Facebook Notifications Are Not Akin to Robocalls

April 1, 2021 by Dan McCue
(Dreamstime/TNS)

WASHINGTON – A unanimous Supreme Court sided with Facebook on Thursday, ruling that a notification system the social media giant employs to alert users to suspicious logins does not run afoul of a federal law aimed at curbing robocalls and automated text messages.

The case revolved around the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which restricts calls by “an automatic telephone dialing system.”

The respondent in the case, Noah Dugui began receiving alerts on his telephone telling him his account was compromised, despite the fact he’d never created a Facebook account.

After he tried without success to stop the unwanted messages, he filed a class action against the social media giant, alleging it violated the TCPA by maintaining a database that stored phone numbers and programming its equipment to send automated text messages.

Facebook countered by arguing the TCPA does not apply because the technology it used to text Duguid did not use a “random or sequential number generator,” one of the technologies the Act was specifically created to address.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, holding the Act applies to notification systems like those employed at Facebook because its technology has the capacity to dial automatically stored numbers.

Writing for the court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said to  qualify as an “automatic telephone dialing system” under the TCPA, a device must have the capacity either to store a telephone number using a random or sequential number generator, or to produce a telephone number using a random or sequential number generator. 

“The statutory context confirms that the TCPA’s autodialer definition excludes equipment that does not use a random or sequential number generator,” she continued, adding “Facebook’s interpretation of [the statute] better matches the scope of the TCPA to these concerns.”

Sotomayor went on to say that none of Duguid’s counterarguments overcame the ”clear commands” of the statute’s text and broaden context.”

“It would make little sense however, to classify as autodialers all equipment with the capacity to store and dial telephone numbers, including virtually all modern cell phones,” she wrote.

Further, she said, Duguid over-broadly construed the TCPA’s privacy-protection goals.

“Despite Congress’ general concern about intrusive telemarketing practices, Congress ultimately chose a precise autodialer definition,” the justice noted.

“Finally, Duguid argues that a random or sequential number generator is a ‘senescent technology,’ i.e., one likely to become outdated quickly,” Sotomayor said. “That may or may not be the case, but either way, this Court cannot rewrite the TCPA to update it for modern technology. Congress’ chosen definition of an autodialer requires that the equipment in question must use a random or sequential number generator. That definition excludes equipment like Facebook’s login notification system, which does not use such technology.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito Jr. spends most of his time talking about words and how they are interpreted.

“Appellate judges spend virtually every working hour speaking, listening to, reading, or writing English prose,” he writes. “Statutes are written in English prose, and interpretation is

not a technical exercise to be carried out by mechanically applying a set of arcane rules.

“Canons of interpretation can help in figuring out the meaning of troublesome statutory

language, but if they are treated like rigid rules, they can lead us astray. When this Court describes canons as rules or quotes canons while omitting their caveats and limitations, we only encourage the lower courts to relegate statutory interpretation to a series of if-then computations. No reasonable reader interprets texts that way,” Alito said.

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