The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) advocates that the wireless 411 directory that is slated to be launched in early 2005 provide a strict opt-in mechanism that requires express consent before cell phone numbers are listed in the directory. The PRC also believes that federal legislation should be strengthened to ensure this standard is met.
"We believe there are several reasons to recommend the opt-in standard, one being privacy," said Jordana Beebe, PRC Communications Director. Though the wireless industry touts their directory will be an opt-in standard, Beebe counters, "We are also concerned about the unregulated wireless industry overseeing the directory without legislative oversight."
Federal legislation (HR 3558, S 1963, S 1973) called the Wireless 411 Privacy Act, if enacted, would require the cell phone industry to establish an opt-in requirement to include information of those who have a wireless number before the directory is launched. However, those who establish cell phone accounts after the directory is underway would only be provided with an opt-out mechanism.
The PRC believes that wireless customers should be afforded the utmost control over the personal information associated with cell phone accounts. "We recommend an opt-in wireless 411 directory standard, regardless of when a consumer initiates service with a wireless provider," said Beebe. "We also recommend that the directory be implemented under the auspices of federal regulators or federal law to provide additional consumer protection."
Concerns about a Self-Regulated Wireless 411 Directory
Wireless contracts all have limitations on damages a customer can collect if harmed. This strictly limits the penalties a provider would pay a customer if they made mistakes. These contracts require arbitration of all disputes, do not allow appeals, jury trials, or class actions, and may waive a customer's right to collect attorney's fees if they prevail.
There is currently little federal or state oversight of the wireless industry and, as a result, limited consumer protection for individuals who might be harmed by inadvertent listings in the wireless directory.
Any standards established by the wireless industry on a voluntary basis can be changed and weakened at a later date.
Wireless company contracts often allow charges to customers who do not want to be listed in the directory, though the industry now says there will not be a fee. Similarly, contracts may mandate an opt-out mechanism rather than the suggested opt-in industry standard. These conflicts suggest that establishing, implementing, and self-regulation an industry standard may be difficult.
A self-regulating standard means that privacy transgressions are likely to go without penalty or with little enforcement, and with little to no public accountability that would ensure that problems would be disclosed to regulators or the public.
Wireless providers do not have proven solutions in place to assist customers with harassing and annoying phone calls.
Concerns about Opt-Out Mechanism in Federal Legislation for "New Subscribers"
"Conspicuous Notice" is not enough to ensure consumers are aware of their option to opt-out. The Wireless 411 Privacy Act should mandate the opt-in standard across the board. All too often, opt-out notices are intermingled with other documents or lost in the billing envelope, are formatted in small print, and are written in legalese that is difficult to understand.
We have concerns that commission-driven wireless sales employees do not have the same level of training and possibly a higher turn-over rate compared to their landline counterparts, making them less knowledgeable about the importance of emphasizing privacy.
According to the Wireless 411 Privacy Act, "the term `wireless telephone number information' means the telephone number, electronic address, and any other identifying information by which a calling party may reach a subscriber to commercial mobile services, and which is assigned by a commercial mobile service provider to such subscriber, and includes such subscriber's name and address." This overly-broad language could be used to describe virtually any information affiliated with a wireless account.
Those with an unlisted/unpublished landline phone number who take advantage of number portability to "port" their number to a cell phone will not retain their unlisted preferences.
Similarly, those who are not listed in the wireless 411 directory who port their number to a different cell phone provider will not retain their unlisted setting.
The Act has no requirement for parental consent to include the cell phone numbers of minors or members of shared family plans who otherwise will be automatically added to the directory.
TAKE ACTION: Consumers Union is also concerned about your wireless phone number being included in a directory without permission. You can use their online form to contact your Congressional representatives to express your views at:
Update: January 14, 2005
According to an article posted by the Wall Street Journal (requires subscription), two additional cell phone carriers decided not to participate in the upcoming wireless 411 directory. In addition to Verizon and U.S. Cellular Corp., Sprint and Alltel are also backing out of allowing customers to include their numbers in a wireless directory. The article notes that at least 45% of the country's cellphone numbers will not be listed in the directory and possibly more because of the cell phone carriers' decisions.