Mobile

Will cell numbers be listed with 411?

Senators threaten to enact an opt-in rule. Wireless carriers say it's not necessary because they're doing just that.

Cell phone owners currently enjoy a kind of privacy through obscurity: Wireless numbers aren't listed with directory assistance.

But now that Cingular Wireless, Sprint, Nextel Communications and other large carriers are planning to compile a publicly accessible list of certain wireless phone numbers, politicians in Washington, D.C., are threatening to step in and regulate any such effort.

Their proposal, a strict "opt in" standard called the Wireless 411 Privacy Act, drew mixed reviews from the industry during a Senate committee hearing Tuesday. The bill is sponsored by eight senators including Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican.

"Many wireless customers, particularly those in small businesses who spend most of their workday away from an office and a landline phone, rely upon their wireless phone as their primary business line," said Steven Largent, the head of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. "We believe these customers would welcome the option of having their wireless numbers be made available in a 411 service."

Largent stressed that cell phone companies would only insert users into the directory assistance database if they chose to be added, essentially the same opt-in approach as the Senate bill. But the legislation, he warned, would "deter future innovation and industry initiatives for fear government mandates will step in even before new services get off the ground."

Verizon Wireless struck a markedly different tone. Its chief executive, Dennis Strigl, bluntly said: "We at Verizon Wireless think a wireless telephone directory would be a terrible idea, and we will not publish our customers' cell phone numbers or otherwise participate in the plan you have heard about today."

In addition, Strigl said, his company will alter customer contracts to clearly state: "We do not provide our customers' phone numbers for listing in directories."

Because the industry already has pledged to abide by a strict opt-in standard voluntarily, it's unclear why the Senate is threatening to regulate. Some senators apparently concluded that all cell numbers would be listed by default; Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., predicted in June that telemarketers would be "violating their privacy and driving up monthly cell phone bills," while Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., warned that the directory would include "every person who subscribes to a mobile phone service."

Patrick Cox, chief executive of Qsent, told the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday that "if no decision is made by the consumer to opt in, the individual is automatically opted out." Qsent is the company chosen by Alltel, Cingular, AT&T Wireless, Nextel, Sprint and T-Mobile to create an opt-in wireless directory assistance service.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that the bill was a good start but could be made even more regulatory. It should be rewritten to require explicit opt-in options from new subscribers and consumers should be given the right to sue companies that "wrongfully list" numbers, Rotenberg recommended.