People with numbers already registered will likely see a decrease in some telemarketing calls beginning Wednesday — the original deadline for blocking telemarketing calls to the more than 50 million phone numbers in the registry — but regulators concede that the protection is increasingly uncertain.
CBS News Correspondent Dan Raviv reports the Direct Marketing Association is telling its 5,000 members to respect the do-not-call list. The association predicts there will be a lot fewer sales calls, starting Wednesday.
"We shut down everything to do with the registry already except the sign-up mechanism and we are in the process of trying to figure out how we do that," Federal Trade Commission Chairman Timothy Muris told reporters after testifying to a Senate committee on the list. "Unless something happens differently shortly, we'll take orderly steps to accomplish that."
In the last week, the bewildering battle between the government and telemarketers has involved two federal judges, an appeals court, both houses of Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court and two federal agencies.
After a federal judge blocked the FTC from enforcing the registry, the Federal Communications Commission stepped in to enforce the list, promising to penalize telemarketers who call the numbers in the registry. Telemarketers who call listed numbers could face FCC fines of up to $120,000.
While people can complain directly to the FCC about calls, the main system for filing do-not-call complaints on line and by phone have been shut down, the FTC's Muris said.
"This doesn't mean that consumers will be without protection," Muris said. "It will just be a more cumbersome and difficult system."
Many of the largest telemarketers say they will abide by the list despite the legal challenges, but a court ruling late Monday has made it even more difficult for the FCC to receive complaints and punish telemarketers who call listed people.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell said people can file complaints by visiting his agency's Web site or calling 1-888-225-5322.
"We know how to do it manually," Powell told reporters outside the Senate hearing. "It will be a little tougher but it's not shut down."
Muris said the publicity over the legal fight has caused registration for the list to surge, with hundreds of thousands of new numbers added. He said the legal fight that has blocked his agency from enforcing the list could last into next year, but on Wednesday, consumers can expect a significant decrease in calls "assuming telemarketers comply."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee holding the hearing, bemoaned the growing uncertainties of the registry.
"A concept that to most people is as simple as 'do not call me' has become tremendously complex," McCain said. "It is unclear whether American families gathering at the dinner table will be bombarded tomorrow with the same unwanted calls that they receive today."
Late Monday, the judge who blocked the FTC warned that the agency could face more legal action for using the FCC "to skirt the order."
"I'm not sure the FCC is going to be able to do what it says, at least until the free-speech questions about the federal do-not-call program are resolved," says CBSNews.com Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen. "If it is unconstitutional for one agency to enforce a law, it usually is unconstitutional for any agency to enforce a law."
U.S. District Judge Edward W. Nottingham in Denver denied an FTC request to suspend his decision while the agency appeals. In his ruling, he said he clearly prohibited the FTC from operating the registry and the law prevents any indirect actions to get around that.
FCC officials said complaints will be forwarded to their agency for enforcement. Consumers can also file complaints directly with the FCC by calling 1-888-225-5322.
The free service was originally intended to block about 80 percent of telemarketer calls. Exemptions included calls from charities, pollsters and on behalf of politicians.
The do-not-call list works by requiring telemarketers to pay for a copy of the list so they can know who to avoid calling. Many telemarketers have the list, but some do not and cannot obtain it since the FTC shut down that aspect of the program on Sunday in response to the court rulings.
The FCC can only penalize telemarketers who have gotten the list, meaning that some businesses may keep calling consumers without fear of reprisals.
While many members of the Direct Marketing Association, the largest telemarketer association, have agreed to comply with the list, some worry they might be penalized whether they have the list or not.
Telemarketers without the list are in a Catch-22 situation because they can't get it and are afraid to make calls because they might be fined for calling listed numbers, said Jerry Cerasale, a senior vice president with the association.