Representatives of wireless telephone carriers planning a telephone directory service told a US Senate committee that legislation to protect their customers' privacy is not needed, because their plan already does.
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Privacy advocates and some senators questioned, however, whether wireless carriers would protect customer privacy in the long term, without rules in place about how they handle the release of customer phone numbers.
"Chaos will reign when our constituents start getting calls on their mobile phones," said senator Barbara Boxer, co-sponsor of the Wireless 411 Privacy Act. "I urge you to not wait for chaos to rain down with these unwanted calls. There's going to a backlash, and then we'll have to deal with a mess."
Six of the seven largest wireless carriers in the US are moving forward with a plan to band together to offer a wireless directory called the 411 service. The directory could be available as early as 2005.
While most landline telephone numbers are listed in directories, most people expect privacy on wireless phones, said Boxer. People pay for the time they use on wireless phones, and a wireless directory could be used by stalkers to prey on teenagers who have wireless phones to use in emergencies, she noted.
The wireless industry plan calls for customers to opt in if they want their number listed in the 411 service, and the service will not be published in print or on the internet, said Patrick Cox, chief executive officer of Qsent, the company chosen by the wireless carriers to manage the service.
Instead of publishing numbers, the wireless carriers would require customers to dial a directory service to get a phone number. "The database on day one starts at zero [numbers]," Cox said.
Backers of the service, including the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), say customers such as small businesses are asking for the listing service.
Legislation to protect privacy is unnecessary because privacy protections are already in place, and because 97% of US residents can choose between at least three wireless carriers, said Steve Largent, president and chief executive officer of the CTIA.
Boxer, who noted that many wireless contracts already give carriers permission to publish phone numbers, disagreed that customers can easily switch carriers.
"People are concerned already, and they're stuck with two-year contracts," she said.
The Wireless 411 Privacy Act, introduced in November would put into law many of the privacy safeguards the wireless carriers are voluntarily proposing.
The bill would prohibit wireless carriers from including subscribers' phone numbers in published directories without their consent, and it would prohibit wireless carriers from publishing a wireless phone number directory. It would also prohibit wireless carriers from charging customers who want their names removed from a list. A similar bill was introduced in the house, also in November.
Cox, from Qsent, said those protections are already built into the directory plan.
But privacy policies can change, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Rotenberg noted several cases where internet companies have promised not to sell their customer lists to third parties, then changed their minds.
"Over time, business models change, and privacy bars drop down," Rotenberg said.
Among the wireless carriers participating in the 411 directory are Cingular Wireless, AT&T Wireless Services and Sprint.
However, Verizon Wireless is not participating. Patrick Strigl, Verizon's president and chief executive officer, told senators the directory service was a "terrible idea" that could expose wireless customers to unwanted sales pitches.
Grant Gross writes for IDG News Service