Wireless industry moves to can the spam

Finally, there’s some good news about spam. If that idea seems astonishing, you might want to sit down for this part: The news involves an industry volunteering to limit what could be the most pernicious kind of unwanted advertising yet invented.

You’ve probably heard about the potential nightmare of so-called location-based advertising sent to your wireless phone. Here’s how the scenario goes: As you walk past a fast-food restaurant, your cell phone, which by the end of this year should be able to calculate your location to within about 30 feet, lets the eatery know where you are. Suddenly your phone rings, not with a call from your mom, but with a coupon for 50 cents off on a cheeseburger.

The privacy risks of this type of advertising are obvious. Advertisers could collect data about where your phone (and you) go each day. It’s creepy to think that, in theory, Weight Watchers International Inc. or your health insurance company could know every time you stop at Baskin-Robbins.

But wireless industry trade groups are starting to show sensitivity to this issue, and not necessarily just because they’re good corporate citizens. After all, the 118 million mobile phone users in the United States pay for the calls or messages they receive (in Europe, the sender pays). If U.S. users got charged for the airtime used by incoming spam, it wouldn’t be long before many cancelled their phone service or looked for another provider.

Maybe that’s why two trade groups in the wireless industry have recently taken tough-sounding stances on wireless ads. The Mobile Marketing Association a trade group comprising service providers, hardware makers, and some ad companies wants its members to pledge not to tie records of where you go to personally identifiable information (such as your phone number or name). Another group, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, wants the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to mandate that consumers must ask to receive ads via phone before companies send them.

I would take these proposals even further. Phone companies should never bill any customer for the airtime consumed by wireless ads. Phone companies should never share customers’ personally identifiable information with anyone except their own billing department. And please, give each user a single place to opt out of all advertising. These new rules would go a long way toward reassuring an anxious public.