Last week, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India issued regulations governing telemarketing and Push SMS services. MediaNama had highlighted key issues with the way the regulations are framed here; our take is that while these regulations will reduce spam, they have a significant impact on the open ecosystem and independent Push SMS services, with too much power resting with the telecom operators. Please feel free to share your views on the policy with us, especially if you have a counterpoint to our view. Rajesh Jain, founder of Netcore, which runs the Push SMS Service MyToday sent us the following comments on the same policy:

There are multiple issues with the TRAI telemarketing guidelines that were introduced recently. Given our love for detail in India, the TRAI document is very well crafted with an incredible amount of precision. Yet, despite having had many months to think it over, TRAI has been either not addressed or glossed over some key issues. If not rectified within the next few weeks, they have the potential to substantially hurt the use of SMS as a genuine medium in India.

And that is a key point. SMS has emerged as a big winner for information access and dissemination. During the period before and after the Ayodhya verdict recently, the only medium that was banned was SMS! And it was then that people experienced two kinds of extreme feelings – relief that their SMS spam was eliminated, but also pain and frustration since they could get travel updates, bank passwords and breaking news!

So, how can the TRAI regulations be improved?

1. For transactional messages, the operator and the SMS aggregator need to be treated as intermediaries and protected from any connection stoppage. The information about the opt-in or the need for sending the transactional message is only known to the entity sending it. The operator or aggregator should be responsible, and the deposit and guarantee money should be paid by the end-use telemarketer and not the aggregator. The account which should be disabled should be that of the end-use telemarketer and not the aggregator. This is now possible because the operators will provide separate pipes for transactional and promotional messages, and there is even a separate agreement that the Transaction message senders have to sign with the Access Providers (i.e., the operators). In that event, the aggregator and the operators are just facilitators, and cannot be held responsible. So, if a bank messes up and ends up with 6 complaints/violations, why should an aggregator’s business be ended? Without this, no aggregator can take a risk with even a single transaction message sender because it has no way to validate the claim from the transaction message sending entity that all are actually transactional messages. For transactional messages, the aggregator and the operator need to be seen as “dumb pipes” with the final responsibility being with the end-use telemarketer. In fact, if the transactional rules are not corrected, it will bring all transactional messages via aggregators to a halt because no aggregator will want to risk its entire business for a single client who may make a mistake, knowingly or unknowingly.

2. Transactional messages need to be defined as everything that is not promotional. This way, we do not require to define further categories every time in transactional. Right now, there is a definition for both promotional messages and transactional messgaes – but they leave entire categories like content and opt-in responses undefined. So, define promotional (and that’s been done) – and treat everything else as transactional.

3. Content subscriptions and messages after explicit opt-in need to also be treated as transactional messages. This will be applicable if the above point 2 is not accepted. Content messages like what we at MyTodaysend have been excluded from the transactional messages definition. Also, what about explicit opt-ins? As a consumer, I should be able to opt-in to a specific brand / company without having to open myself to receiving messages from everyone in that category by doing a START <1-7 options based on the industry>. In essence, the Transactional definition needs to be extended by including a new category which involves an explicit customer OPT-IN for any form of content. Here, the onus is on the transaction message sender to have the log and prove the opt-in if there is a complaint. The operator or the aggregator should not be involved. Anyways, the penalty is very stringent so it doesn’t make sense for someone to violate the guidelines. This would then also be applicable to Community messages. Each of the opt-in content formats should include a requirement that there be a communication on how to opt-out at least once a month.

4. Advertising should be allowed on transactional messages. Given that (i) the customer has opted in, and (ii) the customer has the ability to opt-out, there should be no restriction on what is communicated on the transactional messages. It is between the consumer and the company. To limit this form of communication is not right. If the customer does not opt-out (after having opted-in) and then complains, that is not right. (Also: Is self- or cross-promotion construed as promotional content? For example, in MyToday, we should be able to promote other channels.)

5. Mobile number churn needs to be explicitly known and handled since it is a big source of complaints. This applies in the case of the opt-ins and transactional messages. Companies do not know when numbers churn. Therefore, what is needed is a Churned Numbers Database. When a number appears in this database, it will need to be deleted from all transactional message databases. This will ensure that the transaction database remains clean at all times.

6. Shutting down an SMS aggregator’s business for two years for just six violations is too small in an industry where a large aggregator sends billions of messages. My estimate is that about 200 million A2P SMSes are being sent in India daily. That is a total of 6 billion a month. Aggregators need to be given much more leeway. An alternative can be that if there are 100 proven complaints against an aggregator in a month, they should be fined and suspended for a month. If the complaints go to 1,000, then the aggregator be fined a higher amount and suspended for 3 months. And so on.

7. There is no reference to redress an issue to give a chance to aggregator/telemarketer to explain the reason for sending a particular SMS against which there has been complaint. A competitor could complain and easily shut down a telemarketer’s business. The aggregator/telemarketer needs to be given a fair hearing and seek redressal.

8. Finally, a couple smaller points:
a. Only numerical sender id which can identify the telemarketer is unnecessary since (a) it takes away from use of sender id as a key marketing tool and (b) the current sender id helps a consumer identify that it is a commercial/promotional SMS and it is easy to trace the sender.
b. A massive number of messages possible when a mobile number opts in to one of the seven categories. This proposal seems self-defeating, and will probably not end up being used. As a result, the list will be a binary one – all blocked or all enabled. This is where the concept of explicit opt-in to specific brands and companies needs to be taken into account.

The issues highlighted here need immediate action, else the danger is that come Jan 1, both consumers and telemarketers will be left unhappy – which was definitely not the intent of TRAI in drafting the regulations.

(c) 2010 Rajesh Jain. These are the authors views, and are not necessarily representative of this publication

Contribute: If you have an opinion or business practice details to share with our readers, please do send across your contribution to nikhil AT medianama DOT com.

Do take a look at our guidelines for guest columns, and read previous Guest Posts