Wireless spam: self regulation is better than super legislation

30 Mar 2005


Due to a heterogeneous mobile network system, a high penetration of mobiles and emerging third generation wireless data networks, a large number of us will sooner than later have conveniences such as high-speed multimedia, video conferencing and computing literally at our fingertips. However, mobility while creating the magical illusion of being footloose and fancy-free also brings its own nuisance value.

The filing of a recent PIL in the Supreme Court of India against unsolicited voice calls to consumers by telemarketers is just the beginning.

Current IT law, as one is being reminded by numerous sensational exposes, does not quite address data protection and concomitant privacy issues (the cause of unsolicited marketing or spam) beyond those associated with the immediate concerns of the lucrative back office business viz. tampering, hacking, and damaging of computer data and systems.

For starters, spam — wireless, phone or internet — needs to be covered by fresh data protection and privacy provisions as suggested by a recent government committee. This can be simply addressed by making it mandatory for marketers to not use or disclose non public information for any kind of digital marketing to a third party without the prior consent of the customer.

As early as two years ago at a well attended seminar convened by the author under the auspices of the Indian Merchants Seminar (IMC), Mumbai, mobile marketing was hailed as a new and lucrative market created by technological advances. At the next level, it was envisaged that at some point wireless advertisements in the form of emails and mobile imagery delivered to cellular phones would offer consumers time and location sensitive information. For the past several months now there has been a sudden proliferation of three and four digit short codes registered by celcos, media companies, savvy cellular telemarketing companies, along with the ubiquitous 10 digit numbers often used for voice and SMS-based solicitation by ghost marketers.

These marketers and cellco service operators, sensing new revenue streams through retailing bulk SMS to various short code marketers and media companies at premium prices for promotions, loyalty programmes, feedback, reminders and alerts, quizzes, voting, lottery, launches, contests and premium entertainment and information have led to a glut of intrusive communications.

Subscribers, however, view this new form of marketing as more of a nuisance and intrusion than the promises and methods employed by these digital solicitors. Clearly, those behind this innovative form of marketing have once again failed to consider a possible backlash as being akin to 'stalked' by marketers.

Evolving technological innovation will continue to drive opportunities for spam. Modern-day bandwidth management enables spectrum owners to optimise between voice and data traffic and increase 'data' throughput per second. While voice traffic has reached critical mass, operators will aggressively look for data and other bandwidth-hugging value services to get more bang from their bandwidth buck.

Also, operators will continue to look to derive further value from the simple text-based SMS, rather than its advanced counterparts like MMS and location based services (LBS). While legislation is one sure fire way to protect consumer interest, in an over legislated country (with a dubious enforcement record) sensible self-regulation by marketers from an early stage can easily bring about the desired result.

In 2002, Japan and the European Union (EU) did put together legislation covering wireless spam, both choosing the 'opt-out' approach for internet and cell phone-based advertisements — which means that marketers could continue to send out wireless messages until one objected. This, complemented with direct marketing industry's self-imposed 'dos and don'ts', has given consumers in these countries the option to either opt-in or unsubscribe. While 'opt-in' or 'pull' based marketing is the approach in the US, the EU takes the more sanguine opt-out or 'push' route endorsed by their direct marketers association.

Rather than let the mobile operators act as guardians with their recent introduction of blanket blocking services, what is the way forward?

The solution before being consigned prematurely to the dust heap of marketing's tired and dumped (b4 prmturly consigng m mktg 2 dst heap of mktg's tried & dumped) is for marketers themselves to quickly adopt a code of practice like their counterparts elsewhere in the world.

This would be designed to rest on the principle of soft opt-in ie permission market to those whose details have been picked up in the course of a commercial interaction (not necessarily resulting in a sale) but at the same time giving them an option to exit any time.

This puts freedom of choice back where it belongs — in the consumers hand or fingertips in this case. They can then set the ground rules as to whether, whom and when to interact with. This approach would not only help promote the fledgling direct marketing industry by giving a fillip to mobile marketing and its potential for high RoI as compared to traditional direct marketing, but also protect ordinary consumers.

The alternative opt-out approach allows marketers to send unsolicited SMS to individuals from rented or ad hoc databases until they specifically object! Unfortunately the 'unsubscribe' option in a caller-pays mobile environment comes at a premium cost to the customer, as he would land up being billed for every 'Nay'!

*(The writer is a well known IT expert and Member, Indian Merchants Chamber National Technology Committee. The views expressed are his own.)

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