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The following is derived from my entry to the Robocall Challenge sponsored by the Federal Trade Commission.  The Challenge basically requests submissions of ideas on how to stop "robocalls," with a $50,000 prize for the winning submission.  I emailed them yesterday about publishing this, as they do not publically publish the full content of submissions on their site, while I would like to get some feedback, as, even if I don't win the challenge, I am still very motivated to solve the problem.  Here is their response:

"From: marny (Support staff)
Subject: Viewing Entry

Hi Phil,

Thanks for writing. Per the Official Rules:

"The title, text description, images, and video (if submitted), will be displayed publicly on the Competition Website. The Proposal will only be viewable by authorized employees, officials, and agents of the Sponsor, Administrator, and judges, and shall not be disclosed except as permitted or required by Federal law."

There is nothing in the rules preventing you from posting your ideas elsewhere.


A Synergistic Approach

by Phil Osborn

Brief Summary

This is a very large problem and no out-of-box solutions are likely to work long-term.  The real issues are broader than simple robocalls, including also internet "spamming," for example, and any long-term viable solution should be framed in those terms. In brief, I contend here that the solution space for this proposal is the inverse of what most proposals have advocated, substituting a positive incentive environment for a punitive suppression system.

Methods for Solutions

Let me first lay out the method of solution, which, loosely speaking, can be termed algebraic.  First-year algebra students have it drummed into their heads that to find a single point solution to a problem, you must have at least as many independent equations as you have variables.  One less equation means that your result is somewhere on a line.  Two less equations means that it is somewhere on a plane, etc.  In the real world of society and law and economics, of course, the constraints of simple equations are replaced by the fuzzy cognitive objects of those very systems of analysis.  The essence, however, remains.  The more relevant independent perspectives can be brought to bear, the more precisely the solutions spaces can be isolated and modeled.  What I will do below is lay out a set of constraints or independent perspectives that should narrow down the solution space to something workable.

Here are some of the constraints, the independent equations.  That they are not truly 100% independent is not relevant at this stage.  What is relevant is how well they model the real world, and whether they allow us to find a solution space that is practical in the broadest sense and then provide a working path to it.  I will begin, therefore, with cutting out some huge swaths of the potential solution spaces that consist of inherently unworkable “solutions.”

0. Brute Force and Terror:

That this is the essence of many of the robocall solutions I have seen so far matters little except as to divert attention from proposals more likely to work, and morally grounded, as well.  The punitive approach does not work very well in general, and our failed worldwide War On Drugs is but one example of how tenuous the ROI typically is.  Demonizing the robocallers and subjecting the few that are actually caught and prosecuted to enormous harm is neither very practical nor moral, bearing a strong moral similarity to the collective punishment outlawed by the rules of warfare.  Eliminating the punishment option from the start significantly reduces the solution space, meaning that other options become easier to spot.

1. The Commons:

We do not shoot someone who says “hello,” even though they may be interrupting and impeding whatever else it was we were focused on.  There is such a thing as a “commons,” from which all private claims derive their validity, in as much as the Law of the Commons directly reflects essential features of the implicit social contract by which we are able to live peacefully together.  Private properties are the exceptions to common usage, by which long-term, highly capitalized endeavors – farms, factories, dams - can be launched. 

The Common Law exists to validate and, when necessary, enforce the legitimate claims regarding the equity of the commons and that of the private owners whose property originated from a contract with the Commons. Basic to the Common Law is the fact that it is the right of the Commons to make final and binding determinations of equity, except in real emergencies, when rights of self-preservation supersedes the Common Law, as it itself is derived from the Social Contract.  Thus, we do not shoot rude people, although, if they become annoying enough, then we might actually demand compensation – and the Common Law is there to back us up in a legitimate tort action.

Private property, derived as it is from the general moral, social authority of the commons is not absolute, except within that context.  Our most private of properties, our lives - bodies and thoughts – are still subject to the moral and social constraints of the commons and whatever local social systems of courts or politics that have legitimately arisen from the commons and its laws, such as the Uniform Commercial Code.  When communications are forced on us, whether it is a simple greeting or a political harangue from a bull horn, or someone robocalling us, it is not simply a matter of absolute right or wrong; it is contextual, on a spectrum, relative to our own need as social animals to keep communications channels open, to interact with the human market of values to be traded, as well as to be left alone to focus on matters of our choice and personal need. 

