Balancing rights

November 23, 1990

C&P Telephone will seek reconsideration of the Public Service Commission's decision mandating that it offer free blocking with its Caller ID services. The response was predictable, but it is misguided. Caller ID has never been, as the phone company has contended, a simple issue of ensuring the privacy of the person who gets a call in the middle of the night. Rather, the technology has, from its inception, raised tangled ethical questions.

With a $50 attachment and for a monthly fee of $6 or $7, Caller ID enables a customer to see a caller's number displayed on a small screen while the phone is ringing and, presumably, decide whether to answer. Certainly the service can enhance the privacy of some customers: Obscene or nuisance calls, for instance, could be traced instantly, and the mere existence of the service could be a strong deterrent to phone harassment since those placing the call have no way of knowing who has Caller ID.

But there are also some customers whose privacy actually might be violated by calling out -- for instance, those who call AIDS, drug-abuse, child-abuse or teen-pregnancy hot lines for help, or those who simply don't want their phone numbers automatically given out to every business or individual they call -- especially if they had paid to keep them unpublished. Moreover, some people fear that computer match-ups could be made with some other data bases -- like a caller's credit history, income or marital status -- making it easier to compile dossiers on them.

Under the circumstances, the Public Service Commission had no choice but to balance the rights of the called and the callers. As for the charge that blocking diminishes the potential of Caller ID, it's true. But there's still a pretty effective way to deal with a situation in which the phone rings and the caller has activated his or her Caller ID block -- don't answer.

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