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Judge Opposes Plan to Provide Phone Caller ID

January 22, 1992|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — In a stunning setback for California telephone companies, a state administrative law judge Tuesday recommended against approval of a controversial service that would enable customers to identify callers before they pick up the phone.

In his recommendation to the state Public Utilities Commission, Judge John Lemke said that Caller ID, as the service is known, would have minimal benefits for a small number of users, while posing "an unwarranted intrusion into the privacy of telephone customers."

The commission could modify or reject Lemke's proposal, but an administrative judge's ruling usually has a major influence on the commission's final decision. At the earliest, the PUC could vote on the matter at its Feb. 20 meeting.

Pacific Bell, GTE California and Contel had proposed to begin the service, already available in several areas, on a limited basis in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. The phone companies contend that caller identification could help solve the problem of anonymous bomb threats and harassing calls. They vowed to file strong responses in the hope of getting the PUC's four commissioners (the fifth seat is vacant) to reverse the judge's suggestion.

"We are appalled . . . especially since this service has already been approved in 20 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada," said Mike Miller, regulatory vice president with Pacific Bell at its San Francisco headquarters. "Callers' rights must be balanced with the privacy rights of those they call."

At GTE California in Thousand Oaks, spokesman Daniel Smith said: "We think it's too harsh."

Caller ID and other such services have great revenue and profit potential for the phone companies, telecommunications experts say. Much of the nation's telephone network already has the sophisticated technology needed to provide the service. But if phone companies are blocked from offering such services, they might be reluctant in the future to spend the money on new network technologies.

"Ultimately, this might have a negative effect on the upgrading of the public switched network," said Barbara O'Connor, a professor of communications at Cal State Sacramento.

Opponents of Caller ID, who have long argued that it would threaten privacy and could unleash hordes of telemarketers on unwitting consumers, expressed delight over the recommendation.

Thomas J. Long, a staff attorney for Toward Utility Rate Normalization, said the San Francisco-based consumer advocacy group was pleased and a little bit surprised. "Politically, we weren't expecting the commission to listen to us as well as they did," Long said.

The proposed Caller ID service would require a subscriber to pay a monthly fee and buy a small device to attach to the telephone that would display a caller's number. Under California law, the phone companies would be required to allow customers the option of dialing a special code to prevent their telephone numbers from showing up on a subscriber's device. Such a blocking mechanism would be implemented on a per-call basis.

Consumer advocates, expecting that the judge would recommend approval of the new service, had proposed that customers be given the ability to have identification of all outgoing calls automatically blocked from their lines. However, the phone companies had said that could defeat the purpose of the service.

In his recommendation, Lemke advocated approval of a variety of other new services that he said could accomplish the goals of Caller ID without the drawbacks.

Included are services that would allow customers to trace calls and block calls from particular numbers.

Among those who might be harmed by a loss of privacy, Lemke said, would be hot line callers, victims of domestic violence and consumers who would unsuspectingly give their number to "unscrupulous telemarketers."

Some privacy experts hailed the recommendation.

"It's extremely courageous and really revolutionary to prohibit a new technology," said Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal newsletter in Washington. "It reflects the California tradition of greater respect for the right to privacy."

There have been diverse reactions to Caller ID in other states. In Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth Court, a mid-level state appellate court, ruled that the service violates the state's wiretap law. The case is before the state's Supreme Court.

In New Jersey, where Bell Atlantic introduced the service in 1987, Caller ID has been credited with a drop in harassing and obscene calls. Callers have no blocking capability in that state, where only about 5.5% of phone customers have signed up for the service.

Ringing Up New Services

PUC Administrative Law Judge John Lemke recommended against Caller ID but endorsed a variety of custom-calling services proposed by Pacific Bell, GTE California and Contel. The firms have different names for these services. They include:

Call Block: Rejects calls from as many as 10 specified telephone numbers.

Call Return: Provides the subscriber with the number of the last caller along with the time and date and allows him or her to automatically return the call.

Call Trace: Permits subscribers to automatically trace the number of an obscene or harassing caller. Numbers are held in a database at the phone company and are provided to law enforcement authorities once a police report has been filed.

Priority Ringing: Subscribers can program their phones to sound a unique ring on calls from certain numbers.

Repeat Dialing: If the number a subscriber dials is busy, this service automatically checks the called number every 45 seconds for up to 30 minutes. When the line is clear, it rings the caller and completes the call.

Select Call Forwarding: Subscribers can arrange for calls from specific numbers to be forwarded to another phone.

SOURCE: Pacific Bell

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