As an example, for this reason, for better or worse, political calls are treated differently than commercial calls (even though many people might prefer the opposite), the logic revolving around a perceived need to ensure that all citizens at least had the option of receiving communications regarding public policy issues.  I.e., politics more closely reflects the issues of the commons as such, which are inherently in some ways more essential to our basic needs in common.  Thus, political speech becomes a separate class with unique attributes, such as, for example, might actually override the provisional authority granted by the Commons for private use, an argument implicit in the protests and occupations of public spaces of this past year.

In summary, when intrusions into our communications reach the point of being annoying or hurtful, we do not generally have the moral/legal option of responding with punitive force – with some exceptions, such as shouting “fire” in a theater, etc., but we do have the option of treating the matter as an inherent tort, an injury caused by another person, who we may hold liable for compensation. 

However, this “solution,” which together with “punishment” seems to reflect virtually all the thinking on the subject at hand, is also a non-starter, else we would not be having this “challenge.”  We already have in our legal authorities well and sufficient penalties and punishment and moving the action to a tort claim will not hinder the forces that benefit from the problem, or it would already be moot.  While tort law survives the test of basic morality, it is a solution that carries its own costs and retains the flavor of “lose-lose.”  Let us retain it only as a last resort.  That reduces the solution space by another huge chunk.

3. Paying to Make Things Worse:

Some combination of tortious or punitive approaches may stop those people who are the easy targets, but does nothing to eliminate the incentive in general to flood the market with cheap calls from behind political/legal firewalls.  In fact, from either a Darwinian or a Systems perspective such a “solution” creates an incentive for the robocallers to put resources into defeating whatever system of protection is installed.  The bad guys will ignore or expend energy to defeat the safeguards, as they have to date.  The very worst of the bad guys will benefit from the very efforts to suppress them, just like bacteria evolving to resist antibiotics, or the weed that destroyed the super-rice introduced into Africawithin five years, by evolving into a form that was indistinguishable from the rice sprouts.  (Internet evolution is even quicker, BTW.)  Like a drug resistant bacteria, unless one can deliver a knockout blow, before the robocallers devise the next response, one is simply preparing the culture to feed the emergence of new, even nastier problems.  However, there are actually radically different approaches, which are analogous to the myriad bacteria that co-exist to both our benefit and theirs in our bodies.

An example of this positive potentiality is the issue of intellectual property as applied to music.  The punitive approach by the recording industry had the impact of alienating a lot of customers, particularly the young people most likely to spend money on pop music. For years, the music pirates prospered via the very efforts to shut them down. What has actually worked is for companies such as Apple to offer the music at a very reasonable price, while guaranteeing the quality of the recording.  Instead of a conflict and contest between suppliers and customers, there has arisen a conversation that informs all parties and produces new harmonies, both musical and financial.

4. Enhancing the Signals:
From another perspective, let’s consider the example of packet switching and error correction that was innovated to deal with digital communications in general.  For some time, researchers focused entirely upon issues of using higher voltage, better shielding, etc. to deal with signal errors.  This brute force approach was a dead end, which Mandelbrot showed us with Chaos Theory.  The approach that did work, astonishingly well, was to build error correction into a packet system, such that sophisticated checksums would catch as close to 100% of the errors as was justified via cost/benefit.  These systems are SO good that even CDs with massive scratching are often readable, and coat-hangers substitute quite well for most of the high-end, top-dollar HDMI cabling. 

5. A False Focus:

And, shifting to yet another perspective, what virtually all of these “solutions” forget is that, a lot of the time, we WANT that “hello.”  Clearly, some people respond positively to enough of the robocalls to pay for them overall.  The robocallers are not public charities.  They are clearly making the big bucks at this, which implies that perhaps our own perspective in seeking to protect those people who are simply annoyed or hurt is too narrow.  Reportedly, one of the major phone companies realized at some point that they were not actually in the phone business, but rather in the telecommunications business, or, later, in the information systems business – and that realization changed everything.  To approach the problem of robocalls, then, perhaps we should reframe it as the Optimized Contact Problem. 

