Some weeks ago I wrote about the menace of unsolicited calls and text messages from telemarketers. I wrote that even though I had enrolled in the do-not-call register that should prevent the telemarketers from phoning or texting me, I got innumerable (around 15 a day) text messages advertising products (mainly property but also a 'Sauna-Slim Belt' which obviously isn't selling because the telemarketers keep flogging it with a persistent desperation day after day) as well as several calls from people trying to sell a variety of financial services, including insurance.
Something, I said, needed to be done because there was a huge nuisance factor. Each time our phones beeped we checked to see who was messaging us only to discover that it was either someone called 'JP' who was "launching Kensington Boulevard Apart @ 2850/ft on DP next to Golf Course…" or Jyotish sending Hindi messages in Roman script ("CHANDRA MANGL ke MAHALAXMI YOG ka kya asar padega…") bragging about its astrological prowess, a claim considerably weakened by Jyotish's inability to predict how much we would hate receiving its unsolicited texts and how much abuse we would despatch in its direction.
Consequently, many of us had started keeping our phones on silent because we did not want to be distracted by beeps caused by commercial messages. In the process, we often missed genuine texts that went unnoticed because our phones were not beeping.
Worse still, these texts cost us money. I gave my own example. When I travel, service providers in other countries charge me up to R30 per SMS that is forwarded via the roaming mechanism. Thus each time BESTECH texts me to tell me that it is "Launching its New Project Park View ANANDA…" I pay R30 for the benefit of receiving this unnecessary information. With 15 unsolicited texts arriving every day, I pay R450 per day and so a ten-day trip costs me around R4,500 in charges for these rubbish messages alone.
I spoke to J.S. Sarma, the head of Trai, the telecom regulator, who told me that Trai was seized of the problem and had put a consultation paper on the subject on its website. I included the email id of Trai in the article and urged you to write in and tell Sarma and his colleagues how you felt.
Well, a month later, there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is that enough people wrote to Trai saying how annoyed they were by the menace of unsolicited calls and messages that the regulator decided to extend the deadline for the receipt of suggestions so that more of you could be heard. The Trai process now requires counter-responses from those who think that telemarketing and invasion of privacy are wonderful phenomena (the telemarketers themselves, naturally).
The bad news is that the consultation process is a long and painful one. Also, Trai has no direct authority over telemarketers. The job of protecting consumers from people who invade our privacy should be done by the telecom ministry. Unfortunately, the UPA has abolished the telecom ministry and replaced it with a giant ATM machine from which members of the DMK make frequent withdrawals. Our best hope lies in Sachin Pilot, the Minister of State in the telecom ministry, who seems determined to do something to curb this menace.
But there is no unanimity on what needs to be done. Trai says that the do-not-call register should be replaced with a do-call register. In other words, nobody can bother you unless you specifically say that you're willing to receive nuisance calls.
This is an eminently sensible suggestion (how many of us know how to get on to the do-not-call register or have the time to do so?) because our right to privacy should be a given not something we have to specially ask for.
But there is a problem. The do-not-call register does not work. Not only does it fail to deter those who send these nuisance text messages, it has also ceased to matter to unscrupulous companies who continue to phone us. Shortly after my piece appeared, I was phoned by a man on behalf of Aviva Life Insurance. I told him that not only did I have no interest in his product but that I had signed the do-not-call register so he was breaking the law. He laughed in my face and showed no inclination to hang up. Since then, other telemarketers have phoned me as brazenly.
Given this background, many people believe that telemarketers will not respect any register unless Trai has the power to punish them for invading our privacy. As no such powers are forthcoming, any register will fail.
So what is the solution?
According to the big boys (the large telecom companies) telemarketing is not important to them. Sanjay Kapoor of Airtel mailed me to say that the ratio of personal SMSes to bulk SMSes on the Airtel network was 27:1. "The telemarketer business is very insignificant to Airtel," he wrote.
The big boys say that the major culprits are the newer telecom operators who sell bulk SMSes at derisory rates to boost their profits. Ever since my piece appeared, the big boys have gone around telling us how to identify an operator from whom a nuisance SMS originates (if it says TD at the beginning of your nuisance sender's ID, this means it's Tata Telecom — easily the worst offender — and so on) to indicate that the big companies are being blamed for the excesses of the small guys.
If this is true, then there is a simple way around it. In many countries, if you get a nuisance SMS then you simply complain to the authorities. The regulator identifies the telecom company that sold the bulk SMS to the telemarketer and fines it. Fines of $11,000 per nuisance SMS are not uncommon.
Sarma told me that he wanted to find some way of compensating telephone users for the loss of privacy and the roaming charges they have to pay for receiving these messages on other networks. So here's my suggestion:
If you get a nuisance SMS, you should contact Trai. After the regulator has satisfied itself that the complaint is genuine, it should fine the offending telecom company R50,000 for every nuisance SMS received by every phone user. So, if 200 people complain about a particular junk SMS, then the operator should be fined R50,000 x 200 or a total of R10,000,000. Some of this money should find its way back to the consumer who complains.
I can guarantee that all junk SMSes and nuisance calls will cease within a week.
It's an obvious and easy solution. So let's just do it.
The views expressed by the author are personal.