Corporate America has your number.
Today in the United States, an estimated 30,000 businesses actively telemarket goods and services to business and residential customers. Automatic dialing machines can dial up to 1,000 homes per day to deliver a prerecorded message. And, according to Telemarketing Magazine, nearly 300,000 marketing agents make 18 million calls a day.Automatic dialers can place calls randomly, meaning they sometimes call unlisted numbers for hospitals, police and fire stations - causing public safety problems. The electronic equivalent of "junk mail" is beginning to clog fax lines, to seize phone lines and to restrict an individual's right to privacy.
The information age equivalents of the door-to-door salesman of yesteryear are plying their wares through wires rather than doors. These new telemarketing techniques are not only more pervasive but also more intrusive than ever before. Unsolicited electronic advertising has become one of the unforeseen consequences of the modern telecommunications revolution.
Last year, a survey conducted by Louis Harris and Associates found that an overwhelming majority of Americans feel their right to privacy is in jeopardy - 79 percent of the U.S. population agreed that if we rewrote the Declaration of Independence today, we would probably add privacy to the list "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" as a fundamental right.
Because of concerns such as these, I introduced H.R. 1304, the "Telephone Advertising Consumer Rights Act," and H.R. 1305, the "Telephone Consumers Privacy Rights Act," two complementary bills that would give the public an opportunity to "just say no" to unsolicited phone or facsimile ads. Those who object to unwanted telephone solicitations would be able to make their phone numbers off-limits to telemarketers by placing those numbers in a restricted "don't call me" electronic database.
The bill, which I have co-authored with Rep. Matthew Rinaldo, R-N. J., would also prohibit advertising calls to public safety numbers and paging and cellular equipment.
Opposition to the bill comes from a broad array of telemarketers who claim that the "self-policing" policies of their own "don't call me" lists are already doing the job.
But the lists aren't widely publicized or used. In addition, there are no penalties for calling people on these lists and they are strictly voluntary for the industry.
Ironically, these lists are sold to telemarketers by trade associations using the approach that it saves time and effort by predetermining consumers who will not be receptive.
The federal legislation that I have introduced would do the same thing, only better. It would create enforceable rules to enable all persons who object to unsolicited telemarketing to list their telephone numbers with the Federal Communications Commission, and it would eliminate the need for the patchwork quilt of ineffective listing mechanisms sponsored by the telemarketing industry.
As the information revolution continues to make dramatic changes in the way we do business and the means by which we communicate, laws must be created to protect our private lives. Consumers cannot be left powerless with their personal information, buying habits and "psychographic" background available for purchase. Regulation to protect consumer privacy and consumer choice, and to ensure industry responsibility is more than just an "annoyance" to most Americans.
The telephone is an insistent master: when it rings we answer it. Legislation for a federal database for persons who object to unsolicited calls is nothing more than returning a fundamental right - the right to chose who we must listen to.
(Rep. Markey is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance.)