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Last week the Albany, New York, Common Council passed a law that restricts the delivery of telephone directories to homes and businesses. Among the provisions of the ordinance is a requirement that any phone book delivered to a home must land within 10 feet of the front door. The ordinance also requires publishers to include an opt-out phone number on the cover or table of contents of the next edition of the directory. Once a consumer opts out, publishers cannot deliver to that address for five years.

The legislation passed unanimously.

This is a setback for the Yellow Pages industry, which had urged defeat of this ordinance and has fought successfully to defeat similar measures around the country. In fact, the Yellow Pages Association had persuaded the Albany council to hold off on an almost identical measure last year. A recent phone book delivery in Albany didn’t go well, with books apparently scattered on snow banks and left at abandoned buildings, which prompted Common Council members to dust off the old ordinance and try again. The Albany measure will take effect in February.

We blogged last week on this and other pending legislation. Our take was that legislative efforts aimed at imposing limits on directory distribution don’t seem to be going away, and if anything they are gaining momentum.

The central question, which is difficult for the industry to answer, was raised in an editorial in a Schenectady, New York, newspaper this week. “How many 1,000-page phone books does a household need?” The only credible argument against mandated opt-out is self-regulation. And the case can only be made if self-regulation is serious and effective.

The YPA has actually done well to this point in keeping these kinds of measures at bay. But the publishers it represents need to embrace a much more aggressive opt-out regime. One that the industry’s most bitter critic will at least grudgingly accept. The YPA’s Amy Healy and others working to defeat these measures need something to point to that says, here is our solution and it works a lot better than anything you can legislate.  

This could take the form of a single online clearinghouse that all, or at least most, publishers participate in where consumers can go to choose which directories they wish to receive and which they do not. The YPA already has a Web page where opt-out contact information is compiled, and it’s worth noting that most publishers will honor opt-out requests. 

If the industry went a step further and adopted a Web site similar to “Select Your Dex” from R.H. Donnelley, then consumers could make their selection online rather than going through a two-step process of looking up information and then contacting the publisher directly. This kind of opt-out clearinghouse would require considerable effort and coordination, and some investment. But the combination of a real clearinghouse Web site and the universal practice of printing opt-out information prominently on directory covers (to pre-empt the argument that not all consumers are online) may be what is required to stave off the passing of more laws like the one in Albany.

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