It's a question of default settings. Cass Sunstein, who runs regulatory policy for the Obama White House, coauthored with Richard H. Thaler a book published in 2008 called Nudge, about something called "choice architecture." That's a fancy term to describe organizing choices in such a way as to increase your chance of a satisfactory result. (If you want to know more and don't want to buy the book, click here.) One of the more interesting ways to organize a choice to get a good result is through defaults. I'm a flake and a spendthrift liable never to save for retirement, but that's OK (up to a point) because the Washington Post Co., which owns Slate, automatically withholds a chunk of my paycheck every two weeks to fund a 401(k). That's a satisfactory result. I'm perfectly free to tell the Post Co. to stop socking my money away, but unless I affirmatively do so (which would be a very dumb thing to do), it will continue to make biweekly 401(k) contributions for me by default.
The FCC rule shouldn't just compel cell phone companies to give consumers conspicuous warnings before they rack up big overages. They should make such overages impossible. Rather than give consumers a tool that could cap usage and prevent overages (something Verizon, incidentally, claims it already provides), the mobile carriers should cap usage themselves, either when overages begin or when some noncatastrophic overage level has been reached. At that point, consumers should receive a text or voice message alerting them that if they want to keep running up overages they must affirmatively tell the mobile carrier that they want to by dialing in some word or number. They must, in other words, leave the mobile carrier with absolutely no doubt that they have given this weighty question the attention it deserves. In the few instances where consumers signal that they understand the stakes and want to keep racking up overages anyway, they should of course be permitted to do so. Some people like walking into manholes, and it's a free country.
Should regulation be necessary? Of course it shouldn't. Mobile carriers shouldn't stoop to making money in dishonorable ways. Verizon chairman Ivan Seidenberg, heralded by USA Today as a "true visionary," should shudder at the thought that his family and friends might find out he made $17.5 million in 2009 partly by conning cell phone customers into incurring catastrophically expensive overage charges. Sadly, we don't live in that world. So we need a government regulation—one stronger than what the FCC just put on the table.
Correction, Oct. 15, 2010: This article originally described a scene as being from Superman II. In fact, that scene was from Superman. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
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