Privacy’s Protectors

A Federal Trade Commission team saves the dinner hour from telemarketers.

Eileen Harrington remembers well what dinner hour was like before the Federal Trade Commission created the Do Not Call Registry. Tele-marketers were supposed to put consumers on companies' do-not-call lists if they requested it. But, Harrington recalls, "They would hang up before I could finish the sentence."

In 1999, as the FTC's associate director for marketing practices, Harrington started to review telemarketing rules. She found that her own experience was similar to that of many consumers who had complained to the agency. "There had been a dramatic increase in calls," says Harrington. And the old rules weren't protecting angry consumers.

At the time, 23 states already had passed laws creating do-not-call lists, but they weren't uniform. In some cases, consumers had to pay to be on the list. "That's when we decided that the most sensible thing to do would be to give consumers one place to go to opt out," she says.

The decision sent Harrington and her team-including Lois Greisman, Carolyn Shanoff, David Torok, Stephen Warren, Allen Hile and Lawrence Demille Wagman-caroming on a regulatory roller coaster. Initially, Congress members resisted providing start-up funds for the registry. Two federal courts put it on hold, one deciding that the FTC lacked authority to create it, the other saying that it violated telemarketers' First Amendment rights.

Each time, though, public enthusiasm pulled the FTC through. After a meeting with FTC Chairman Timothy Muris, then-House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., one of the principal skeptics in Congress, became an enthusiastic supporter. After an Oklahoma court put the registry on hold, Congress acted the next day to assure the court that the FTC had its approval. In Denver, a federal appeals court agreed to hear the First Amendment case on an expedited basis, and quickly threw out the telemarketers' claims.

Since the FTC began collecting phone numbers last year, more than 62 million consumers have signed up. Telemarketers fund the registry with fees they pay to access the list. Already, the FTC has issued steep fines to companies that called listed consumers. A January Harris poll found that 92 percent reported receiving fewer calls.

"We expected this to be a popular service," Harrington says. "We didn't know just how popular. We were stunned."

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