6. Pay to Play:

Instead of trying to set up firewalls and penalties and prosecutions to block calls we don’t want, why not put a price tag on them up front?  If someone in our family wants to call us, then we would not usually charge them per minute, but if some random stranger calls us in the hope that we might possibly be in need of what they have to sell, then that call is probably a tort against us, as it could be assumed from first principles or derived easily from data that their rational expectation was based on the assumption that most people would have refused the call, given the choice.  I.e., they KNOW that they are committing a tort – unless of course they actually do have the cure for aging.  Why NOT charge them by the minute?  Why not a system that allows the phone user to screen calls on a very simple basis?

7. The Economics of Connecting:

Here’s how it might work.  Calls from people on the Yes list are passed through, either from the network, the provider or from the SmartPhone APP.  Calls from everyone else pay $x per minute, “x” being set by the individual.  If someone is not on the Yes list, then they have to enter a valid code, matching one which is stored both in the cloud, or on the network, and also – for SmartPhones – on the phone.  For landline phones or very primitive cell phones, this would clearly have to be handled by the provider.  Presuming that the provider has the facilities, the Yes code for the phone being dialed would be automatically appended for callers on the Yes list.  Callers who entered the Yes code manually would also be included.  Callers not on the list or not having the code would be notified before the call went through that the x-charge would apply unless the recipient specifically waived it.  In cases of accidental miss-calls, such as a toddler picking up the phone, the caller would have the option of requesting a review, to demonstrate that they were not deliberately calling that number.

8. Creating Targeted Incentives:

This creates in inherent incentive for the robocallers to do their own prescreening.  Instead of shotgunning everyone with a phone, they would find that by more precisely targeting people who actually profiled their offerings, they would be able to pay the x-charge and still make a profit off the sales, which is a good thing!  Those people who actually would appreciate someone legit calling them about how to handle a mortgage crisis or the best vacation package tours would receive the calls.  Others, who likely had no interest in the offering would be spared the effort, and the mistakes would result in payments to the recipient’s account and an evolutionary guide to the smarter robocallers as to how to more precisely target their calls.  I.e., Win, win.  The robocallers would need no offshore havens.  They would simply pay up to offset the recipient's annoyance and enter that error flag into their own attempts to precisely match product to customer.

9. The Incentives Inversed:

In fact, there is nothing except software in the way of services offering to do enhanced screening, such that the user could set up both positive and negative screens.  I.e., the legit mortgage advisers would be able to find them and use the screen to be put temporarily on the Yes list, provided the user had alerted the screening system that they wanted calls on that issue.  They could even offer an incentive to the caller.  This could be the start of an entire new industry aimed at proactively connecting people, based on their real needs.

10. Planning for the Future:

In fact, this system provides the inherent incentive for much more sophisticated systems that will go well beyond the wildest imaginings of the current breed of robocallers.  How will we deal with a world that has taken the next step from SmartPhones, some of which already have APPs which are quite good at recognizing situations and objects in the real world to the ubiquitous use of “Google Glasses,” where reality is overlaid and ads or the equivalent of robocalls may easily overwhelm the individual without adequate or better “optimized” or better yet “dynamically optimized” information acquisition?  A punitive model will be hopelessly overwhelmed in that newly connected age.  Let us sow our seeds now of a newly conscious world that moves always in a dance, a jazz counterpoint that matches its moves at every step to what we truly want.  Then we will gratefully applaud the best of the “robocallers,” while being compensated for the ones we could do without.

11. Practical Steps to Design and Implementation:

Step One:  Set up a conference, or fund a sub-conference at one of the closely related conferences such as DEFCON.  Various industry and law enforcement agents regularly attend these kinds of conferences, so there is plenty of precedent.  We want this to bring people’s interests together, including the robocallers.

Step Two: Invite the robocallers to attend and give seminars on how they operate, with guarantees that they will not be arrested for attending and suggestions that they will want to be involved to protect and improve their own interests. 

