FCC Helps Domestic Abuse Survivors Gain Safe, Affordable Connectivity

The FCC voted Thursday to implement key provisions in the Safe Connections Act to support survivors of domestic abuse and related crimes, seeking to keep connections with friends, family, and support networks. The proposed rules would help survivors obtain separate phone lines from shared accounts that include their abusers and protect the privacy of calls made by survivors to domestic abuse hotlines. They also include providing support for victims who suffer financial hardship through the agency’s affordability programs. 

During the meeting, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced the wireless industry will join with the National Domestic Violence Hotline to launch a “Partnership to Support Survivors.” The carriers involved include “the largest providers of wireless service,” said the Chairwoman.  

Toshira Monroe is the Deputy Director of My Sister’s Place, a Washington, D.C. shelter that accepts entire families fleeing domestic violence. She testified before the vote that technology created to keep families safe like family tracking apps can be used by an abuser to stop or track a victim and catch them. “Family mobile plans are great for lowering costs but are terrible for a family who needs to stay in contact while they plan to leave a violent home. Abusers use the phone as a means of control — threatening to cut the phone off or limit access to children’s lines.”

Monroe explained: “The control of the phone limits what a survivor can do to seek out help as the abuser has access to the call history, text messages, and data. Without a separate line, a victim risks being punished for seeking help.”

The Safe Connections Act requires carriers to separate the line of a survivor of domestic violence, and any individuals in the care of the survivor, from a mobile service contract shared with an abuser within two business days after receiving a request from the survivor. To protect the privacy of calls and text messages to hotlines and emergency assistance resources, the Commission also seeks comment in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, on a proposal to require providers to omit records of calls or text messages to certain hotlines from consumer-facing call and text message logs.

The Act also sets up a way for survivors to receive emergency communications support from the FCC’s Lifeline or the Affordable Connectivity Program for up to six months. “We are making sure communications are private,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, who visited My Sister’s Place on Valentine’s Day. “The law sets a path for identifying and removing hotline numbers from call and text logs so that those seeking help can do so without fear of discovery by their abuser.” 

Concerning the Partnership to Support Survivors, Rosenworcel said carriers “will set up systems so that when survivors call to leave a family plan and set up a new line that  incoming calls will be received by someone who will offer support and resources from those who work with survivors of domestic abuse. We are going to turn this call into a touchpoint that is meaningful and helpful.” She told reporters after the meeting the specific carriers will be named at a later date. 

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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