• United States

The usefulness of ‘do not’ signs

Jul 07, 20033 mins

Many years after it became clear to most of the U.S. population that it needed to be done, a federal “do not call” list is almost here.

Those whose business model is predicated on interrupting your dinner are crying foul and have gone to court to try to stop the list from becoming operational. But finally the data-gathering phase has started, and, if the courts do not intervene, the number of unwanted calls will plummet Oct. 1.

The idea is simple: Let the people who have to answer a phone be able to say that they do not want to get calls on that phone from telemarketers. But simple is not how things turned out.

At least it is simple to register the phone numbers. Just go to and follow the instructions. Seven million numbers were registered the first day the service was enabled in spite of severe server overloading.

My registrations went through in a few minutes early in the day but some people reported not being able to get through or long delays before they got the confirmation e-mail messages. The FCC estimates that up to 60 million phone numbers will be registered over the next year.

So what is wrong with this picture? Basically, “do not call” does not mean “do not call.” It actually means: “most people, do not call.” Politicians, opinion surveys and charities still will be able to call, as will companies that think they have a business relationship with you. I predict the last exception will be rather overexploited.

Note to politicians: When I say “do not call,” I mean it. Any call to me will ensure I will not vote for you. Note to charities: A call will ensure I do not contribute. Note to businesses that think they have a business relationship with me: A call will ensure that you will not.

There is another side to the story. The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) says that the feds maintaining a do not call list is bad for me and might be unconstitutional. Because the DMA also maintains such a list (or at least claims to; I could not find it on the Web page), complaining about the federal one seems a bit of a stretch.

Reports in the press say that the telemarketing industry fears that the inability to get you out of the shower or up from dinner will devastate its business and will cause lots of people to lose their jobs. I have sympathy for the people who will be looking for new jobs, but the complaint rings a bit hollow. It is like someone hiring a bunch of people to urinate on the front doors of strangers and then threatening layoffs when the homeowners get permission to put up “do not urinate” signs. They also would complain that my being able to put up a “do not urinate” sign is a violation of their rights – I don’t think so.

It is well past time for this service to be running, but better late than never.

Disclaimer: “Late” might have a different concept in a 367-year-old institution, but the above is my opinion, not Harvard’s.