Step Three: Also, specifically invite big players who may be interested in getting in on the ground floor and developing the sophisticated screening systems downstream.  E.g., Google, Boost, Samsung, Apple and the other phone service providers both U.S. and worldwide.

Step Four: Lay out an agenda that starts by focusing on agreements, not conflicts.  Both the robocallers and the general public have a real need and desire to connect people, products and services.  Large companies today often pay several dollars per targeted ad, even though only a small percentage of the ads actually results in a sale.  Why not pay that to the people who are being annoyed?  Won’t that be likely to encourage them to listen to the spiel, thereby enhancing the value of the robocall to the caller as well?  Nobody benefits by miss-targeting, but the miss-targeting itself returns a signal that can be used to refine future targeting in general.  Lay out suggested solutions, following the model I have suggested, but not limited to it, and invite submissions of business plans for implementing the pay for play and its offshoots and derivatives, perhaps with additional challenge money involved.

Step Five: Publish the results and solicit advice and evaluation from all players – robocallers, phone-service providers, the public and government bodies, including the FTC, focusing on potential legal issues and their possible resolution, including appropriate legislation to help facilitate introduction of x-charge systems, for example, dealing with the issues of payment and where the credits will be stored in such a way as to facilitate legitimate legal oversight.

This approach should put us on something closer to a path to real solutions.  The specific technical details are clearly an accelerating target and any approach that makes them the core of the solution is probably going to go down in history as another example of re-fighting the last war, should we be tempted on that score.  I would hope that a newer approach based on the various perspectives I have suggested - systems theory, Darwinism, signal analysis, the Law of the Commons – and whatever other valid independent equations that people are urged to bring to bear, will result in a wide range of solutions to robocalls as well as other similar social conundrums. Thank you for your attention to this.

(i) Does it work?  It is already working.  Ads are paying for the internet, by and large, even though the shotgun approach is still the rule.  The internet user is paid for his exposure to the ad by the services attached to it, such as free email.  I simply propose making this model, as applied to our phones, more precisely targeted, fair and measurable in ways that will finance better and better synergy between the robocaller and the recipient.

(ii) Is it easy to use?  This should not require any great effort on the part of the public.  People should receive notice that if they so choose, then they will be included in a system designed to reduce unwanted calls and also compensate them automatically for those intrusions that still occur.  The system should be engineered where possible to encourage third parties to offer enhancements such as APPs that specifically adapt to the user's tastes and desires, charging more for random robocalls or those completely alien to the user's taste, and less for those that match products that the user is really interested in.  Users should be able to charge for access to that personalized data, as well, if they choose to make their preferences public.

(iii) Can it be rolled out?  Deployment could, in theory, start immediately, or as soon as the APPs can be written.  In the case of landlines or antiquated cell phones, there will be more overhead, but the job is still doable.  Software, after all, can be duplicated without significant expense.

on Jan 30, 2013

2-step Solution to 'Robocall'...

Step 1.  Make it illegal.

Step 2. Execute anyone found in conflict with Step 1.


One less living 'Robocaller' is one less waste of human resources.

on Jan 30, 2013

Oh...and re 'spam' .... finding this cross-posting as it is had me reaching for the 'ban' button....

on Jan 30, 2013

When the internet is taken over by Skynet these problems awill all be solved.

on Feb 04, 2013

I could only understand some of what you wrote due to lingo or w/e.

When I visit my folks I am shocked by how many of these "robocalls" they get. { i have never heard the term Robocall}.

They get really irritated, especially Pa.

My Ma opens this bag of poop by donating money to, what she thinks are good, causes like American Red Cross or something for elderly.

Next thing they know {or rather, don't know} is that they are now on some list and targets of any bone-head with a phone line and ability to dial that phone.

I tried to help them by pointing out the list people could use to remove themselves from this situation.

They are old and can't do this type of stuff, it's too "new fangled".

I have never run in to this because I don't even have a land line. I get spam on the Android, but 1 swipe and bye bye, it's next to invisble.

In general the "Pay to Play" idea is awesome, hope you win! You get my vote!

on Jul 04, 2013

Unfortunately, altho my entry was accepted, I never heard from them again.  This is about up to par, I suspect, for these kind of GovCo efforts.