Cut the line out, not the mail

By Probir Roy | 13 Aug 2003


Mumbai: There has been a spate of seminars, roundtables and articles recently on spam — the unsolicited electronic email landing in your ''Inbox''. How it is invidious and ''top of mind'' among individuals and corporates. Nothing can be further from the truth.

Corporates and individuals in India subject to spam are but a fraction of the total population. Invidious though it may be, spam still afflicts only a minority. The total penetration of the Internet and mobiles is only a little more than 1 per cent of the population. I am sure there are other issues endemic to the Indian situation for us to get our knickers in a twist.

Let us face it. Spam is very much here to stay. Apparently about 80 per cent of all Internet mails whizzing around the world today is spam and, by some accounts, a $10-billion business (Ferris Research). It is pretty much woven into the fabric of our modern lives and yet another acceptable evil.

The last thing corporate chief information officers should have on their mind ought to be spam — it should figure far down on their priority list (they have invested enough over the years in spam busting, IP blocking mail servers, VPNs, blacklist, white list, filtering and mail client blocking algorithms), especially when we are still a country with low teledensity, cards, telemarketers and mobile penetration. All of which need to be ubiquitous to actually become a genuine worry.

Uninvited guest
Its offline nemesis — direct mail or ''junk mail'' — is still not an issue in this country when its pervasiveness and penetration is dramatically more than anything that the Internet population will ever represent.

After all postmen, milkmen and newspaper boys reach each nook and cranny of this country. No one has yet complained about the postman or the veritable deluge of mailers, flyers, and coupons falling out of newspapers, bills and almost anything in an envelope or otherwise.

There are primarily two forms of spam — spam lite, which is illegal, fraudulent and malicious (like the email from your ''friendly'' misunderstood general or minister in Ghana and Nigeria), and spam junk, which pertains to unsolicited and unwarranted mail.

With the proliferation of a few credible third-party databases (cell users, luxury car owners, frequent flyers, credit card users), marketers are able to concentrate on those unfortunate few for everything from greeting cards to the latest C-class Mercedes Benz.

And god forgive you if the credit card agent, bank, travel agent, local mall or mobile operator has you locked in as a ''prospect''. In which case the deluge of consumer-solicited and so-called ''anti-spam'' compliant mailers is truly a nuisance — even though you may have a legitimate and binding relationship with the concerned entity. Ultimately it is unwarranted, often unsolicited, of great nuisance value and still junk.

With various self-imposed ''dos and don''ts'' adopted by direct marketers we have an option to either opt-in or unsubscribe to email. While ''opt-in'' or ''pull'' based marketing is the approach in the US, the European Union (EU) takes a more sanguine opt-out or ''push'' route endorsed by the Direct Marketers Association (DMA).

Getting the act together
Various acts like Can Spam Act, Anti-Telemarketing ''Do Not Call Registry'', Spam Act, and Coalition of Email Service Providers for Permission Marketing are legitimate movements for and against spam, free speech and protection of constitutional rights.

Nonetheless, it is only now that phone-based telemarketing in a highly consumerist society like the US has drawn the outrage of citizens for them to mobilise and push for legislation to prevent them being spammed by telemarketers.

So it is a gradual phase from awareness to annoyance that we have to traverse. Regretfully (and thankfully) for many, we in India are still at the low end of the curve. Before we can endorse a ''do-not-email-me'' type of legislation.

The other more pervasive form of spam that I fear is emerging is ''wireless spam''. While the Indian Cyber Act prevents PC-to-PC and server-to-PC spamming, there is no law that prevents PC-to-mobile and mobile-to-mobile text spamming, the latter being more pervasive and annoying. The holy trinity of the operator, innovative marketer and handset vendor is currently driving this phenomenon.

While operators grapple with falling net average revenue per user (Rs 600 pm), increased bandwidth and delivery channels and handsets have become more ubiquitous and functional. It is clear that marketers and advertisers see this as a sure-shot way to reach out in more focused and targeted ways to their desired profile of customers.

They see governments and consumer protection groups as the proverbial party spoilers, while laws, legislation and column centimetres by Page 3 celebs are certainly ''disablers''.

Spam goes hi-tech
Technology stands out as the key driver for spam. Modern-day bandwidth management will enable spread spectrum operators to adjust the code space of each channel every 10 milliseconds, helping them to optimise between voice and data traffic and also increase ''data'' throughput per second.

While voice traffic has reached critical mass, operators are looking for data and other bandwidth-utilising value services to get more bang from their bandwidth buck. Of course, most operators retail bulk SMS to various short code marketers and media at a premium price for promotions, loyalty programmes, reminder and alerts, quizzes, lottery, launches, contests and premium information. And will look to derive further value from the simple text-based SMS, let alone advanced counterparts like MMS and location based services (LBS).

In the UK, for example, premium services using opt-in SMS are 20/25 pence a shot as against 10/12 pence for the regular SMS, making it a lucrative business. The UK has over a billion messages a month.

Most countries are yet to seriously address wireless spam, as they are still grappling with issues concerning earlier generation communication technologies, namely the telephone and the Internet.

But, recently, Japan (April 2002) and the EU (May 2002) have put together legislation which covers wireless spam, both choosing the ''opt-out'' approach for Internet — and cell phone-based advertisements — which means that marketers can continue to send out wireless mail to you until you object.

In Japan, DoCoMo estimates that about 84 per cent of the 950 million messages per day on its network are currently unsolicited, costing operators $200 million. In the US, the Wireless Telephone Spam Act (supposedly more stringent than the Japanese and EU legislation) is being hotly debated in the Congress as marketers resist being locked out of what they see as a very lucrative $20 billion mobile commerce market in another year or so.

So, back home, who has spammed you on the mobile lately? The producer of Bhoot, your local mall, multiplex, nightclub, pub, bank or your credit card operator — spamming several times a week with reminders to pay your bill or EMI or face discontinuance. God be with you when the income tax department, phone, power and consumer goods companies get hold of your number.


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