Net.wars: by their numbers shall you know them - or not. Why?

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 12 April 2003

One of the lunchtime sessions at CFP a couple of weeks ago covered ENUM, a mad scheme to bring telephone numbers to the Internet.

Wendy M Grossman

Or rather, an initiative to allow your current phone number to migrate onto the Internet such that you'll have a single unified address for phone calls, so someone can phone you and that call will take the most efficient route to you. If, for example, your correspondent is using VoIP in Seattle and you're using VoIP in New York, the call will route itself accordingly without your having to specify that it not stray onto the traditional long distance telephone network.

The reasoning seems to be that people are used to phone numbers. To be fair, if you look at the ENUM proposals, some of it makes sense, certainly for companies. The idea is to give access to a variety of Internet services via telephone, not just VoIP. Punch in a phone number, out comes a URL.

Theoretically I could, therefore, link my Web page, email address, mobile phone, fax, and everything else to that one single number, and configure it so that at certain times of the day callers would be directed to my Web page or diverted to email rather than put through as a live voice call. I cackle madly at the thought of sending all live calls between the hours of 7am and 9am to the fax machine, especially if I can wind up the fax machine to be painfully deafening to the people who make phone calls at such an hour. And I can see the value, I suppose, in some kind of unified communications identifier.

But phone numbers aren't it.

People are much less comfortable with phone numbers now than they used to be in he days when portions of the phone number had geographic meanings. When you could deconstruct 914 968 8467 (my parents' phone number in my childhood, so please don't phone it and bug whoever has it now) it was a lot easier to remember. For example: 914 is Westchester County in New York state, and 968 was merely the numerical representation of YO-8 (for Yonkers, where my parents lived). At that point, remembering the number was simple.

Now, though, when you have to dial 11 digits just to get another number within New York City, everyone has three or four of them each, and number portability is considered the ultimate in free market competition, the strings are losing the meanings that made them easier to remember. I freely admit to a double standard on this one. I like knowing that (0208) 994 is Chiswick (oh, all right, (020) 8994 for purists). But if I move to Athabasca, I'd like my number to come with me.

Phone numbers will soon - if they are not already - be hated as much as the old numbered CompuServe IDs were (70007,5537 anyone?). This is especially true because, at least in the UK, it has become impossible to know how many digits a phone number is supposed to have and therefore whether or not you have the whole thing. Formatting is inconsistent. Geography means nothing. So the ITU wants to carry these meaningless jumbles of numbers onto the Internet, where the standard personal identifier is the relatively understandable email address, made up of those user-friendly things called WORDS. It would be more logical, therefore, to begin to use email addresses or domain names to route phone calls than phone numbers to route Internet communications. As the proposals stand, however, all those phone numbers, translated into ENUM format (such as will go into the domain name system. A new twist on wrong numbers, L.A. Story c. 2005. "I dialled my mom, and got the automated Web ordering system for Domino's Pizza."

So again, I ask you, why?

The only thing I can come up with is the rather paranoid fantasy that, having failed to gain control of the domain name system back in 1995, the ITU is trying another route. (For those who don't remember, in 1995 the ITU was one of the major forces behind the then intended redesign of the domain name system. There was a memorandum of understanding and a backlash, and that's how we got ICANN, but that's another story. Like I say, a paranoid fantasy.

The CFP session on the subject was hosted by EPIC's Chris Hoofnagle; one of the key commentators on the subject, Roger Clarke had declined to deal with US immigration. The biggest concern is that the phone numbers could become a single identifier used to link personal data across many databases, with the burden of protecting personal privacy laid on individual users rather than the companies assembling the data. Allowing anonymous registration might solve most of that - but given the current way the DNS is generally administered, that seems unlikely to be an official option.

I think the scheme fails at the lowest level of usability. Today, you list your phone number with the Telephone Preference Service to deter telemarketers. Tomorrow, it leads to too many other sources of information about you and roads to access you. Today when you want your phone to stop bothering you, you unplug it or ignore it and give your friends a private line. Under ENUM, you'd have to configure it. Menus. Options. Preferences. Augh.

The good news is, no one will want it and it will die unloved and alone.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).