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Telling on Telemarketers

When their home phone rings during dinner, many Americans just groan at the prospect of answering yet another telemarketer call.

But they could soon find relief. Congress has approved funding for a program that would allow people with landlines and cellphones to call a toll-free number and have their names placed on the "do not call" list for free.

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The program comes out of a new rule by the Federal Trade Commission that requires telemarketers to check their own lists against the national list every 90 days. If they wind up calling people on the national list, they can be fined up to $11,000 per violation.

The FTC also requires telemarketers to transmit their telephone numbers, and if possible their names, to a resident's caller ID. That should make the calls easier to screen.

Meanwhile, the Direct Marketing Association (a telemarketing industry lobbying group) has filed a lawsuit against the FTC, arguing that a "do not call" list restricts free speech. The Supreme Court has set a high bar, as it should, on free-speech issues. Surely, though, people have a right to choose the kind of discourse that comes into their homes - and when.

A telemarketer may have a right to make a call but homeowners should also be able to choose who can speak in their homes. That right is akin to the practice of using Internet filters to block spam or taking one's name off junk-mail lists. Courts should uphold this need for privacy.

Don't look, however, for the phone to completely stop ringing with calls from those who would solicit your time, and money. Charities and those conducting surveys, along with calls on behalf of politicians, would be exempt under the new law.

And the FTC has limited authority to enforce telemarketing calls from airlines, banks, and phone companies, which are overseen by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC needs to follow the FTC's lead.

The FTC's move comes after nearly half the states have already set up their own "do not call" lists, which will now need to be coordinated with the national list.

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Though further rule-tweaking may be necessary, the national "do not call" list represents a solid step in controlling phone solicitations run rampant.