As per TRAI’s press release (pdf), there are more than 800 million wireless subscribers in India, and growing by the millions every month – indicating almost unbelievable growth for this sector. Now, this growth is symbolic of the potential of this sector worldwide, and one of the many sections of society which has attempted to use this technology, has been the civil society. A whole host of civil society institutions have started using mobile telephony as a great tool in their efforts at using media for development. Independent of the kind of content they may be disseminating, SMS’s have been a great way of reaching out to the last mile, often in remote and rural areas, where other kinds of media access (such as TV, Radio, Newspapers etc) has not been possible.
Recognising the role of mobile telephony in reaching out to the last mile, there have been several innovative platforms designed for civil society use – exploiting both features of mobile telephony – voice calls as well as SMS. Two great examples of SMS being used would be Frontline SMS and Rapid SMS. Freedom Fone and GRINS are examples where voice calls come into play.
Both these tools have been used in cutting-edge contexts around the world, disseminating a wide variety of content – from public health services to governance. For example, Association for Democratic Rights (ADR) has been using SMS to text voters with information relating to candidates’ educational background, criminal record and assets. Frontline SMS has been used to register pregnant women as part of a learning program, where they are sent customised text messages about pre and post natal care, in a great initiative in Philippines.
The actual realization of the great nuance possible with integrating mobile telephony in to a communication model is taking off in India just now. Businesses have been using mobile telephony for some time now, but as usual civil society has been a bit late in catching the bus. Still, as has been said, better late than never. Or is it?
TRAI has released its Telecom Commercial Communications Customer Preference Regulations 2011 (pdf) (with various amendments). These have come into force from September 27th 2011 and are valid for all mobile telephony service providers as well as subscribers in India. The main points of relevance are:
- * You can’t send out more than 100 SMS/day and 3000 SMS/Month
- * No sending SMS from 9 PM to 9 AM
- * No sender id, only alpha-numeric code
How will all of this affect civil society initiatives who are using media for development, specifically mobile telephony?
Imagine a community radio station reaching out to a village of 3000 people – a medium sized or fairly large village. There’s a program which is going to be broadcast about agriculture. The radio station has a database of all farmers in the village. Assume that there are 2000 farmers, and the radio station wants to send each of them a text message reminding them about this coming broadcast, and then follow it up with another text message asking for feedback, or asking questions related to recall – to test or investigate how many people actually listened to and understood the program.
With the new guidelines, you can’t message more than 100 people a day. If the radio station is broadcasting programs 24 hours a day or even post 9 PM, then interactive SMS based features can’t be included as part of those programmes. Suppose the radio station is happy to send even 50 SMS’ a day. Even then, all these subscribers will only get random alpha-numeric id’s on their cell phones every time they get a text from the radio station. The only way to find out is to open that SMS. Could be the radio station, but could also be a text from some service claiming enlargement of body parts.
For them to even get these SMS, they have to consciously allow their numbers to receive messages from certain categories of “telemarketers” . These categories are:
- 1) Banking, Insurance, Financial products, Credit Cards
- 2) Real Estate
- 3) Education
- 4) Health
- 5) Consumer good and automobiles
- 6) Communication, Broadcasting, Entertainment, IT
- 7) Tourism and Leisure
Further, the subscribers have to exercise their options to receive messages from the following categories, not individual service providers. So for example, if you are a radio station, and have registered under entertainment/broadcast etc, then all your subscribers have to allow the Broadcast/Entertainment category and therefore, all the telemarketers listed in that category to message them.
It’s a no brainer that there will be a lot of support for this new initiative. It is not hard to see why. All of us have been spammed with all kinds of messages on our cell phones. No one wants to encourage spammers or let them operate with impunity. However, throwing the baby with the bathwater is a bit excessive, and without any pressure from other stakeholders, its precisely what has happened. Don’t be surprised if TRAI brings out another one saying you can’t issue more than 100 calls a day and more than 3000 calls a month, to avoid “commercial” communication!
Using mobile telephony to communicate a message and receive a message is an extension of our fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. True there are are reasonable restrictions provided in the Constitution, under which this right could be “compromised” but there are two factors which come into play here.
One is that just because people send spam, can this regulation be called reasonable? Isn’t the opportunity to encourage communication via SMS more important than thinking about how to block the (necessarily fewer number of) spammers? Secondly, any kind of regulation should be working towards enabling freedom of expression and if lines are crossed, then those specific violators should be punished. TRAI takes the opposite approach. The regulation basically works on disabling freedom of expression because of a few violators, and puts the onus (or burden of effort, if you like) on the good citizens who want to express our freedom of speech and expression.
This kind of disabling expression inevitably has a chilling effect on our freedom of expression, because of it’s blanket nature. Entrepreneurs, civil society institutions, activists, ordinary individuals all will be affected because of this regulation. Yes, spam will be reduced for all of us, but at what cost has this come? Is it worth it, is something we should be asking ourselves at this point in time.