Why you can’t stop the blank pages
What could be more annoying than the thud of another junk phone book on your doorstep? Printed phone books are as outdated as, well, rotary phones – and these days they’re little more than waste for the majority of phone customers. That’s why cities like Seattle and San Francisco recently passed legislation allowing residents to sign up or opt out of Yellow Pages Auto Deliveries. However, the decline of neither of the two cities will affect the delivery of the white pages.
The blank pages are a whole different story. The reason white pages are landing on our doorstep isn’t because the phone companies want to bore you; this is because their delivery is required by state law. Until we make a very minor change to the existing rules, the White Pages will continue to come to your door, whether you like it or not.
Surprisingly, it turns out that directory companies themselves would like to stop autoship, if only the law would allow it. While the yellow pages generate advertising revenue, the white pages represent only the costs to businesses necessary to publish and deliver them, eroding the bottom line of an industry that is already struggling. I’m Not Making It Up: WhitePages.com is actively lobbying to end mandatory delivery laws.
The US industry claims that 5 million trees are felled each year to print blank page directories, and nationally in the United States, only 22% of books are recycled. (The concern of the telephone companies about trash is somewhat ironic given their intransigence on reforming yellow page delivery.) I cannot personally guarantee these numbers, but based on figures released for other states. , I calculate that reforming the white pages laws of the Northwestern states could save about 690 tons of paper in Oregon each year and more than 1,200 tons of paper each year in Washington, or nearly the weight of three widebody 747 fully loaded.
The white pages companies even commissioned a public opinion survey on the subject. According to a Harris Interactive poll in December 2010, 87% of adults support “sign-up” programs for white pages, in which customers over the phone will no longer automatically receive directories unless they request one. proactively. Opt-in programs would mean immediate relief for millions of annoyed consumers, but still provide easy, free delivery of directories to the small number of people who still want them.
There is an important point here concerning social equity. For people on the “other” side of the digital divide, including some seniors and low-income families, who may have landlines but no cell phones and limited access to computers and the Internet, printed directories can still be important. Fortunately, these are a small number of people – especially in the Northwestern states, which have the highest internet usage rates in the country – an “opt-in” program can easily guarantee. that those who want it still have access to free printed directories.
For the vast majority of us, however, the white pages are unnecessary, expensive and unpopular, but required by law.
Fortunately, the legal barrier is starting to crumble. USA Today reports that Verizon has already been approved to stop automatically providing white pages in 11 of the dozen states where it provides landline service. California and DC decisions are pending. AT&T is following suit and aims to stop unwanted shipments in 14 other states. (Newspaper coverage of Verizon decisions is available for Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.) And the phenomenon isn’t limited to the United States. In the Australian cities of Sydney and Melbourne, for example, residential white page directories are no longer required by law, but are available on a voluntary basis. In Canada, most major cities, including Vancouver, BC, already have white pages delivery with opt-in option and yellow pages delivery with opt-out option. (I’m not sure how phone book deliveries are handled in non-urban Canadian areas. Do Canadian readers want to share?)
Yet, as of this writing, white page deliveries are still the law in the Northwestern states. Fortunately, solving the problem is relatively straightforward. Below I explain in detail how this could be done in Washington.
In Washington, mandatory white page deliveries are stipulated by Washington Administrative Code 480-120-251. The administrative code is a little different from the laws we normally think of, which are usually presented in the form of bills, passed by the legislature and signed by the governor. The administrative code is a law that results from what is called “rule making”. This is a regulation that does not appear in the original legislation, but derives from a more general legislative directive allowing an agency to regulate a certain area.
The licensing legislation that covers deliveries of white pages, RCW 80.01.040, is exceptionally general and non-specific. In essence, the law simply grants broad regulatory power to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC), the body that regulates railways, electric utilities, and telecommunications companies, among others. UTC, in turn, developed – and now enforces – the administrative code requiring the delivery of blank pages.
Don’t hate UTC though. Mandatory white page deliveries were the rule in almost all states, and the provisions were originally seen as important elements of consumer protection and the public interest. Of course, that was before electronic communications and widespread Internet access made printed directories obsolete for most phone users. These days, the vast majority of phone books are thrown straight into the recycling bin or landfill.
To end mandatory delivery in Washington, there are basically two approaches: the easy way and the hard way. The difficult way is to ask UTC to open a new regulation on the subject, a long process which normally involves the drafting of alternatives, a long involvement of the public and tedious administrative tasks. If you’re into that sort of thing, the UTC petition procedures are set out in RCW 34.05.330 and WAC 82-05.
The easy solution is for the legislator to intervene directly, simply by adopting a new law which modifies the existing administrative code. In fact, a handful of Washington lawmakers already know the problem. In 2011, they introduced HB 1751, which would have allowed recipients to opt out of white page deliveries by making individual requests. The bill didn’t go anywhere. This is probably a good thing because the “opt-out” mechanism is less effective in solving the problem than an “opt-in” program.
On this point, Oregon is on the right track, where Senate Bill 525 would have created an “opt-in” program, automatically ending white page deliveries, except for customers who say they want to receive directories. . The bill has gained ground, but appears to have stagnated for this year. (The Product Stewardship Institute has a good collection of related legislation in other U.S. cities and states.)
Now let’s take a closer look at how to solve the problem in law. Here’s what the first half of WAC 480-120-251 might look like if lawmakers resolved the issue:
(1) A local exchange carrier (LEC) must ensure that a telephone directory is regularly published for each local exchange it serves, indicating the name, address (except request for omission) and telephone number. primary telephone of each customer that can be called. this local exchange and for whom information on the list of subscribers has been provided.
(2) Any residential customer may request from the ESL a two-name main directory list which contains, in addition to the customer’s last name, the customer’s first name or initials (or a combination thereof) and either another person with the same last name who resides at the same address or a second name, other than the last name, by which the client is also known, including the marriage name of a person whose spouse is deceased.
(3) An LEC must provide each customer with a copy of the customer’s local switching area directory. A LEC must provide each customer with a postcard notification that auto-delivery will be terminated, along with instructions for opting for continued free delivery of a copy of the directory for the customer’s local exchange area.. If the directory provided for in paragraph (1) of this article does not include the published list of all the exchanges in the customer’s local calling area, the ESL must, on request, provide a copy of the directory (s) free of charge. containing the list published for the entire local calling area.
It’s just a sentence. It’s easy. And if not, how can the legislature do so much good with a one-sentence amendment? It cuts costs for businesses, reduces waste and pollution, and relieves a little headache for millions of consumers. Now all we need is a bill brought forward by a talented young lawmaker seeking a bipartisan victory and making headlines …
Representing Joe Fitzgibbon, this one has your name all over the place.
Thanks to Jeanette Henderson and Rashad Morris, both of whom provided information that made this post possible.
Do you have your own ideas for Sightline’s “Making Sustainability Legal” series? We would love to hear them! Leave your ideas in the comments or email them to me at eric-at-sightline-dot-org.