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Withheld Number, Withheld Responsibility

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In recent times it has become fashionable to highlight the issue of online trolls - cowardly geeks, hiding behind anonymous twitter, facebook or blogging accounts - whose hurtful words cause distress to whoever they decide, often at random, to target.

Ranging from random abuse of celebrities to targeted and long term victimisation of innocent people, these trolls are undoubtedly a problem, and deserve to be punished for their behaviour.

But 'trolling' is not a new phenomenon. In fact I'm sure it is a practice which has existed ever since remote communication began. And the trollers have a tool which is even more powerful, and far more established, with which to terrorise their victims - the withheld number.

Of course, time was that your humble telephone, connected to a socket in the wall, would emit a trill, which would compel you to pick up the receiver and discover who was there. But these days, as soon as your iPhone starts to vibrate, it tells you who is calling. You know who you are about to talk to before you have answered the phone.

While many technological advancements may have taken us further from our natural methods of communication, this is not one of them. In person, you are able to see the human being with whom you are about to share a conversation. It works well on the telephone, too. And of course, it gives you the option of deciding that a call can wait, or whether you would prefer to ignore it altogether.

But it has always been possible for the caller to hide this information. I am sure you are aware that simply typing '141' before the number you are about to call, ensures that the recipient will not know who they are about to speak to. Of course, this may mean they choose not to answer. But then why would they not answer? This anonymous person knows you, if they have your number. If someone dressed as a teddy bear and ran towards you excitedly saying 'Dale, Dale! How are you?', of course you would respond.

And yet, in fact, it is much more akin to a man in a balaclava, brandishing a baseball bat, sidling up behind you and whispering 'Dale Bilson, come with me'. Because I can think of no positive reason why a person would choose to hide their identity in this way.

Does anyone really call their mother on her birthday, choosing to withhold their number purely to make their message of good will just a tiny bit more surprising? Or announcing your engagement to a friend, would you really think it would be just a little bit more fun if they didn't know who they were about to speak to?

No, the element of surprise is not the issue here - it is the element of secrecy. The element of lies. Withheld calls are used to make allegations (many of which are false) and to blackmail or threaten, all behind the cloak of anonymity. And unlike online trolling, the human element of a voice on the end of the line makes these threats, the upset, seem much more real. All while the caller, the accuser, the abuser, has their identity protected.

No good has ever come of making a call from a withheld number.

Of course, you cry, I have chosen to block calls from withheld numbers. And I freely admit that this is possible. But why is it not a mandatory requirement for all telephone companies? And yes, it's true that a call can be traced, but not before damage has been done, to the extent that police are involved, and paranoia and doubt already entrenched. Even then the chances are the police will decide not to inform the victim of the number, and person, at fault.

So why not outlaw the 'withheld number' facility altogether? Banish the days of '141' to the pre-digital age. Cut off another source of the trolls' lifeblood.

Threatening behaviour will always be possible, whether in person, on the internet, or by buying a pay as you go phone to make your allegations. But it should not be so easy for a person to pick up the phone, dial '141' and attempt to ruin someone's life.