Who's Listening To Those Free Calls?

GENERIC internet mouse telephone phone
Tired of paying that monthly phone bill? A new company based in San Jose, Calif., is starting to offer unlimited, free telephone service. Sounds great, right? There's only one catch. Every time you make a call, they'll be monitoring what you talk about. So, how much is a free call worth to you?

Pudding Media is the company that is introducing this new Internet phone service. Like an older company, Skype, you plug a microphone headset into your computer, and make the calls from there. But unlike the older talk-on-the-phone-on-your-computer systems, this one listens while you talk. Actual humans aren't covering the mouthpiece and eavesdropping - like, well, like all of us have done more than we'd like to admit. Instead, they have computers with very clever voice recognition software to do the listening. The people at Pudding say they're interested in learning what you're interested in, so they can sell that information to advertisers.

To me, one of the more annoying side effects of the digital age is that sometimes when I talk to someone on the phone, he or she doesn't seem to be concentrating 100 percent on what I'm saying. (This is a totally different experience from talking to family members in person who don't seem to be concentrating 100 percent on what I'm saying.) I'm pretty sure that you've had this experience, too. I can sense that they are doing something while they're talking and listening to me. To be more specific, I can sense that they are doing something on their computer. Often, I'll stop the conversation for a moment and ask, "What are you doing? Sending some e-mail?" They'll usually 'fess up, and see nothing wrong with what I consider rudeness and what they see as multi-tasking.

Pudding people figured that since so many people send e-mail or surf the Net while they're on the phone, why not automatically give them the sites they're interested in? They aren't planning on gathering your information, and selling it to advertisers who will later place appropriate ads on your computer. They want to put the subject matter of what you're talking about on your computer while you're talking about it. So, if you're talking on the phone about the president's latest speech or a great play you saw on last night's football game, they'll put political pundits' opinions of the speech or the replay of the football run on your computer while you talk. I'm sure they'll also place ads there, like opportunities to contribute to candidates' campaigns or life-size photos of a football player trying to knock somebody's head off.

I can see a positive use for this service. Suppose I'm on the phone with a friend, telling him that I heard on the radio that some gas station in town is giving free gas to the first 100 customers today - but I can't remember which gas station it is. While I bring up this bargain to my friend, the story about that gas station can appear on my screen.

But I also worry that this thing can backfire. What if you're telling a friend that you think there's "too much porn on the Internet." Pudding Media's smart software will hear the phrase "porn on the Internet." So, will they then put the image of two people on your screen wearing nothing but snorkeling masks in positions that you thought only Romanian gymnasts could get into? Maybe, maybe not. Pudding says their software will filter out certain words that might result in offensive things being placed on people's screens. But if I know anything about American business, it's that the porn industry will always find a way to use the latest technology.

Let's talk about the privacy issue. I know that they don't plan to spy on people without their permission - like the government or the New England Patriots. But it still seems too high-techy weird for me. And the fact that it's a computer, not an actual person, who would be listening in on my conversation makes me feel worse about it. I don't want one smart computer laughing at the dumb things I might say and then e-mailing his "friend" - the computer down the hall - so they can both be amused. Call me old-fashioned, but if I'm going to be mocked about what I say, I'd still prefer to be mocked by a human.

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover. None of the hardcover books laughed at him.

By Lloyd Garver