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Singled out in Seattle? Yellow Pages are the subject of new law.

yellow-pages-7Seattle, WA is the northernmost city in the continental United States.  It’s the home of coffee mega-franchise Starbucks as well as the residence of fictional psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane and the cast of Nickelodeon’s iCarly series.  It is also regarded as the birthplace of the grunge music scene.  Long considered a “progressive city”, Seattle boasts a high number of tech giants in the surrounding area including the headquarters of Microsoft, Amazon.com, and RealNetworks.  It also now holds the distinction of being the largest city to legislatively target an institution that has been a part of our culture since 1886.

On Monday, October 11, 2010, the Seattle City Council voted 8 – 1 in favor of a new city ordinance that will forever alter the business of Yellow Pages.  The newly-approved proposal is described as “AN ORDINANCE relating to solid waste reduction; establishing license requirements for publishers of yellow pages phone books; establishing an opt-out registry and a recovery fee for yellow pages phone books, and amending the Seattle Municipal Code by creating a new Chapter 6.255.”  Under the auspices of reducing recycling waste and expenses as well as “protecting the privacy of City’s residents and businesses from unwanted intrusions”, the city has now stepped forward to regulate the delivery of print Yellow Pages in an unprecedented fashion.  (A copy of the ordinance is available online.)

 The high points of the new law are as follows:

  1. The city will now require a license for Yellow Pages publishers who plan to distribute directories within the boundaries of the city of Seattle, regardless of where the directories are published.
  2. Distributors will now be required to inform the municipal government concerning the quantity and weight of phone books to be distributed.
  3. The enforcement of a “recovery fee” on all books distributed.  The fee is stated as “Fourteen Cents ($0.14) for each yellow pages phone book distributed within the City plus One Hundred Forty-Eight Dollars ($148.00) per ton of yellow pages phone books distributed within the City.
  4. The establishment of a city-run “opt-out” registry for those seeking to be removed from distribution lists.  Publishers of directories to be distributed within the boundaries of Seattle will be required to publish the city’s opt-out contact information upon the covers of their directories in a format dictated by the Director of Seattle Public Utilities.
  5. A civil penalty of $125.00 per violation to be imposed any person who violates any aspect of the new chapter.

 In essence, on January 1, 2011, Yellow Pages directories will be subject to a law that was designed to single out directories as a nuisance and provide additional revenue to the general coffers of the city of Seattle.  In theory, the additional revenue will be used to offset the cost to the municipality of having to recycle all print directories that are collected.  However, it is unlikely that these fees will offset the cost to the city of having to establish and maintain a list of residents who choose to opt-out.  Such a registry, which duplicates the efforts of the industry via YellowPagesOptOut.com, will require resources and management—all of which will incur additional costs.  A quick look at some industry data reveals that the zip codes for the city of Seattle proper receive roughly 4,700 tons of directories.  This means that the TOTAL revenue received from the new statute (per-book fee + tonnage revenue) is just over $1.1 million dollars.  One has to wonder if a cost-benefit analysis was done regarding the increased infrastructure costs vs. the true revenue gained. 

 Parts of this law raise the question—just how rampantly out of control was Yellow Pages delivery in Seattle?  Were roving gangs of unlicensed directory publishers terrorizing the populace by depositing sinister yellow books on their door steps?  Were these same menaces strong-arming the citizenry into not exercising their current right to use the publisher-provided opt-out programs?  Was Seattle teetering on the edge of collapse beneath mounds of rotting books that covered the coastal city in a blanket of black and yellow?   As extreme as these examples may seem, no more so was the law enacted by the city of Seattle.  The Yellow Pages industry, not wanting to be viewed as a waste or an intrusion, has established national Opt-Out registries and directories have for several years been published using mostly recycled materials.  Ironically, the Seattle Public Utilities website  lists information on how to opt out of delivery of directories from several major publishers including Dex, YellowBook, and SuperMedia (listed as Idearc).  It also clearly states that phone directories are not legally accepted as part of trash collection.  No one in the Yellow Pages industry will argue that directories should be delivered where they are not welcome, it would seem that the industry and the Public Utilities Commission had already taken the necessary steps to ensure that phone directories were recycled.  Will similar pieces of legislation be passed to regulate, monitor, and halt the unwanted distribution of “junk mail” in terms of coupon fliers and other unsolicited pieces of mail?  What of free community newspapers or political fliers and pamphlets distributed during an election season?   It seems wasteful of such an environmentally conscious city to duplicate efforts that are already in place. 

Regardless, the precedent has now been set.  Seattle is the 23rd largest city in the United States with a population in the last census of 617,334.  One has to wonder as to how long it will be before another larger municipality takes note of the recent law and decides to enact a more aggressive version?  More to the point, with so many state and local governments facing unprecedented budgetary shortages, how long will it be until the perception of the ever-present Yellow Pages industry as a “revenue well” begins to take root?  Senator Leland Yee proposed an opt-in ordinance for San Francisco earlier this year that was thankfully defeated.  The city council of Seattle, however, overwhelmingly passed what may be the first major piece of anti-Yellow Pages legislation in the nation.  The question is—will it be the last and what effect will this have on local businesses that seek to attract new customers in a proven, effective medium?

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