Caller ID: The Case for Consumer Education

By Beth Givens, PRC Director


The introduction of Caller ID to California has been an enlightening study in what happens when consumers are given adequate information to make meaningful decisions about safeguarding their privacy. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has mandated that the local phone companies educate consumers about the privacy implications of Caller ID. The CPUC has also required that the phone companies make both Complete and Selective Blocking available to consumers at no charge (called Per Line and Per Call Blocking in other states).

Since March 1996, radio and TV spots as well as full-page newspaper ads have repeatedly told California consumers that Caller ID is coming in June 1996, that free blocking options are available, and that consumers can call an 800 number to choose either Complete or Selective Blocking. Bill inserts regarding Caller ID Blocking have appeared in customers' monthly phone bills. Consumer organizations have been funded to educate hard- to-reach populations. Information about blocking options has been made available in 21 languages.

The results? The customer service phone lines of Pacific Bell and GTE (California's major local phone companies) have been flooded with calls. Both companies have had to hire more staff to handle the volume. And now, the California Public Utilities Commission and the Federal Communications Commission have agreed to allow Pacific Bell and GTE to delay the implementation of Caller ID in order to catch up with the onslaught. The delay will allow the phone companies to send confirmation letters to all phone customers indicating which blocking option they have selected, or been assigned by default (a CPUC requirement), and will enable the phone companies to have all their switches ready.

A recent survey of Californians found that 74% of those polled knew about Caller ID and that 67% were aware there is a way to prevent the delivery of their phone number to the called party. This is a phenomenal rate of awareness for a three-month public education campaign. Unofficial sources indicate that about 50% of households are expected to have chosen the Complete Blocking (Per Line) option, in other words, maximum privacy protection.

The moral of the story? The CPUC's three-part strategy has been an effective way to mitigate the privacy impacts of a new technology. That strategy is outlined as follows:

Step one is to conduct a privacy impact assessment of the technology (which the CPUC did in the early 1990s). The second step is to require the entity which introduces the technology to build in privacy protection mechanisms (in the case of Caller ID, these are Complete and Selective Blocking). The third step is to require that extensive consumer education be provided to consumers to explain the privacy implications of the technology and alert them to what they can do to protect their privacy.

It should be pointed out that the CPUC insisted that the educational "message" which the phone companies impart be truly educational, and not a marketing pitch. The phone companies were not allowed to offer Caller ID until their plans were approved by the CPUC. The CPUC gathered together a team of consumer advocates who reviewed phone company plans and educational materials. It also hired an outside evaluator, Professor Brenda Dervin, an expert in public communication campaigns from Ohio State University's Department of Communication, to critique Pacific Bell's education plan. Many of these individuals' suggestions were incorporated into the education campaign.

The dark cloud on the horizon of this relatively sunny scene has been the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The California Public Utilities Commission had originally required the phone companies to automatically provide Complete Blocking to all households with unlisted/unpublished numbers -- about 50% of California households. The CPUC reasoned that since these households were already paying a monthly fee to keep their phone numbers private, they would no doubt want the Complete Blocking option and should therefore not have to expressly request it.

But the FCC pre-empted the CPUC and established the weaker privacy measure, Selective Blocking, as the nationwide blocking standard. (Selective Blocking is called Per Call Blocking in other states. Callers must enter *67 before dialing each and every call in which number blocking is desired.) Court rulings upheld the FCC's position.

The FCC's decision is unfortunate. The California Public Utilities Commission had undergone an exhaustive technology assessment process, spanning several years. The CPUC's analysis took into account the unique nature of California -- for example, the fact that the state has the highest percentage of unpublished numbers in the country, and that the California constitution has an exceptionally strong right-to-privacy clause. The FCC's rather weak argument, that Caller ID with a Per Call Blocking standard is good for the economy, has prevailed over a much stronger body of evidence.

In the absence of honoring California's technology assessment process, the FCC would do well study the state's consumer awareness campaign and its successful results. California has demonstrated that a proactive consumer awareness campaign can go a long way to lessen the potentially harmful effects of a new technology.

There have been a couple interesting sidelights to California's Caller ID awareness campaign. The first involves the public's massive response to the consumer awareness campaign and the apparent inability of Pacific Bell to cope with the flood of requests for Complete Blocking. Many consumers who had requested the maximum blocking option received letters from the phone company stating erroneously that they had opted for Selective Blocking, the weaker measure. Confusion reigned. As a result, Pacific Bell decided to delay its Caller ID implementation date until the matter is cleared up.

The second sidelight involves 800 and 900 numbers. The Caller ID educational materials have pointed out that blocking does not work with 800 and 900 numbers because a different technology, called Automatic Number Identification (ANI), is involved. Most consumers are not aware that when they call 800 numbers, they are transmitting their own phone numbers. Many contacted the phone company, CPUC, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and other consumer organizations to indicate their outrage about ANI and to express frustration at not being able to block their phone numbers on those calls.

This only goes to underscore a point made earlier: Consumer education works. When consumers are given adequate information about the privacy implications of a technology, they take action.

Let's hope that what California has learned from this unprecedented consumer awareness campaign is applied to other situations where communications technologies have the potential to threaten personal privacy.