Regulating faxes

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(Host) Commentator Tim McQuiston says that there is an effort underway to deal with being sent unwanted faxes – but the effort itself is problematic.

(McQuiston) Most people are familiar with the National Do Not Call Registry. That’s where people can stop getting those incessant telemarketing calls during dinner. You can just sign up on the Web and, poof, no more calls. And for the most part that’s true. Millions of people have signed up. They’ve protected their privacy, at least a little bit.

Supposedly, telemarketing is a 300 billion dollar business. That number is speculative because there’s no sure way of knowing.

There’s another part to the new telemarketing rules that involves faxing. Junk fax is another part of the telemarketing industry. The so-called junk is typically fliers for restaurants or vacation deals.

The 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act included a provision that you couldn’t fax anyone unless you had a previous relationship with him or got prior approval. That includes business-to-business relationships. Hooters — yes, that Hooters — settled a Georgia suit for 9 million dollars because they had an ad on a sales flier sent out by fax.

The rule changes that went into effect this summer included the No Call list and the new fax provision. But, unlike the No Call list, where the consumer had to Opt Out of telemarketing, the faxing provision was Opt In, meaning that the business had to get prior written approval from the individual or company for every fax number it wished to send to, even if it had an ongoing relationship with them.

The FCC rules allow for fines of 500 dollars per fax, with triple damages if the fax solicitations were willful.

These rules include all faxes with any commercial connotation. Why the fax rules are much more draconian than the No Call provisions is unclear.

But here'[s what really bothers me. The junk fax law appears to protect the unwitting consumer from being taken advantage of in the comfort of their own homes. But most consumers don’t have fax machines; businesses do. Virtually the only people getting faxes are businesspeople themselves. My view is that if you are in business, then you are obligated to be open for business. You’re fair game. If you’re trying to sell anything, whether it’s software from a gleaming corporate office space — or salsa from your kitchen counter — then you’re equally free to be solicited. Free enterprise is one of our freedoms. Seems to me that free enterprise is a two-way street.

If you have a home business, you should have a separate business phone line. If your fax machine wakes you up at night, then just turn off the ringer.

The fax laws were supposed to go into effect last August, but the hue and cry caused a long delay – until at least the end of next year. Ultimately, this is a skirmish in the long-running battle between privacy and freedom, with privacy continuing its winning streak.

This is Timothy McQuiston.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business magazine.

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