Seattle Should Turn the Page on The New Phone Book Fee

David Williams

February 21, 2012

A battle has been brewing in Seattle, Washington and it doesn’t involve over-priced coffee or lattes.  This lawsuit involves a fee that is being charged to Yellow Page companies.  Yes, that’s right, the Yellow Pages.  According to a February 1, 2012 story in the Seattle Times, “Despite a federal lawsuit, the Seattle City Council on Monday voted to stick with a 14-cent fee it plans to charge Yellow Pages distributors for every book that lands on Seattle residents’ doorsteps.”  While most people thought the Yellow Pages were a relic of the past, it is still a popular way for people to find businesses.

First, it is important to understand that the Yellow Pages are still an important way for businesses to advertise to potential customers.  In fact, there are tens of millions of Americans who depend on their local Yellow Pages to connect with local businesses and services and many of these people are lower income, minorities or senior citizens.  Small businesses are also a core customer base of the Yellow Pages.  But, as common sense dictates, not everyone uses the Yellow pages so the phone book industry has provided an “opt out” for people who choose not to receive the Yellow Pages, a practical non-governmental way to address the issue of people not receiving the book if they don’t want them.

But, according to the Seattle Times, “in October, the council voted to create a registry for people who want to opt out of receiving Yellow Pages-type phone books.  The city will start collecting the 14-cent fee and launch its opt-out website in April. Distributors will face a $125 fine for every Yellow Pages directory delivered to residents who have opted out.”  On the surface it seems as if the city of Seattle is trying to make life better for its citizens even though it is a tough sell to think that eliminating a couple of Yellow Pages a year will do anything to improve the average well-being of a Seattle resident.  In reality this is a revenue gimmick that could impinge free speech.

According to blogger Venkat Balasubramani, “the statute suffers from a number of classic flaws – among other things:

– the City made exceptions to satisfy local business interests, such as business associations;
– the ordinance also contains a licensing scheme which is at best highly suspect;
– the statute compels the yellow pages publishers to publish an unwanted message (in the form of opt-out notices and messaging on the cover)
– the statute charges the yellow pages companies to dispose of the books even though the unwanted or discarded books are recycled or disposed of by the recipients;
– yellow pages companies already employ opt-out mechanisms and have no interest in delivering yellow pages to recipients who do not want them (there’s no indication that the opt-out system set up by the City will be more effective).”

The last issue is critically important because the phone book industry, recognizing the changing landscape of Yellow Pages, has created a website where individuals can opt-out of receiving the Yellow Pages.  This webpage was done WITHOUT taxpayer money and if history is any guide, will be more efficient than any government-run website.

The phone book industry also publishes a sustainability report to ensure that all Yellow Pages companies abide by industry environmental guidelines that enable it to serve all customers in an environmentally responsible manner.

Beneath the surface of Seattle’s fee (read: tax) is the claim of helping the citizens of Seattle. Across the country consumers have seen plastic bag taxes as cities and municipalities mask these fees as a way to serve their communities.  The reality is that the money raised by these “fees” just goes to serve bloated inefficient governments.

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