Would Optional White Pages Delivery Really Threaten Public Safety?

The AG's flimsy argument for mandatory phone books.
This post is part of the research project: Making Sustainability Legal

In Washington, white pages phone directories are delivered to each and every phone customer. They’re delivered about once a year. And—most curiously—they’re delivered in spite of the fact that neither the phone companies nor most of their customers even want them.

Yet you cannot stop the white pages because Washington State law says that phone companies must deliver them to you. Sightline and numerous others, including telecom companies, would like to change the law to give consumers a choice.

Unfortunately, the state Attorney General’s Office opposes changing the law. In comments recently submitted to the regulatory body that is considering changing the law, the AG’s office makes what I think is an incredibly flimsy argument:

A printed copy of the White Pages directory remains a fundamental component of basic telephone service… The lack of a printed White Pages directory may jeopardize public safety if a consumer does not have easy access to emergency numbers or government listings… Public Counsel recommends against elimination or modification of WAC 480-120-251…

That’s nuts, for at least two reasons.

First, in case the AG’s office hasn’t noticed, the white pages mostly contain residential listings, not government phone numbers. Truly important emergency numbers might fit on a single sheet of paper. So why not just require that? Forcing phone companies to deliver the entire directory is a bit like buying a space shuttle in order to get the Tang.

Second, thousands and thousands of Washington residents already go without those emergency listings because they don’t have a land line. If you only have a cell phone, the phone company doesn’t have to give you a phone book. So if the Attorney General really believes that those emergency numbers are so critical, why not advocate for a change in the law to require delivery of emergency and government listings to cell phone customers too? The argumentation is so shoddy that I have to assume that the AG’s office is just, uh, phoning this one in.

While the Washington Attorney General stands ready to ensure that you continue to receive a steady stream of mandatory phone books you will never use, fully sixteen enlightened states already allow phone companies to spare their customers the annual ritual of discarding an unneeded phone book: Alabama, California, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. And the evidence is that most phone customers in those states are perfectly happy to forgo annual delivery of the white pages.

So far, we know of no public safety crises that have ensued because of optional phone book delivery.

I’m open to sensible arguments about phone books. And I believe that any revision to current law should ensure that people who want a phone book should still be able to get one easily and for free. (In fact, in a follow up post, I’ll explore how state regulators can protect consumers and promote equitable access to telecommunications.) But saddling every land line subscriber with an annual brick of mostly useless paper, all for the sake of a handful of emergency contact numbers and government listings… well, that’s just a wrong number in my book.

 

This post could not have been written without valuable contributions from Pam MacRae, Clark Williams-Derry, and Jeanette Henderson.

We are a community-supported resource and we can’t do this work without you!

Read more in

Comments

  1. Scott Walker says:

    Your rebuttal is sound, yet it doesn’t fit with the need for access to phone numbers. I would support the state eliminating the printed books in favor of on-line listings that are honestly free and without any advertising.

  2. Darrell Johnson says:

    One of the “keys” mentioned here is that getting the White Pages would be optional. I would prefer to opt out, while those still wanting them would receive them. It could be very efficiently and cheaply accomplished while saving a ton (pun intended) of paper.

Leave a Comment

Please keep it civil and constructive. Our editors reserve the right to monitor inappropriate comments and personal attacks.

*

You may add a link with HTML: <a href="URL">text to display</a>