CTIA Sues San Francisco over Cell Phone Legislation

CTIA files a suit against the city of San Francisco, looking to block a recently approved ordinance that would raise consumer awareness about cell phone radiation levels.

CTIA is suing the city and county of San Francisco in hopes of blocking the enforcement of the Cell Phone Right-to-Know ordinance that the city's Board of Supervisors recently passed. The ordinance requires cell phone retailers to display, in a manner and place noticeable to shoppers, the amount of radiation emitted by each phone being sold.

The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) already oversees cell phone radiation emissions, and manufacturers are already required to disclose each device's specific absorption rate, or SAR. Under contention is the new focus that the San Francisco ordinance would put on SARs.

"CTIA has filed this lawsuit to prevent consumer confusion," John Walls, CTIA vice president of public affairs, said in a statement July 23. "CTIA's objection to the ordinance is that displaying a phone's SAR value at the point-of-sale suggests to the consumer that there is a meaningful safety distinction between FCC-compliant devices with different SAR levels."

Walls added that the message being conveyed to consumers by the San Francisco ordinance is that the FCC's standards are insufficient. "Therefore," he continued, "the ordinance contradicts the thorough review of the science by the FCC, FDA and other U.S. and international expert agencies, and will send consumers the false message that there is a safety difference between wireless devices that comply with the FCC's stringent standards."

CTIA, the wireless industry trade group, filed suit against San Francisco in a U.S. District Court in California.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom issued his own July 23 announcement, saying he was "disappointed" in CTIA's response to the pro-consumer legislation. He described San Francisco as an early adopter of "cutting-edge communications devices" and the law as not an attack on the industry but a "modest, common-sense measure" that will help consumers to more easily find information that's already available to them.

Newsom continued, "I am surprised that industry representatives would choose to spend untold sums of money to fight this in the courts, instead of cooperatively working with San Francisco to comply with a reasonable law that provides greater transparency and information without putting any undue burdens on small businesses or discourage cell phone use in any way."

Despite the FCC's position on the matter, the effects of long-term cell phone use continue to be called into question. A 2006 study by the Cleveland Clinic, for example, suggested that more than 4 hours of cell phone use a day could be damaging to sperm counts, while a 2009 report by the International Electromagnetic Field (EMF) Collaboration focused on a link between cell phone use and brain tumors. In January, also citing the possible risk of brain cancer due to electromagnetic radiation, Maine state Rep. Andrea Boland proposed a bill to put warning labels on cell phone packaging.

"San Francisco is not ordering businesses to publish anything particularly controversial or unfounded," Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, told eWEEK. "I'm at a bit of a loss as to why [CTIA would] think to pursue this."

King compared the ordinance to legislation requiring fast-food restaurants to display the caloric information for certain items on their menus. The SAR information is similarly available, it's just been "typically buried in paperwork or somewhere on the company's Website," he said.

Were CTIA to win, "the end result will be that customers will know less about the products they're going in to buy," King continued. "From where I'm standing, it's hard to see [the suit] as anything but a high-priced slap whose goal is to get San Francisco to [reverse its decision] and other municipalities not to follow San Francisco's lead."

Following the passage of the San Francisco ordinance, CTIA reportedly announced that it will no longer hold its annual show in the city. According to the association's Website, its spring 2011 show, which it calls the "largest and most comprehensive trade show in the wireless industry," is scheduled to take place in Orlando, Fla.