FCC puts do-not-fax on hold

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New rules regulating unsolicited faxes are delayed.

St. Petersburg Times (Florida)

First came do-not-call. Next up was supposed to be do-not-fax.

More than 32-million Americans have signed up since June for the new National Do-Not-Call Registry, which promises protection from most telemarketing phone calls starting in October. Federal regulators also decided to require written permission to send people “commercial faxes,” and that rule was supposed to take effect Monday.

But the Federal Communications Commission this week delayed the do-not-fax rule until Jan. 1, 2005, because of a groundswell of opposition from businesses and non-profit organizations.

They say an overly broad rule aimed at barring junk faxes would stifle their ability to do business. Businesses would need written permission to fax membership applications, restaurant menus listing daily specials, bids for contracts, real estate listings, even announcements about upcoming events, especially if there were a fee involved. Violators could face fines of up to $11,000 per citation.

The 11th-hour delay will give the FCC time to consider petitions and possible revisions in the rule. It came as a welcome reprieve for organizations that have been scurrying for two months to get their members and clients to send back signed permission slips.

Connie Davis, president of the Greater Palm Harbor Area Chamber of Commerce, said nearly half of its 500 members had returned permission forms so far, but processing the forms and reprogramming the fax machinery has been a hassle for her small staff.

“It’s an undue hardship on us,” Davis said. “We have limited staff and limited time. We had to find a volunteer to work on this for us.”

In addition, making sure the written consent forms are up-to-date could be a full-time concern, said Joseph Narkiewicz, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association.

“There could be 10 different fax numbers at an organization and a different contact person for each one,” Narkiewicz said. “Every time the fax number changes or the person changes, we’ll have to get reauthorization through the mail. This is an example of rule-making run amok.”

Narkiewicz said organizations like his are running out of legal ways to communicate. Phone trees might be deemed illegal and direct mail is costlier. The association has shied away from e-mail, fearing it will be next on the chopping block.

“I could stand on the rooftop and shout really loudly to get information out there,” he said. “But then I’d probably be in violation of a noise ordinance.”

Sending unsolicited faxes has been illegal since 1991, but many groups were shielded by a provision that allowed faxing to those with “established business relationships.” That clause will expire if the requirement for written permission goes into effect in 2005.

Several mass faxers recently have been hit with lawsuits, including one of the biggest, Fax.com, based in California. The FCC proposed a $5.38-million dollar fine against the fax broadcaster earlier this month, alleging that it sent prohibited faxes and used deception to conceal the source of the faxes. Fax.com claims to have the capacity to send out up to 3-million faxes a day and access to 30-million numbers.

Consumer advocates say junk faxes impose costs on the recipients, who must pay for the toner and paper. With an estimated cost of 2 cents to receive a fax, consumers would pay $60,000 a day to receive unsolicited ads from Fax.com alone.

In addition, fax owners must use company time to sort through the faxes, and they sometimes find their phone lines tied up when they need important faxes to go through. Home business owners are often awakened by beeps as fax advertisers try to catch the best phone rates at 3 a.m., said Doug Heller, senior consumer advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in California, who supported the FCC’s now-delayed permission requirement.

“What we have is a situation in which advertisers are using our money and our resources to try to sell us cell phones or a vacation,” Heller said. “And of course, the most insidious stake in the heart of business are those who fax ads for fax toner.”

Fax facts

The fax machine has remained a staple of business life despite the arrival of the Web and e-mail. More than 7.5-million fax machines were sold in the United States in 2002, and Davidson Consulting estimates that 90 percent of U.S. businesses still own machines.

Consumer Watchdog
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