list you have only yourself to blame.

  11. But what do millennials think? We need a poll! Oh shit!

  12. You mean we won’t know that Hillary is going to be our next president until she’s sworn in?

    1. Or, conversely, the whole ‘momentum’ thing that comes into play might die and you get a real campaign on issues.

      /fantasy island

    2. I think we’re all supposed to believe that pro gun old white guy Bernie Sanders in on a freight train of momentum right now.

      1. Mr. Sanders, your campaign seems to have the momentum of a runaway freight train. Why are you so popular?

        1. Sanders is popular because he appears to be unique – a populist who cares about people, but somehow has yet to be corrupted by working in DC (or so they think)

    3. To find out who our next president is, you need to find out who can manipulate the voting machines and how; polls are irrelevant.

  13. I doubt anything will change. Every phone company person I’ve talked to regards junk calls as legitimate traffic they get paid for carrying. We need to figure out how to make it pay better for the companies to block the calls than to carry them.

    1. You could do what I do, which is cancel your service and put your cell on a do not call list.

  14. Dude this makes a lot of sedne man.


  15. Now if the Census Bureau would just kill their mandatory response for the long form. And the short form, other than simple enumeration.

    The same arguments the pollsters are using are the same ones by whoever likes to mine census data.

  16. Simple solution, if the number isn’t on my list I don’t answer the call. If people did that we could get the douchebags and send them to their deserved oblivion. But no, loling.

  17. I figure that polls are meaningless to politicians and government. They’re scewed to fit the intended result.

    The only way these types will get the message that “the peasants are revolting” is if someone parks a woodchipper by the main entrance. And probably not even then.

  18. My hatred of pollsters and robocallers is at war with my libertarian principles. The pain.

  19. There is a profound problem presented by the proliferation of political polling. Most politicians simply parrot prepared lines that their polls show will get them elected rather than say what they really think about a particular topic. This is problematic when, once in office, they begin to govern differently than from the way they claimed in the campaign.

    “without accurate polling, government may end up losing its most powerful tool to know what the people who elect it really think.”

    This puts the problem bass-ackwards, WE need to know what they really think. Too many decisions do not leave time run a poll to find out “what the people really think.” Politicians who rely on polls to know what the “right” decision is are morons who have no business being in any position of power.

    How then do we prevent politicians from pandering to the polls? (apart from adopting absurdly astute alliteration) The answer is simple: Lie to pollsters. Whatever they ask you, give a convincing answer that is NOT how you really feel. The idea is to either push the margin of error above 10% or make the pandering politicians adopt positions that most of the electorate doesn’t want, thus ensuring their loss.

  20. The [internal] conflict.

    There is NO conflict!

  21. i see nate’s view as the wrong way to look at it.

    if politicians have less ability to poll every last thing, then they might actually have to provide some content of their own instead of pandering.

    they would be forced to stand more on principle and show us who they really are as opposed to reflecting our own beliefs back at us while having no actual substance of their own beyond a desire for office and power.

    incessant polling has ruined, not aided american politics.

    1. I concur. I’ve never understood the utility in knowing what “most people” think on any topic. In my experience “most people” are idiots.

      1. As history shows, it’s useful to know when those idiots want to shove you into an oven, so that you can get out of the country first.

        1. In the abstract that may be true, but in the particular historical instance you are alluding to it is unclear how much of the German population knew about, let alone supported, the “Final Solution.” (source) German persecution of the Jews was implemented through official government legislation/decrees and was not the result of a spontaneous uprising by a majority of the population. Seeing a couple of speeches by one lunatic would have provided more notice than the most comprehensive public opinion poll ever could.

  22. If you think it’s your civic duty to respond to pollsters calling your house then answer the phone.
    I did my duty. Twenty years in the United States Navy says I don’t have to answer my phone.
    Thank you. That is all

    1. Thank you for your service. People like you are the only reason knuckleheads like me can publicly debate esoteric issues like this.

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