Don’t you dare call us
Remember how we all did the happy dance when the U.S. government created the Do Not Call Registry back in 2003? How we popped the champagne corks because hefty civil penalties could be given to a telemarketer if they called your landline after you had opted-in on the registry? Sure, there are loopholes and enforcement problems but essentially the registry works, and it restored the natural order of things by liberating us from having to drop everything because some faceless, money-grubbing salesperson rang in our living rooms.
A mere eight years later landlines are a dying technology. Cool kids, lower-income people, and savvy middle-agers know there’s really no need for a “home phone.” We’ve never had to worry about mobile phone spam because there is a FCC rule against it. This restriction was premised largely on the fact that, unlike on a landline, receiving a wireless call can cost something to the recipient. Same is true for faxes, for the same reason: unsolicited faxes — i.e., spam — is a civil violation.
But, aside from the practical rationale, this dynamic reflects the fundamental truth that I have a phone to make calls and receive them from whom I choose. I’m not paying all this money to establish a marketing beachhead in my pocket.
Well, hang on to your smartphones: Telemarketers are trying to recreate in mobile what the DNC Registry and the demise of landlines rendered moot. If we don’t make a huge stink about this right now there is a chance, however slight, that robo telemarketing calls will make a come back, on steroids.
This abomination is being teed up as HR 3035, aka the “Mobile Informational Call Act of 2011.” It would amend the Communications Act of 1934 and give legal cover to the cretins of commerce who think they have the right to get your attention, anywhere you happen to be, by leveraging the reality that mobile phones are everywhere and the primary means of communication for hundreds of millions of people.
The proposed bill is very short, and blessedly easy to understand. But it would “permit informational calls to mobile telephone numbers, and for other purposes” (my emphasis added) by the use of an “automatic telephone dialing system.”
Thaaaaat’s right. Just when it became safe to sit down to dinner and not be bothered by someone trying to sell you insurance or a magazine subscription, 10 members of the House of Representatives, led by Nebraska Republican Lee Terry, want to let salespeople and, well, anybody with “other purposes” to put you on a list for solicitations and who knows what else.
The proposal seems unlikely to emerge from the House, much less pass the Senate, if only because Congress is dysfunctional. Then there is the matter of President Obama signing it into law, which would be astonishing. But the mere attempt to start this conversation, however quixotic, has sparked outrage from the privacy and personal space crowd, of which I count myself a very passionate member. Just to be safe, though, you can start calling or emailing Congressman Terry in D.C. or Omaha to tell him to shove that bill down his landline.
For a glimpse at how the righteous advocates of Truth, Justice and the American Way view this blatant exploitation of new technology for commercial speech check out this Gizmodo article, whose headline I can’t even repeat here.
But whatever the prospects for HR 3035, this is a defining moment in the relatively young history of the mobile internet. Smartphones have been adopted at a pace not seen since the introduction of television because they represent a genuine, empowering breakthrough for individuals. Even better than TV, they allow for people and pitchmen to co-mingle in ways that are relatively unintrusive, by serving up unsolicited ads and information at appropriate times and in appropriate locations and only when we specifically ask.
Smartphones are potentially a bigger boon to commerce than the web is. My iPhone tells me where food and drink and help is, no matter where I am. I am no stranger in any city, town or side street. I use my Amazon app to mindlessly order things that arrive magically two business days later while commuting to work. I use a Starbucks app to find locations, and then pay — I am sure I buy more coffee because of it. I use Google to find car services and … other things.
So, the Luddites in Congress behind this bill are ruining … everything. They think that a mobile phone is a phone, for heaven’s sake. They don’t realize that the phone is just an app on a pocket-sized geo-aware communications computer that MacGyver, James Bond, Inspector Gadget and H.G. Wells would have killed to possess.
They also don’t realize — because they don’t have to answer their own phones — that nuisance calls are a real nuisance.
That is why the lesson of the Do Not Call Registry looms large in this new fight. More than 200 million people have signed up with DNC as of early this year. Get your head around that staggering number: That is three-quarters of all the landlines in the United States. It is 70 million more than the number of people who voted in the 2008 presidential election. It is 90 million more than the viewership of the Super Bowl in February — the highest-rated TV show in America ever.
So it’s hard to know what Rep. Terry et al hope to accomplish, apart from being subjected to a world of mockery and abuse.
The good news is that you don’t need anyone’s permission to call Rep. Lee or the bill’s nine co-sponsors or the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology to tell them (nicely) to … reconsider their position.
And do it with a recorded message, from your mobile phone. That would be a very nice touch.