Update: Hike has written a post saying that they’ve seen a 5x increase in the number of invites being sent out, and they’ve noticed that “some users have also started sending invites to people who they don’t know.”…”starting today we’re going to take measures to curb such behaviour in hike. We’re also pro-actively keeping a track of those who are abusing our Free SMS Invites feature and blocking their usage.

If you still face this problem wherein someone is sending you a lot of invites, just email us at support@hike.in and we’ll resolve it as soon as we can.”

We think that’s a fair approach to take: allows invites (perhaps those should be limited, though), and addresses spam.

However, there’s still no update from Airtel on how they address spam.

Earlier today: Over the last few days, we’ve noticed complaints about BSB-owned mobile applications company Hike apparently spamming users via SMS. We’ve received screenshots from readers who have received unsolicited messages asking them to sign up for Hike. What’s particularly interesting is that these messages have invariably carried a message saying it’s “better than Whatsapp”, trying to position itself as a better product than what is likely to be the largest messaging app in India with over 30 million active users. One user, Rohin Dharmakumar, filed a complaint about these messages, and found that Airtel rejected them.

While it’s not unusual for companies to spam for promotion (Jabong, Myntra, Yebhi, for example), the Hike case is a particularly interesting one because the messages are initiated by Hike users, and not Hike itself. There are two things to look into here: firstly, is the message spam, and secondly, should Airtel have filed a complaint?

Is It Spam?

In response to an emailed query from MediaNama, Kavin Bharti Mittal, Head of Product and Strategy at BSB said that “These are invites sent by a user on Hike. In Hike, we’ve made SMS invites free to save money for our users. As a result these invites come from a VMN (Virtual Mobile Number), similar to our Hike2SMS feature. Multiple VMNs are used to manage the load on our side so that invites aren’t delayed. When someone sends an invite, both his name and number are added to the SMS to show who is sending the invite. This is extremely important from a privacy perspective so that the recipient knows who the SMS is from.”

This is similar to what happens online, wherein when you sign up for a service, it asks you to invite your friends, thus allowing the service to lower customer acquisition costs, and scale the user base organically. Hike,  like services like Dropbox, incentivises inviting other users on board. While Dropbox offered more space, Hike offers free SMS’s, and has even offered users free talktime to users for signups.

Another way of looking at it: for the recipient, these messages are clearly unsolicited and promotional in nature. The fact that they’re being initiated by another user doesn’t change either of these facts. What perhaps strengthens this case about these being promotional is that they’re being sent via a bulk SMS provider using a virtual mobile number, and not from the user himself. Remember that messages from services like 160by2 and Way2SMS, which were free SMS services (and hence, user initiated messages), were also impacted by TRAI’s SMS guidelines.

What Should Airtel Have Done?

In all of this, Airtel’s response is unrealistic, but not unexpected. Airtel, as per Dharmakumar’s screenshots, has rejected both complaints, once on the grounds of not being able to find the message on call records. Dharmakumar tells us (via email) that “This is the first time I’ve *ever* got this response from Airtel for any spam complaint I’ve made since the DND launched. Because I use the India Against Spam Android app to register complaints. And the app never makes mistakes, because it forwards existing SMSes along with delivery timestamps.”

When Dharmakumar complained via email, Airtel told him to take the matter up with the sender. Dharmakumar received no response when he called up the sender, and Airtel, on further investigation, found that the SMS’s weren’t promotional in nature, and hence no action was taken. It would be interesting to know on what grounds Airtel decided the messages weren’t promotional, because they came from a bulk SMS provider and virtual mobile number (which is the primary indication of the message being either promotional or transactional in nature), and the text clearly appears to be promotional in nature. It is perhaps just a co-incidence that Hike, like Airtel, is a Bharti Group company (and has a partnership with Airtel), because Airtel’s dealing with SMS Spam complaints is typically shoddy: despite filing complaints on time, with adequate details, I’ve received responses that indicate that the complaint was filed 3 days after the message was received, or that the complaint was filed with insufficient details. Typically, however, there is no follow up in case of SMS Spam complaints when filed with Airtel. Only once have I received a message about a telemarketer being disconnected.

We’ve mentioned repeatedly that apart from the Bulk SMS companies, the TRAI also needs to hold marketers and telecom operators accountable for SMS Spam.

Note: We’ve sent Airtel the following questions, and will update in case they respond:

1. How is it that in once instance you couldn’t locate the message in the call records, and in another, you deemed that it wasn’t promotional in nature?
2. How many DND complaints were processed by Airtel in 2013?
3. In how many instances was action taken (disconnection and/or fine of telemarketers)?
4. In how many instances was the complaint rejected on grounds of not being a promotional message?
5. In how many instances was the complaint rejected on grounds of not being able to locate the message on call records?
6. In how many instances was the complaint rejected on grounds of complaint being filed beyond 3 days of message being received?