As expected, interim San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee signed into law the city council resolution requiring “opt-in” permission from residents before delivering print YP directories. The yellow pages trade groups, the LSA and ADP, issued a press release condemning the move, warning of negative social and economic impacts and promising to sue:
City leaders ignored the hundreds of small businesses that rely on print Yellow Pages who expressed their strong opposition to the ban via in-person meetings, letters, e-mails, petitions, video testimonials, and a rally in front of City Hall. The ban was justified by city leaders as an act of environmental stewardship and a source of cost reduction, but publishers say those arguments relied on questionable data and a highly flawed economic study designed only to support the ban.
Publishers will seek to overturn the law as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech, and also will seek to have the city pay attorney fees.
The contention is that selected ethic and demographic groups will be adversely impacted and jobs lost. Because it’s the most dramatic municipal restriction in the US on the distribution of print directories the lawsuit will be very closely watched.
If the litigation succeeds it will discourage potential similar “opt-in” efforts that may be brewing (so far there’s no evidence of that). If it fails, it will open the door to other opt-in ordinances almost certainly, in major metros at least.
There is no specific evidence that the industry’s own earlier push for “opt-in” white pages led directly to the SF ordinance. However I argued at the time, and would continue to argue, that the industry itself set the table for San Francisco with that push. As I wrote in late 2009, “Opt-In White Pages Will Lead to Same for YP.”
The SF City Council believes it “crafted” the opt-in ordinance to withstand litigation. The thrust of the industry’s argument will be about free speech rights of publishers and unequal treatment (vs. other print media). We’ll see how far the litigation goes. You may recall that it was piece of yellow pages litigation (Feist) that is indirectly responsible for the proliferation of local data and other content on the internet today.
In Seattle, where a less restrictive opt-out measure went into effect, the industry failed in its effort to obtain a restraining order to block the law. Litigation is pending.
No one should celebrate the demise of print yellow pages. While environmental concerns are valid with print directory distribution, the industry has done a good job with its easy-to-use national opt-out site.
Print still represents 75% to 85% of publisher revenues in the US and yellow pages remain a critical part of the “local search ecosystem.”