N.Y. Congressman’s Phone Camera Bill Draws Fire

Published April 1, 2009

The Camera Phone Predator Alert Act, which would force mobile phone manufacturers to make all their phones emit a “beep” noise whenever someone uses one to take a picture, has attracted the attention of few co-sponsors … and plenty of critics.

“I’m a father of four young children, and nobody wants to protect their children from predators more than I do, but this is just plain stupid,” said Thomas Hawks, president and CEO of Zooomr.com, a social networking Internet startup specializing in photo-sharing.

The measure, introduced by Rep. Peter King (R-NY) as H.R. 414, also would prohibit mobile phone manufacturers from putting an option on the phones allowing customers to disable the sound.

The bill has struggled to find co-sponsors, and at press time it was languishing in the House Energy Committee.

Aimed at Protecting Children

“Congress finds that children and adolescents have been exploited by photographs taken in dressing rooms and public places with the use of a camera phone,” King announced when he introduced the bill in February.

King’s office did not return phone calls seeking additional comment. But the language of the bill makes it clear King believes sexual perverts may be taking pictures of children without their parents’ knowledge and that he considers it a serious problem.

Forcing mobile phones to “sound a tone” when a photograph is taken would solve the problem and best serve the public, King argues.

Japan and South Korea have passed laws similar to King’s bill, partly in response to growing incidents of people secretly taking pictures under the skirts of young females, many of them minors. But so-called under-skirting, experts say, is limited nearly exclusively to Japan and South Korea.

Silence Sometimes Golden

Critics of the bill stress Congress should not micromanage the cell phone industry, as they believe King’s proposal does. They say they are especially surprised to see such a measure come from a conservative Republican.

Besides, they note, there are situations where having a silent camera is essential.

“First off, there are many times that you don’t want your camera to make audible noises,” Hawks said. “Let’s say you’re shooting your own kid in the school play. Having a bunch of disruptive beeps going off every time someone takes a photo is annoying.

“There are certainly plenty of times and places where it is perfectly appropriate to try and be as quiet as you can while shooting [photos],” Hawks said.

Bureaucrats Would Decide

Matthew Lasar of Ars Technica, a prominent technology Web site based in Massachusetts, said he believes King’s bill takes micromanaging to the extreme and would allow the Consumer Product Safety Commission to determine how phones are manufactured.

“If King’s proposal was actually enacted into law and signed by the president, it would be enforced by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, whose staff would have to figure out what kind of ‘tone or other sound’ to force manufacturers to hotwire into their devices.” Lasar said.

Lasar added he thinks such a law would not even address the problem King wants to solve.

“If politicians and parents are worried about surreptitious cell phone camera users lurking around in dressing rooms and parks, they might want to keep a better eye on their children,” Lasar said.

James Gattuso, a senior fellow in regulatory policy at the Washington, DC-based Heritage Foundation, agreed.
“It does sound silly,” Gattuso said.

Loophole Identified

Hawks also notes the bill would single out cell phones and ignore ordinary digital cameras. He says that’s unfair.

“This bill only applies to cell phones,” Hawks said. “So if some predator wants to try to sneak photos of kids in the locker room all they would have to do is use a regular old point-and-shoot camera, which this bill doesn’t apply to.

“It seems to me like this bill is yet another example of really bad ideas coming from government,” Hawks added. “I thought Republicans were supposed to be for less government, not for more.”

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.