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"Limit 'robocalls,' but protect speech"

Chairman Feinstein Op-ed

We've all heard the stories: families being awakened in the middle of the night by a computer-automated telephone call from a political campaign. Or voters receiving call after call in the days before a primary.

In one particularly egregious case, a political campaign got hold of a Pennsylvania woman's personal cell phone number. Not only was this woman inundated with these computer-automated political phone calls, but she also had to pay for them.

It's enough to turn even the most loyal voters against the political process.

We've got to stop the most abusive of these calls. We need to strike a balance between political outreach and privacy rights of Americans. And so, I've introduced legislation with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., that would place sensible restrictions on these "robocalls."

The bill is simple and straightforward. It would:

Prohibit an organization from placing robocalls to any person between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m.; require an organization to disclose its identity at the beginning of each call and clearly state that the call is pre-recorded; ban groups from blocking their caller-identification numbers; prohibit organizations from calling the same number more than twice each day; and empower the Federal Election Commission to levy fines against violators.

The rules would take effect 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.

In the past 15 years, we have seen an unparalleled development of new technologies -- from candidate Web sites to online town hall meetings -- that help political candidates reach out to voters. This new technology in many ways has bolstered the democratic process. But with it has come abuse. Some candidates have complained that opponent organizations have mischaracterized calls as coming from them. Others have been victims of smear tactics by groups created to pass on misinformation.

I'm not seeking to eliminate all robocalls. They play an important role in alerting voters to a candidate's position. I am a strong supporter of the First Amendment. But I believe people should be protected.

We need sensible guidelines that ensure the privacy of Americans as well as the free-speech rights of those who wish to engage in the political process. These technological solutions should get more Americans interested in politics -- not turn them away.

Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, represents California in the U.S. Senate.