Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien will introduce legislation (.pdf) to create a city-administered opt-out system for yellow pages at the Seattle Public Utilities and Neighborhoods committee meeting tomorrow. If approved by the full City Council, the opt-out system could go into effect by 2011, establishing the most restrictive phone-book regulations in the U.S.
The new rules would allow residents who don't want the yellow pages—essentially tomes of advertisements thick enough to stun an ox—to stop annual deliveries to their home, prohibiting phone-book companies from distributing books to anyone who asks. To do this, it would establish a centralized system—overseen by the city—so residents could file requests to stop future phone book deliveries online, by phone, or by filling out pre-paid postcards to be attached to all yellow pages phone books. (White pages, a succinct listing of names and numbers, would not be affected because they are governed by a state law.)
Under O'Brien's proposal, residents who opt-out but still receive phone books will be able to file complaints with the city. A substantial amount of complaints would trigger an investigation. Penalties could range from small fees to businesses getting their licenses revoked for repeated violations. Seattle would create a $100 annual business license for yellow pages publishers. Requirements for honoring the opt-out system will be specified in the license, which must be renewed annually.
Although the Yellow Pages Association, a group which represents yellow pages publishers nationally, and many phone book companies already allow voluntary opt-outs, O'Brien has said that the current system is flawed. Phone book companies often don't take their opt-out system seriously, failing to remove people from the distribution route. O'Brien was not immediately available for comment today.
A number of groups—including Zero Waste Seattle—applaud the legislation even though they have been pushing for stronger regulations. Zero Waste considers opt-in the most effective way of reducing unwanted phone books, limiting distribution to only those who sign up for the yellow pages. But the city isn't considering an opt-in program currently due to legal reasons. "We of course prefer opt-in, but it's clear that there would be legal hurdles," says Heather Trim of Stop Waste Seattle. "What we were hoping for was a trigger if opt-out doesn't work in two years, so that we could then try opt-in, but looks like that's not in the legislation." Seattle Public Utilities estimates that the city's approximately 275,000 households recycle 2,231 tons of paper from phone books every year.
Although O'Brien was initially considering an opt-in system, city officials raised questions about its legal ramifications.
Still, Trim says, if O'Brien's opt-out legislation gets passed, it will be the toughest in the country. "There are no other cities that have an opt-out like this," Trim says. "We are hoping it will catch on." Albany has a similar law, but it's not as strict, Trim says.
So who's picking up the tab for the opt-out system? Publishers of yellow pages will be asked to cover two costs: recycling unwanted phone books and administering the opt-out system. A recovery fee will be placed on each phone book delivered which will go toward the city's Solid Waste Fund. A spokesperson for the Yellow Pages Association said Monday that they have not yet seen the proposed ordinance.