RECORDINGS OF LURID sex fantasies? Pathetic 30-second dialogues of lesbian lust? Sleazy dramas involving women and imprisoned men? For this we broke up AT&T?
Well, it's true. The Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. argues that it depends on profitable "dial-a-porn" enterprises and other paid messages to keep its local rates as low as possible. In fact, it now says that the money generated by these messages is so vital to the maintenance of basic service that C&P doesn't follow federal rules designed to keep children off sex lines because of its fear of losing some of its revenues.
After hearing the phone company's argument that screening callers would cause message sellers to quit the business, the D.C. Public Utilities Commission agreed that kid-proofing the lines would cut into the $1.7 million that C&P estimates the new "976" exchange generates each year.
"The phone company testified that the service would be unmarketable if certain restrictions were in place," said Howard Davenport, an attorney with the D.C. Public Utilities Commission, in explaining why the District has not adopted protections to keep kids away from pornographic messages.
C&P leases its 976 lines to companies that sell recorded calls dealing with everything from sports to trivia to horoscope predictions. The companies usually charge 50 cents or $1 a call, and C&P gets half. The sex lines bring in the most money, federal analysts say, because of high volume and low overhead.
One of the commission's early ideas was to require message sellers to obtain a caller's name and address before they could hear paid messages. But C&P attorneys argued there would be a "chilling effect" because of a "potential breach of privacy of calls to some numbers." The attorneys persuaded District officials that the result would be fewer calls and that local rates would suffer.
"The commission wanted to limit the restrictions as much as possible to generate the most income," said Davenport. "Defraying the cost of basic telephone service is one of the most important goals this commission has right now."
Last April sex lines became available to C&P customers in D.C. and Maryland (Virginia, for some reason, was not thought to be a good market). But they only recently made news when several irate callers sued for $2.5 million over an ad for an AIDS information line that actually was a pornographic message. There have been reader complaints about ads touting the services in local weekly newspapers, and local women's and men's groups have denounced them.
"The pornographers who produce these messages are out to make a profit by selling the same old rape myths and stereotypes, the same old exploitation," complained Marty Langelan, vice president of the board of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center.
But D.C. regulators have heard little about the adult messages. "To tell you the truth, we get a far greater amount of complaints on inaccurate bills," according to Davenport, of the D.C. utilities agency.
Many people vaguely remember that Congress did something about dial-a-porn a few years ago. But it hasn't worked.
In 1983, Congress specifically insisted that the Federal Communications Commission devise rules to keep children off porn lines after news reports about parents discovering hundreds of dollars of charges for sex messages on their phone bills.
The FCC passed one set of rules in 1984, forbidding porn lines to operate before 9 p.m.. But Carlin Communications, a Manhattan firm that runs an adult message service, sued and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York threw the rules out. The court found the time limit restricted adult listeners' First Amendment rights by not allowing them to hear messages when they wanted. And besides, it found, kids could just stay up late and dial anyway.
The federal commission tried again last October, requiring that message sellers get an access code (issued after applicants prove in writing they are over 18) or demand full payment (by credit card) before any gasps and moans could be transmitted.
Carlin sued again and on Dec. 26, the 2nd Circuit appeals court put an indefinite hold on enforcing the rules. The court still has not settled its concern about possible abridgement of constitutional rights and its questions about the amount of money it would cost companies to install machinery to accept or reject access codes and other screening methods.
Meanwhile, phone companies, utilities commissions and message sellers are under no legal requirement to screen calls to see if it's an 8 year old or an 18 year old on the line. "We're not in the business of policing kids," said C&P spokesman Web Chamberlin.
And at a time when C&P is struggling to keep telephone service affordable, it isn't about to alienate message sellers and their money. As Chamberlin put it, "It is not our responsibility for the content" of its adult message business. "If it's not in violation of rules by the Public Service Commission, we are not in a position to refuse that service."
The result wins the Strange Bedfellows Award of the Year. The phone company and its regulators avoid protecting children from sleazy sex messages. In exchange, Aunt Sophie, on her fixed income, is able to keep a telephone in her apartment.