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Dial-a-Porn Is a Real Hang-Up at Phone Firms

February 26, 1988|S. J. DIAMOND

Ever since telephone companies started offering "dial-it" services--usually 976 numbers that offer recorded surf reports, stock quotes, messages from Santa or voices describing various sex acts--they have drawn a lot of criticism.

Some people object to the cost--$2 a call isn't unusual--particularly when children made the calls without permission. Some object to the sexual messages, known as dial-a-porn--most volubly, it seems, the phone companies.

Such messages are "revolting," "a dirty business," "unwanted filth," and an "abuse of our service," says Maury Rosas, spokesman for California's Pacific Bell, which says it has fought to get rid of them since 1983.

Pacific is hardly alone. In fact, says Cincinnati Bell spokesman Kyle Hill, "the consensus is that 976 service is going to be the biggest issue, and the biggest headache, in telecommunications this year."

Phone companies are in a difficult position, blamed for both cost and content of the 976 messages. After all, they bill for the calls. Worse, they make money on them.

Pacific, for instance, gets $2,000 to establish each line and a share of each call, ranging from 19 cents on a 20-cent call to 70 cents on a $2 call, plus any toll charges. From July, 1986, to June, 1987, its share of $71.7 million in 976 revenue was $27 million.

Customers Keep Calling

Unfortunately, dial-a-porn has come to dominate the dial-it field. It was a natural for the telephone, which "has always given people that cloak of anonymity," says Northwestern Bell spokesman Jim Atkinson in Omaha.

It was also a natural for the time allotted, usually up to three minutes: "What can you really provide of wide appeal in three minutes?" asks Charlie Ryan, operator of a 976 line and president of California's Information Providers Assn. in San Diego.

The appeal is both wide and habituating: Customers keep calling, while they're unlikely to call more than once a day for a horoscope, mortgage rates or stock quotes. As a result, in Pacific's area alone, porn fills 48% of the lines and accounts for 60% of the billings.

Nevertheless, given the public criticism, phone companies' apparently want only to be rid of them. And they're stymied by the fact that the porn services claim the protection of the First Amendment, which guarantees that government will do nothing to abridge the freedom of speech.

It gets more complicated. Obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment, but being in the eyes (or ears) of the beholder, it's hard to judge.

Message Change

Porn lines, moreover, feature an essentially private utterance, and the listener, obviously consenting, has initiated the call. And if many callers are children, is the fault with the provider, which aims at an adult audience, or with the household, which does not supervise its children?

What's more, the messages on any one line change constantly. Cutting off a service just because one message was judged obscene would be unfairly judging all future messages, which might be just good clean fun, if not dial-a-prayer.

Pacific Bell, for one, came up against all these distinctions when it went to court against dial-a-porn under state obscenity laws and its own tariff--the Public Utility Commission's regulation setting up 976 service, and including a prohibition against obscenity.

The outcome: a federal court ruling in 1984 that cutting off the service would be a prior restraint of First Amendment rights and a subsequent ruling from the PUC "that its policy would be one of 'content neutrality,' " said Pacific Bell attorney Steven Rathfon. "As a result, we cannot withhold service on the basis of content."

Other phone companies have been more successful in silencing the messages or controlling their content.

Atlanta-based Southern Bell, for example, first reviews the messages, then monitors the lines for anything it finds offensive according to its tariffs.

The tariff wording is very specific--a specificity that was challenged in Florida but upheld by an appellate court. Without resting on judgments like "obscene" or "indecent," the tariff simply forbids material that "implicitly or explicitly" describes or even refers to sexual conduct, or contains any innuendo that "attempts to arouse sexual desire."

Northwestern Bell in Omaha just "declined the hard-core lines," Atkinson said.

When one of the biggest porn providers approached Northwestern, it did a survey of community standards, showed the Omaha city prosecutor the survey results and proposed messages, and asked if the office would prosecute. "They said they would," Atkinson says. "We didn't have to put ourselves in jeopardy."

Denver-based Mountain Bell also ended up in federal appeals court. Having initially allowed porn messages, it has been subjected to considerable customer complaint and has been threatened with prosecution by a county attorney in Arizona for distributing sexually explicit material to minors.

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