A House committee agreed Thursday that Idaho should lift a 13-year-old restriction barring phone and cable TV companies from calling existing customers to market new products or services, rejecting an argument from Attorney General Lawrence Wasden's office that the change would erode people's privacy protections.
The House State Affairs Committee voted unanimously to send the measure altering Idaho's "Do Not Call" law to the House floor.
Phone companies Frontier Communications, based in Minnesota but with 100,000 Idaho customers, and Louisiana-based CenturyLink, Idaho's largest landline company, aim to revamp the law passed in 2000 to halt unwanted phone solicitation, arguing they should have the same rights to call existing customers as other businesses enjoy under that measure.
They want to market services like high-speed Internet over the phone, rather than being forced to do it by mail.
"Telephone companies are simply asking to be able to contact their customers, like any other commercial service provider," said Jim Clark, a Frontier lobbyist and former Idaho legislator. "The company that I represent in north Idaho, Frontier Communications, is spending an awful lot of money doing high-speed Internet, and they cannot tell their customers about it on the phone."
Provisions in the bill would still allow people to demand that phone and cable companies that ring them up – as well as all other businesses with whom they have an existing relationship – to no longer call.
Any violations would be subject to a $500 fine.
Lawmakers on the panel agreed that times have changed since Idaho passed one of the nation's first Do Not Call laws in an era of warring long-distance companies that seemed to call people at all hours to woo them away from their existing provider with the promise of cheaper service.
There's also more competition in the telecommunications market, since many people have switched to cellular phones or get their phone service over the Internet or from a cable company, said Rep. Eric Anderson (R-Priest Lake).
"The past is the past," Anderson said. "We don't have a monopoly phone company out there today."
The attorney general's office opposed the proposed change, however, arguing that tinkering with the law could intensify privacy intrusions.
Brett DeLange, chief of the attorney general's consumer protection bureau that enforces Idaho's phone solicitation laws, worries passage of the measure will open the door for landline providers, cell phone companies and cable providers to start bothering people at the dinner table or when they're reading to their children.
"The 'Do Not Call' list is based on what is commonly called the right to be left alone," DeLange said. "Idaho has now over one million phone numbers on the 'Do Not Call' list. No one on that list has ever contacted the attorney general's office complaining they're not receiving enough calls from solicitors."
Even so, Republican and Democratic lawmakers agreed it no longer makes sense for Idaho to continue to be alone among 39 states with phone solicitation laws to specifically outlaw telecommunication companies from cold-calling their own customers.
That doesn't necessarily mean they actually want to be called, said Rep. John Gannon (D-Boise), who said he's a happy CenturyLink customer who also values his privacy.
"This legislation is a minor tweak, something to have a level playing field – with the caveat that we can say 'No,'" Gannon said. "I'm gonna tell you do not call me, and I will look at that $500 penalty if I get called, because they are a pain in the neck."