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A Little Privacy, Please

January 06, 2003

The table is set. So, finally, are the children. You pass the gravy, butter the bread, load your fork with salad -- and then the phone rings. Wouldn't it be great if someone could put an end to those incessant, unsolicited interruptions?

In December, the Federal Trade Commission proposed just such a thing. Consumers hoping to hang up on the 104 million daily unsolicited sales calls could add their names to a nationwide list. The FTC would slap limits on the use of dialing devices that increase telemarketing productivity by making multiple calls and signaling the caller when someone answers. And states, including California, would be free to enforce their own "do not call" programs.

The FTC proposal isn't perfect. The agency doesn't regulate banks, insurance companies, airlines, politicians and charities, so they could continue to dial for dollars. And a logistical and enforcement nightmare looms if Uncle Sam promises to prosecute every mom-and-pop business that fails to get in line with the proposed rules.

Most worrisome is that the FTC can't proceed unless Congress fronts the cash. Money was the roadblock a decade ago when the Federal Communications Commission flirted with the idea of a do-not-call registry. Supporters now argue that Washington has no choice but to side with irate citizens.

It's a noble thought, but in addition to being a major irritant, telemarketing is a very big business. Cold calls generated $296 billion in sales of goods and services during 2001. The industry has powerful friends lobbying for it in Washington -- including the $55-billion newspaper industry, which unsuccessfully pushed the FTC for an exemption.

Millions of consumers already have added their names to a voluntary do-not-call list maintained by the Direct Marketing Assn. trade group and individual registries compiled by California and 26 other states. But the status quo isn't working. If it were, would 2.5 million SBC Communications customers be paying the telephone company $4 a month for technology to thwart unwanted calls?

A national registry with a budget to ensure enforcement is the answer. The FTC should dovetail its efforts with the FCC, which is gathering public comment before reviewing the 10-year-old Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

Together the two agencies can offer consumers real protection in the form of a truly national do-not-call registry. Congress should heed the public's call and come up with the money.

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