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Consumers went up against the telephone companies and lost a huge chunk of privacy in a ruling by a three-judge panel that the entire court should quickly overturn.

If it doesn't, it means that anyone calling a medical specialist or a self-help group might have the fact that they've made such a call -- which should be private information -- sold to marketers. Those hucksters not only might be able to guess what ails you but, adding insult to injury, will flood you with unwanted solicitations to cure it and everything else.

That's the new frontier of privacy invasion opened up by a three-judge panel's curious ruling that customers aren't harmed when telephone companies give away that personal information for a price.

In a 2-1 ruling, the court illogically elevated the free-speech rights of corporations over the privacy rights of individuals, leaving consumers vulnerable to all types of bombardments every time they use a telephone or pager.

The Federal Communications Commission had tried to protect consumers with a requirement that telecommunications companies get permission before selling personal data gleaned from calling patterns to any third party.

It was that FCC protection that the court panel struck down, saying that while the abhorrent practices it was sanctioning may make consumers "uncomfortable," this is "an open society where information may pass freely."

Too freely, it now seems.

FCC Chairman William Kennard vowed a quick appeal to the full court, as he should have.

Kennard rightly called it "a sad day when the First Amendment rights of telephone companies to solicit business outweighs the rights of consumers to protect their privacy."

U.S. West phone company, which brought the suit, said it doesn't want to sell customer data to other firms, only to share it with other divisions within the company. It insists that such practices might actually spare consumers some unwanted calls by helping companies home in on those most likely to want their product.

Fine. But make that pitch to consumers and then let them decide if they want their personal calling habits revealed.

Beyond this immediate case, consumer advocates fear the ruling could have ramifications for how privacy is treated on the Internet and elsewhere in the telecommunications world. That's why the court needs to draw the line now, and draw it in the right place -- which this panel clearly didn't.

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