TRAI's 100 SMS limit won't solve the spam problem

TRAI's 100 SMS daily limit is unlikely to solve the spam problem in the long term, whilst causing trouble for businesses and consumers alike.

It's one of the most damaging problems facing the modern world, causing untold misery to businesses and individuals alike, costing billions if not trillions of dollars, and stifling businesses and entrepreneurs. No, not spam, but ill-considered policies from bureaucrats who don't fully understand the technology they are regulating.

TRAI's 100 SMS rule is a case in point. Whilst on the surface it seems sensible to stop companies and individuals from sending an excessive number of SMSes, creating such a bar misunderstands the problem: The issues is not SMSes, but unsolicited SMSes. It's not a volume problem, it's a quality problem.

TRAI have already attempted to address the junk phone calls/SMS problem with a national Do Not Call list, a ban on commercial calls and messages between 9pm and 9am, and heavier fines for telemarketing companies that flout the rules.

Reports are that cold calling has reduced since these measures were introduced, but the "volume of unsolicited text messages sent daily has risen exponentially". Clearly, something must be done, and therein lies the problem. TRAI is doing something, anything, without enough consideration. Indeed, they have already had to clarify the rules after protests from businesses such as airlines, banks and telecom services.

TRAIs 100 SMS limit wont solve the spam problem

TRAI is doing something, anything, without enough consideration to tackle the spam SMS problem.AFP

Some commenters on a Google+ post by Richi Jennings about the issue are unhappy with the results of the ruling, which came into force yesterday:

I am terribly sad at this. My mobile appears dead since today morning. In retrospect, I think, a couple of spam SMS a day I used to receive was not as annoying as this complete SMS blackout on my mobile.

This new regulation has completely barred all notifications and alerts from my banks, card companies, news sites, couriers, online shopping sites, Google Calendar and many other entities.

Others are enjoying the silence:

This is a relief to me because my phone keeps buzzing during the day and sometimes in the evening time due to these annoying messages. One feels badly annoyed when he/she receives these messages while waiting for an important personal message.

This morning I got no marketing message.. which is a big relief..

But that relief might not last for long as less ethical companies create workarounds, perhaps using multiple SIMs or using an SMS gateway in another country where Indian regulations can't touch them. Meanwhile, legitimate use is penalised and business suffers as result.

Rather than creating these poorly formed catch-all policies that penalise more than they prevent, regulators and legislators need to dig to the root of the problem. That takes a bit more effort, but it's essential if they want to be effective.

Spam of all sorts is what's called a 'wicked problem':

A problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

In other words, solutions may turn into problems themselves. That doesn't mean giving up, it means not acting hastily and carefully considering the unintended consequences of new policies.

So what should TRAI do?

Most importantly, they need to work with the mobile phone providers to tackle the problem. The operators are a potential choke point for spam and the technology and knowhow to address spam SMS already exists.

Canada's Bell has turned its SMS anti-spam efforts into a selling point for its customers. It promises block SMS from 'questionable sources' from reaching customers' inboxes, provides the ability to block specific numbers, and provides filters. It will even pay its customers 15 for every spam message they receive.

In New Zealand, users can forward spam SMS to a government shortcode. They can then make a full complaint which is followed up by the Department of Internal Affairs. Indeed, the New Zealand government seems to take spam of all sorts very seriously indeed. Additionally, SMS providers must block commercial marketing messages being sent to people who have opted out.

As for policies, they need to be nuanced, taking into account both state-of-the-art technology and its limitations. But, as happens with a wicked problem, even thoughtful polices can be undermined by the nature of the internet. In particular, localised regulation can be circumvented.

In the UK, marketing regulations require that people must choose to receive marketing messages. At the moment, SMS spam is relatively rare, but spam-blogger Jeff Orloff says that it's on the rise because of call centres outside of the UK:

Just recently, companies that run large call centers in Eastern Europe and India began sending nuisance text messages to millions of mobile phone users advertising legal services that offer no-win, no-fee representation for accident claims.

There's an irony: Call centres in India aren't just spamming Indians, they're spamming everyone. Which brings me to the next thing that must happen - collaboration and co-operation on an international scale. Governments and businesses must share knowledge, experience and information so that spam is tackled on a global scale. It is, after all, a global problem.

TRAI's 100 SMS limit is not a solution, it's just a sticking plaster slapped on a severed artery. If TRAI is serious about tackling spam, it needs to dig deeper, understand the roots of the problem, and collaborate with the industry, experts, consumers and other governments to create a workable solution. Simplistic bans are not enough.

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