John Oliver Unveils Robocall Campaign Against FCC: 'It Would Really Drive the Point Home'

Comedian John Oliver used Sunday's Last Week Tonight show to attack the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for inaction on stopping the spread of so-called robocalls. He also announced the show had set up a protest campaign to show the body's commissioners just how annoying telephone harassment can be.

Oliver told viewers that the use of robocalls—automated phone calls that deliver pre-recorded messages—has increased significantly in the U.S. in recent years, and suggested the FCC and Chairman Ajit Pai have done too little to address it.

The comedian said robocall usage "increased by 57 percent in 2018, to nearly 50 billion calls," and that they now account for more than 60 percent of all complaints received by the FCC. As such, the organization is "definitely aware of the problem," Oliver suggested. "Everybody is annoyed by robocalls. Hatred of them might be the only thing that everyone in America agrees on now," he joked.

Pai, who according to Oliver "clearly has aspirations for higher political office," has previously condemned the use of robocalls. He has described the practice as the "scourge of civilization," but also backed a court decision to repeal Obama-era legislation that policed the practice, calling it "regulatory overreach."

The host noted there are measures that could curtail robocall usage, inlcuding requiring telecom providers to offer free call blocking and call authentication services to customers. But though Pai has "urged" companies to help end robocalls, Oliver said the FCC must do more.

Oliver then unveiled the "Last Week Tonight" plan to pressure the FCC into action—its own robocall drive. "If only there was a way to get the FCC's attention on this issue," Oliver mused. "Of course, one way to do that would be if someone had, say, the office numbers of all five FCC commissioners, because then you could hypothetically set up a program to robocall those numbers every 90 minutes."

The comedian then played the message that the FCC commissioners would hear. "Hi FCC! This is John from Customer Service. Congratulations! You've just won a chance to lower robocalls in America today," it said.

"Sorry, but I am a live person. Robocalls are incredibly annoying, and the person who can stop them is you! Talk to you again in 90 minutes. Here's some bagpipe music."

Oliver assured the audience, "That would be really annoying… It would really drive the point home." He added that the process proved to be so easy "that it only took our tech guy literally 15 minutes to work out how to do it."

The host began the show's campaign by pressing a large red button, above which a model hand with a pointed finger hung. He then took out a smaller red button, explaining, "When my finger presses this [small] button, it will trigger this much larger finger, that will press a much larger button, which will trigger our calls to the FCC."

"FCC, you know what you need to do," he said, before pressing the button as the show ended. "It's ringing, I think it's for you!" Oliver declared. "Pick up! Pick up!"

Ajit Pai FCC robocalls John Oliver
File photo: Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai speaking to members of the media after a commission meeting on December 14, 2017 in Washington, D.C. John Oliver criticized Pai for doing too little to address the problem of robocalls. Alex Wong/Getty Images