Then What’s the Point?

by on June 16, 2010 · 2 comments

A “funny until you realize it’s real” story out of San Francisco today (courtesy of the NY Times) where the city will soon require cell phone retailers to display the amount of radiation in each phone that is for sale on their shelves.

Even though this concern has been debunked time and again — the article mentions the latest major study that found no supporting evidence linking cancer to cell phone usage — the city believes that, though there are plenty of resources for those wishing to research radiation for particular cell phones, the city “thinks that for the consumer…it ought to be easier to find.”

This brings to mind one of the old axioms of public policy; that “there ought’a be” legislation is often poorly thought out and poorly executed. A few years back, legislators in Arizona wanted to enact a “cell phone bill of rights” to help unhappy cell phone customers, including bans on contracts longer than one year. Sounds great, to be able to suddenly legislate away dropped cell calls, or legislate how a company writes its contracts, until you think about it. Such a move would be a disincentive to mobile carriers to, well, provide service. In today’s world it is not possible to simply create a 100% perfect, non-interruptible network. Even behemoth Google, with its tens of thousands of servers (probably hundreds of thousands) can only promise a 99% uptime service level agreement on its Google Apps business suite. And banning long-term contracts, while appealing on the surface, would mean much higher prices for the phones up front. That fancy new iPhone 4? Expect to pay $299 for the version that currently goes for $199. The longer term contacts help defray some of the upfront costs of the handset. As an aside, you can purchase just about any phone contract free, but it will cost you.

Also at stake here is confusing the consumer. As CTIA points out, consumers may actually believe they are buying a safer phone by purchasing one with a lower radiation level. Again, this presumes that there is actually a solid connection between cancer and the low-level radiation signatures of cell phones. There is not. This is somewhat analogous to Washington’s latest “hands-free” cell phone driving law. As The Seattle Times and others have opined, the public may be lulled into a false sense of security, as roads will not actually be any safer, as numerous studies have concluded that using hands free devices, such as bluetooth headsets, will not negate driver distraction. As commonsensical barring drivers from texting or talking on their cell phones sounds, it’s practically meaningless the way it was written (texting is illegal, but not holding the phone as a speakerphone. And using your phone to check email or sports scores? It’s not texting, so presumably it’s still legal).

Really though, the final quote from San Fran’s mayoral spokesperson is telling. He says that, “Really, it’s not about telling people not to use cell phones.” Then what it is about? Because forcing retailers to broadcast radiation levels smacks of fear mongering or something that will be justified somehow as consumer protection. But I’m not buying it. In reality, it’s a manufactured solution for something that isn’t actually a problem in order to score political points.

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