Call to end tele-trouble

Pushpa Girimaji

The flight was delayed by three hours and, for once, the airline had sent the information in time. Except that it came in the form of an SMS and since the message box on the mobile was full, the recipient never got to see the message about the delayed take off. And as a result, he had to waste three hours at the airport. And what were those messages that had clogged the message box? One was an announcement about a contest, the other was promoting a marriage bureau, yet another, a dating service.

Sounds familiar? Today, telemarketing has gone beyond being just an irritant. Earlier it invaded our privacy, disturbed us at home and at work. Now they have even begun to affect our lives adversely and can therefore no more be taken lightly. Several consumers have missed important communications because of telemarketers jamming their mailbox with messages. They have missed out on job opportunities, business deals. And they are not just upset, they are angry.

At one time, consumers saw telemarketing as a necessary evil and wanted a "No call registry" to prevent such calls to those who did not wish to receive them, but today they want a blanket ban on telemarketing. And this call for a prohibition and not restriction on telemarketing is slowly becoming louder. It is therefore in the interest of those who are making these unsolicited calls (or sending messages) to regulate them, keeping in mind the interests of consumers. Or else, there might well be a strong demand for a clampdown on telemarketing per se.

Telemarketers may well argue about their right to advertise, promote a product or a service. Well, itís time they realised that they cannot exercise that right at the cost of a consumerís right to privacy. And if they fail to understand this, they have to be made to understand. And the only way to do it is through a legislation that not only puts a stop to such unsolicited calls, but also provides for deterrent financial penalties in case of violation.

In the US, the "No Call" law prohibits companies from calling those whose telephone numbers are on the "Do not call" list. Those who violate the law and call these numbers, end up paying huge financial penalties. Besides the state governments which have passed the "No Call" law, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is the consumer protection agency there, has also created a "National Do Not Call Registry". In due deference to senior citizens, some of the state laws provide for higher penalty if the affected consumer is over 60 years of age. Consumers who do not wish to receive marketing calls can register with the "No Call" registry and if she or he gets a call despite that, can complain to the Federal Trade Commission or the Federal Communications Commission or the state law enforcement officials. And several telemarketers have had to pay huge penalties for violation.

In fact in one of the first lawsuit filed under the "Do Not Call" law, a company called American Home Craft and its director was asked to pay $100,000 ó $ 45,000 in civil penalties, $30,000 towards costs of investigating and prosecuting the case and $25,000 to the California residents who lodged the complaint about receiving telephone calls in violation of the Do Not Call Law.

In India, the Telecom Regulatory Commission has come out with a consultation paper on the issue and has suggested a "Do not call Registry". While the initiative is welcome, such a move has to be backed by a law that not only ensures consumersí privacy, but also provides for stiff financial penalties for violations and an effective mechanism for stringent enforcement. Or else the entire exercise would be futile.

In fact B.J. Panda, MP, introduced in the Rajya Sabha last year (2006), a private memberís Bill aimed at preventing unsolicited telephone calls and protecting the privacy of consumers. And the Bill proposed not just financial penalties, but also imprisonment for violators ó an indication of the anger and frustration that consumers feel about the telemarketing calls and the governmentís inaction on the issue.

The extent of the problem can be gauged from the large number of telemarketing calls made. TRAI estimates put it at approximately ten billion calls annually (170 million subscribers). And they have been a source of harassment for consumers. Through both landlines and cellphones, they have been invading consumersí privacy. How much longer should consumers wait for a law to put stop to this?