MANY local phone companies are introducing ``caller ID'' service as the $6.50 a month answer to ``obscene, harassing, and threatening'' phone calls. The Bell Atlantic companies claim that they will bring back the domestic privacy that existed before Bell's invention, screening out objectionable behavior before it even occurs. The phone company protecting telephone subscribers from the effects of having a telephone? Sounds a little questionable, brewers attacking alcoholism.
In fact, while promising increased privacy, the Caller ID service in New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia forces all telephone users to give up their rights to protect their phone numbers from the curious, the aggressive, and the threatening.
Through Bell Atlantic's new service, the called party can display the caller's number for a $6.50 per month charge plus the purchase of a small telephone attachment for approximately $70. Bell Atlantic sells the attachments, too.
Every caller's number is transmitted, even extra-cost ``unpublished'' numbers that are not listed in telephone directories or furnished by directory-assistance.
Bell Atlantic, Bell South, and Ameritech plan to efficiently link this transmission system with every car dealer, insurance salesman, and telemarketer. The future for the Bell companies will be selling a database of your home phone number, telephone records, and buying patterns for a massive, automated telephone assault.
There's nothing benign about the arrival a few years late of a telephonic version of George Orwell's ``1984.''
Society has a strong, clear interest in keeping telephone numbers confidential. Domestic-violence counseling groups uniformly object to the caller ID service - it strips away their ability anonymously to counsel threatened women living in a dangerous home setting. It threatens both the volunteer counsellor, frequently calling from her home, and the abused spouse.
Human-services professionals like teachers, social workers, probation officers, and others often must call their pupils and clients after hours. Are they to expose their home lives to disruption at all hours because of their professional responsibilities?
Physicians, attorneys, and others who must respond from home in emergency situations see themselves threatened by forced caller ID's invasion of privacy. After all, every call placed from home means an additional person has that home phone number for future use.
But telephone subscribers can have the caller ID cake and eat it too. There are no technical barriers that prevent the calling party from ``blocking'' transmission of his or her telephone number.
This voluntary caller ID service lets people participate if they wish, or block transmission of their phone numbers when that's more desirable. This voluntary approach needn't interfere with emergency services using telephone numbers for dispatching ambulances or police, for prevent tracing of abusive calls.
California's Bell company reports that it will offer voluntary caller ID service in the near future; California's General Assembly recently prohibited forced caller ID service. Legislation is also promised on the national level by Sen. Herbert Kohl of Wisconsin.
The Centel company in Las Vegas, Nev., has already applied to offer such voluntary caller ID services.
At the other extreme, Ameritech, the mid-American Bell company, is so aggressively seeking to sell caller ID-type service that it is denying its customers already available effective, low-cost protection against abusive callers.
The local telephone network can allow every subscriber to trap a caller's phone number at the telephone company central office for later investigation and possible prosecution. This call-trace feature is implemented together with other convenience features, like automatic call return.
To sell caller ID, the Ameritech companies are requesting permission to institute all the convenience features except the call-tracing feature.
Why the difference in privacy efforts? Effective promotion of the call-tracing feature - which is paid for only when used - will deter abusive callers and therefore produce greater privacy benefits and lower telephone-company revenues from this service.
By contrast, caller ID-type services produce monthly revenues forever: $6.50 a month in the Bell Atlantic companies, a monthly charge plus additional usage fees proposed by the Ameritech companies.
Some states have permitted the caller ID services to go into effect without a public hearing. Others have held administrative proceedings and then given permission. The District of Columbia and Delaware are now processing Bell Atlantic requests through full-scale hearings. Although the phone companies promise threatened groups some undisclosed relief from intrusion, no such public application has ever been filed.
The personal-privacy stakes are high and growing higher. Many concerned citizens believe that loss of privacy now means that these ``big brother'' activities will grow more menacing as America's local telephone companies press their campaigns for greater market freedom.