What’s The 411?

Privacy concerns at center of wireless telephone directory

This year, two of the nation’s six largest wireless carriers — T-Mobile and Nextel — intend to create a wireless telephone directory called the Wireless 411 Service. The directory, which is facing criticism from customers to Capitol Hill, will allow users to access other wireless numbers nationwide. The concern? Some 161 million wireless phone users are worried that their phone number will be published in a directory and sold to telemarketers. Compounding the issue further, wireless users fear having to go through the time-consuming task of opting out of the directory.

As a result, legislators, including Senators Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) were prompted to action. They sponsored the Wireless 411 Privacy Act, which requires companies to get the user’s verbal permission and allows new and existing cell phone customers to keep their numbers out of the directory for free.

Many question whether the directory, which is expected to be published sometime in 2005, will be to the advantage of consumers. A survey by the Pierz Research Group revealed that 89% of wireless customers do not want their numbers listed in a directory assistance service. “They say that the directory won’t be Internet accessible and it won’t be sold to outside companies. It would [only] be accessible by dialing 411,” says Linda Sherry, editorial director of Consumer Action (www.consumer-action.org), an advocacy group for consumer rights based in San Francisco. “Customers would have to agree to have their numbers included. In other words, they have to opt in. But we are concerned that numbers could accidentally end up on the list.”

Yet, industry insiders say there is little cause for concern. “First, to clarify, there will not be a printed directory, nor will the numbers be available on the Internet or sold to any third party,” says John Walls, vice president of public affairs for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, a wireless industry organization representing carriers in taxation, roaming, and technology.

T-Mobile and Nextel have retained Qsent Inc. to create the database. Qsent, a Portland, Oregon-based company, has promised that the numbers will be kept on a central database, according to David Eastman, a company spokesman. Eastman says that the database will be most useful to businesspeople, although many wireless customers are skeptical. Their biggest fear, says Sherry, is that cell phone companies will force opt-out clauses and demand fees to keep a number unpublished.

Sprint, Verizon Wireless, and Alltel have declined to be a part of the directory, citing consumer concerns. “Since the beginning, this industry has not published wireless phone numbers. We did this consciously, for the sake of preserving customers’ privacy and control over their bill, and discouraging interruptions from unwanted calls. Those basic reasons have not changed,” said Dennis F. Strigl, president and CEO of Verizon Wireless, in oral testimony to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. “If the purpose of today’s hearing is to determine that the wireless directory can protect the consumer’s privacy, my answer is no. It’s a controversial subject not only with our customers but within the

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