Joe Lavin's Humor Column

From The Boston Metro

July 9, 2003

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It would be an understatement to say that Americans hate telemarketers. But exactly how much do we hate telemarketers? The answer was revealed at the end of last month when the U.S. government opened, the new national do not call registry. Just about instantly, the site jumped to the top of Internet rankings. 3.4 million people visited on the first day to have their phone numbers placed on a list that telemarketers can not call, and the numbers would have probably been higher, had the site been able to handle all the bandwidth. In just the first week, fifteen million Americans signed up. According to Lycos, "Federal Do Not Call List" was twice as popular a search term as "Harry Potter." Yes, amazingly, it was even more popular than that site with the Carmen Electra pictures your teenage son was looking at last night.

It sounds like a great idea, but it does have its limitations. I was somewhat disturbed to learn that the list only applies to telemarketers. That means you'll still have to receive calls from your boss, creditors, former significant others, annoying acquaintances, and even your mother-in-law. Leave it to the government to come up with such a great idea and then not finish the job. Perhaps, if we all call our representatives, Congress can act to close this loophole. I, for one, want to be on a true do not call registry.

The site itself is quite bare bones, prompting some to complain that the government could have spent some money hiring a decent web designer. Still, you can't argue with the efficiency. It's simple to add your name to the list, and there's even a place to register complaints when you do get unwanted calls. ("Hi, this guy I went to college with who I don't like anymore keeps calling me. He's really annoying. Can you arrest him?")

How effective will all this be? If you sign up now, your number will be placed on the list as of October 1st, and any telemarketer who calls you after then will be fined $11,000 per call. Even if you do sign up, though, you'll still be getting calls from charities, people conducting surveys, and companies with which "you have an existing business relationship," whatever that means exactly. And politicians have made themselves exempt from the registry, which really shouldn't surprise anyone who knows anything about politics.

Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists will have a field day with this one. As Peter Lewis pointed out in Fortune, when signing up with your phone number, you also have to provide an e-mail address, thus giving the government a handy little database linking e-mail addresses to phone numbers and names. Does anyone else think there might be a shortcut to that database on John Ashcroft's desktop?

I'm no fan of telemarketers, but I'm not entirely sure that I want to sign up. Sometimes, after a bad day, it's nice to be able to yell at some stranger who phones me. ("I don't want your stupid timeshare! And another thing....") Hey, venting at strangers can be fun. And my grandmother always did say that frequent exercise during dinner helps with digestion. Plus, what about the right to free speech for telemarketers?

Okay, nobody cares about free speech for telemarketers, except, of course, for the telemarketers who happen to be doing the speaking. Still, many expect a lawsuit from some telemarketers. Do Americans have a constitutional right to interrupt your dinner with phone calls about free satellite installations? That's certainly one thing our forefathers never considered when drawing up the Constitution.

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