Half-measures won’t stop nuisance calls and spam texts

Nuisance calls and spam texts reared their heads again last week when MPs published the latest in a long line of reports into how to defeat these annoying messages. But their robust recommendations will only be effective if backed by political will.

Michael

In its report last Thursday (5th December), The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee was firm in demanding solutions for proactively filtering out spam and making all marketing phone calls traceable and accountable. They are worthy ideals but also tough to achieve.

Consumer association Which? welcomed the committee’s stance, but as Stephen Dakin, managing director at technology company Pinesoft points out, “call and text barring might have to be implemented at the network level, something which might prove difficult to achieve, at least in the short term”.

In other words, telecoms companies will need to invest an awful lot of time and money into building the technology that could block and trace calls and texts across the board. Do they have the stomach to collaborate on an industry-wide approach and are politicians going to make them?

On current evidence, it appears not. BT, for one, is hanging on for dear life to its right to charge consumers for its caller ID service unless they take out a 12-month line-rental contract – something the CMS Committee says it “deeply regrets”.

But what’s more, politicians seem to lack the will to go all the way with this. As communications minister Ed Vaizey indicated when answering questions from Marketing Week last month, he wants to avoid the lengthy process of pushing primary legislation through Parliament, instead preferring relatively uncomplicated ‘statutory instruments’, which would amend existing laws.

Whether Vaizey will be swayed towards any more stringent actions requiring new legislation is likely to emerge in January, when he will finally seek to launch a long-awaited consultation. But it seems there are enough dog-whistle issues dominating the headlines already – energy prices, EU membership and the housing market, for example – and the Government won’t be too ambitious within the limited Parliamentary time before the 2015 general election.

So what are we left with? For the most part, tougher rules requiring companies to demonstrate that they comply with the law when buying marketing leads, and a slightly bigger stick for the investigators at the Information Commissioner’s Office (who number in the single digits).

Undoubtedly, these and other new measures aimed at promoting best practice – including the Direct Marketing Association’s TPS Assured certification, which is already in action – will help draw distinctions between the good guys and the bad guys in the telemarketing industry. And that will help companies to correct their own choice of suppliers of data lists.

But incentivising ethical behaviour won’t necessarily wipe out unethical behaviour. Much as I’d like to be proved wrong, it remains unlikely that every direct marketing company working outside the law, or simply without regard to it, will be sufficiently scared of prosecution to stop buying data from spammers.

If that’s the case – and the Government ends up implementing ineffectual measures – the clamour of consumer discontent around nuisance calls might suddenly sound a lot louder to politicians.

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