By James P. Tuthill and Michael Katz, San Francisco Chronicle
The latest dustup over Internet services centers on Google Voice, and specifically charges lodged against each other by AT&T and Google concerning the blocking of calls by Google Voice to conference-call service providers and some rural exchanges.
The more urgent concern for consumers is privacy.
Google Voice, a software-managed call-control service, allows for free long-distance and inexpensive international calls while consolidating a user’s various phone numbers under one new number. It also integrates high-end features such as automatic voice-mail transcription for free. But a closer look at Google Voice reveals elements that may be – for Google, its customers and, most important, the people on the other end of calls with Google Voice users – far more troubling than call blocking. Chief among these is the feature allowing a Google Voice user to record incoming calls. That’s right, according to Google’s online instructions, you can record an entire private, personal conversation simply by hitting a single key.
California law, along with the laws of several other states, makes recording conversations a criminal act: “Every person who, intentionally and without the consent of all parties to a confidential communication … records the confidential communication … shall be punished by a fine not exceeding … $2,500 or imprisonment … or both” (California Penal Code, S. 632). Any time a Google Voice user records a conversation, he or she might be committing a crime, and Google could well be an accessory to the crime because it facilitates the recording.
There are exceptions in the law, but as a practical matter people usually regard their telephone conversations as private. A brief announcement is played to both parties to a call once the Google Voice user chooses to record. As one Google Voice user notes on Google’s forums, simply saying “Hello” at the same time can effectively mask this announcement. Regardless, do the other parties to those calls want their conversations recorded, stored and, as has already happened with voice mails, posted online?
There are federal and state rules protecting how telephone carriers use call information. But those rules won’t apply to Google because it says it is not a telecommunications carrier.
The Federal Communications Commission, taking note of AT&T’s complaint, has written to Google with questions about its call blocking. But the implications for our privacy of software-managed call services like Google Voice are a much greater threat to consumers, and that’s where the FCC should direct its energy – immediately.
James P. Tuthill, who retired from a law career with AT&T in 2006, lectures on telecommunications, broadcast and Internet law at the UC Berkeley School of Law. Michael Katz is a 2008 graduate of the University of San Francisco School of Law.