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Brief: What happened with TRAI’s SMS spam guidelines? Why were they paused?

A telecom tower

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India recently put a one week hold on SMS anti-spam rules that it had been working on for years. But soon after a second phase of the regulations came into effect, the telecom regulator paused it for one week. What happened?

What happened and why?

TRAI’s Telecom Commercial Communication Customer Preference Regulation (TCCCP Regulations) were notified in 2018, and starting this month, they involved a very aggressive way of combating spam: filtering any SMS message whose format was not registered on a blockchain mandated by the regulator. Telcos were given a few months to fully inform telemarketers using SMS that they need to register the formats for transactional messages (like one-time passcodes, or OTPs) to not get caught in the fray. Telcos did this with things like newspaper ads, but not everyone got the memo.

The result: millions of SMS messages didn’t reach their recipients starting March 8 midnight. They were “scrubbed” and blocked, as required by the law, as the blockchain had no details on their format. Up to 400 million messages could have been impacted, the Economic Times reported. A former executive at an SMS marketing company familiar with the issue told MediaNama that only messages from unregistered SMS senders were impacted.

What followed?

TRAI deferred the scrubbing for a week, as an emergency measure to give SMS senders time to register their message templates. TRAI put out another press release thereafter warning that defaulting senders’ names would be published on the regulator’s website, and that if they still don’t register, they will no longer be able to send messages on telecom resources. TRAI blamed commercial SMS senders for not acting to register their SMS templates in spite of having two years of advance notice.

What is happening now?

The Cellular Operators Association of India on March 17 put out this statement:

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As per the revised directive from TRAI to resume the scrubbing, in case of failure of the messages due to any reasons including content id, mismatch of template etc. same may be recorded. However, the message may be allowed to be delivered to the recipient. Thus, no messages will be getting blocked. Further, we reiterate that COAI members remain fully committed to address the issue of unsolicited commercial communications and will continue to abide by the TRAI Regulations/Directions on this issue.

Essentially, messages whose formats haven’t been registered will still get delivered (for the moment), but scrubbing will be done to identify non-compliant SMS senders. Industry players are asking for one more month to comply, arguing that both private and government SMS messages are being impacted. Eventually, though it’s not clear when, blocking will resume. That is, if the lawsuits are defeated.

Lawsuits? What lawsuits?

Indiamart and an SMS marketing company called Shivtel have sued TRAI at the Delhi High Court, essentially fighting back against what they see as a law that could hurt core aspects of their business, which is powered by SMS messages. Indiamart argues that the regulations don’t distinguish between commercial and non-commercial end-users, and they say that could be a problem as a commercial recipient receiving a high volume of automated SMSes may not consider them spam as a regular end-user might. Shivtel’s argument is that it is competing against a company whose parent is managing the very blockchain that three telcos are using to filter spam, and the company has sued for Rs 10 crore from that parent, while praying that TRAI’s rules be put on hold.

What’s next?

TRAI has not been issued any interim order to put their SMS guidelines on hold. In fact, it was the Delhi High Court, TRAI pointed out in a press release, which in February ordered the regulator to implement its SMS rules strictly. As such, it’s not clear how much luck Indiamart and Shivtel will have arguing that their commercial interests outweigh the regulator’s interest to curb spam. The Indiamart case will next be heard on April 30.

All other things remaining the same, telcos should have a decent idea of how many SMS senders are yet to be compliant, and will enforce blocking again whenever it is possible to do so without causing huge disruptions to things like financial transactions. These regulations are practically unparalleled in the lengths the regulator has gone — a blockchain ledger to hold a commercial spam whitelist is problematic for precisely what happened on March 8: the exclusion of several legitimate messages. If and when blocking is resumed, making sure that no legitimate messages are hindered will be a challenge to watch out for.

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