Contact Inhibition

October first is when the national do-not-call registry goes into effect, barring telemarketers from calling pretty much anyone who doesn't want to be called (ie, everyone).

Closer to home, UMassMed is employing a spam-blocker, with impressive results thus far.

Another new regulation, taking effect in November, will allow cell-phone users to carry their number to new carriers. The folks at Gizmodo are predicting a melee as thousands of people switch phone companies.

All seem like substantial victories for the little guy in the battle to control communications devices. But bigger battles are looming: location-based monitoring and text-message spam. Virgin Mobile recently revealed it was tracking the locations that customers made their calls from (using cell-antenna triangulation), and new GPS services will be even more precise. Coupled with text-message spam, the day may not be far off when driving past McDonald's triggers a message on your phone, informing you of the $2 for 2 quarter pounder deal (which, I must admit, was quite a deal).

We're already at the point where people say, "I don't want to visit that site or publish my email -- I'll get spammed." In the future, people may not want to walk down Main Street for the same reason. Or they'll leave their phone in the car before they enter the Mall. In short, one of the most powerful modern conveniences -- the mobile phone -- could quickly become less convenient, or even burdensome.

I'm not so convinced regulators will attack the location/spam beast like they've gone after email spam and telemarketers, either. Email spam, aside from annoying 9.999 out of 10 million recipients (the actual response rate for most spam is really 1 in 10 million), actually places a huge burden on servers and backbones, without paying a cent to those providers. Even telemarketers aren't so parasitic, though their intrusiveness is often considered worse.

But location/spam will be bankrolled by huge mobile-phone technology investments, and by the spammers themselves, who would happily pay your carrier for the chance to reach you and study your habits, your movements.

Put it this way, because I'm not feeling particularly articulate: email spam has a response rate of less than one in a million, but that's enough to pay the bills because spammers can abuse the free-ness of the internet to send billions of emails a year.

Telemarketing has a better response rate, but requires bigger staffs and payments to the phone companies, too. And it really, really annoys people, much moreso than email spam.

No one knows what location-spamming response rates will be (I imagine they'll be high at first, until the novelty wears off). If the ads and alerts sent over the system are really well-targeted, or if the special discount offered is great enough, it might work. But if it doesn't, if companies abuse the system and send hundreds of useless bulletins to phones every day (like email spam does now) well, people will want to block the spam. But the spamming companies will already be in cahoots with your carrier. And your carrier will have already invested millions in making the technology work. In short, they'll have little incentive to block the spam. Unless, say, you pay them an extra $5 a month for "protection."