Regulators need to ensure brand texts can enjoy 20 more years

Twenty years ago this week the very first text message was sent. Over the last two decades, brands with a keen a eye on pervasive communication trends have taken to the humble SMS message with vigour.

Russell Parsons

I suspect the sender of the first message, an engineer wished a friend “Merry Christmas” from a PC to a mobile on the Vodafone network, did not envisage the scale text messaging enjoys now.

Brands have been quick to follow text happy consumers in using the channel. Unfortunately, some have overstepped the mark in their use of the tool.

Last week, the Information Commission’s Office fined Tetrus Telecoms’ owners Christopher Niebel and Gary McNeish a total of £440,000 for sending millions of unlawful spam text messages.

The ICO and other interested bodies will be hoping the naming and shaming of the first SPAM texters to be fined the sums it is now able to will be provide a deterrent to other nefarious operators. To misquote the assertive signs shops once carried as warnings to kleptomaniacs: “Spam texters WILL BE prosecuted”.

The PR team at the body, which now has the power to fine spam texters up to £500,000 and with relative haste, must have been in overdrive last week preparing to unveil with as much of a noise as its modest comms budget allows that it has taken its first major scalps.

Cue an avalanche of national coverage excitedly declaring that some evil folks got got.

It is right and proper the ICO should make a splash. It does, to co-opt a line from a myriad of gangster movies, “send a message”. The message? SPAM texting is a blight and those operating outside the law will be prosecuted, fined and be left unable to practice again.

This should be just the start. The perception among many across the land is that the problem is huge, even if the facts on volume do not marry with what is believed.

The ICO is looking to issue penalties to three other companies believed to be acting in breach of the regulations. It should attempt to maximise coverage again if it does.

Fines and the naming and shaming of those in breach is the biggest and one of the few tools available to the ICO. The more proactive safeguards available to consumers who wish to register their displeasure with other forms of direct marketing – opting out of direct mail by registering with the Mail Preference Service or telemarketing through the Telephone Preference Service – are not available to consumers wishing to curb spam texts.

Persistent fines, well publicised will hammer the point home – SPAM texters will not be tolerated.

There is a danger that legitimate use of SMS could be killed because of the apoplexy caused by rogue practices. The more the shadowy practitioners of nefarious behaviour see it will not be tolerated, the quicker they will get the message. And text messages might enjoy another successful 20 years.