Do not diss the Do-Not-Call Registry

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 9, 2014

MANY consumers were annoyed when last-minute changes were made to the new Do-Not-Call Registry rules, designed to protect consumers from unwanted marketing.

A closer look at the changes announced by the Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC), however, suggests that the rules strike a good balance between the interests of consumers and businesses.

An exemption announced late last month allows firms to send text and fax messages to existing customers without having to check the registry, which lets consumers block marketing calls, SMS messages or faxes. This is as long as customers are given an option to unsubscribe to the messages via the same channel.

Consumers criticised the registry's administrator, the PDPC, for caving in to last-minute business pressures - a charge it denied. They also took issue with the exemption being introduced, also at the last minute, without first going through a public consultation.

However, the exemption is reasonable. Going by comments from consumers, the main source of consumer complaints appears to be phone calls. Pesky telemarketing calls have interrupted meetings, disturbed sleep at ungodly hours and even taxed consumers' wallets. Incoming calls while roaming overseas are chargeable.

The DNC Registry tackles these unwanted phone calls by disallowing telemarketers to call phone numbers listed on it. If they do, they risk a maximum fine of $10,000 for each offence.

SMS, on the other hand, is deemed to be less intrusive. SMS messages received while roaming overseas do not cost users anything.

Despite the loud complaints from some consumers, others may, in fact, find it useful to be kept informed via SMS of promotions and deals from companies.

A credit card user, for instance, may want to be informed by his bank about promotional tie-ups with retailers.

Similarly, a mobile, pay-TV or broadband subscriber may want his telco to inform him of discounts or freebies for renewing his subscription.

Said engineer John Wong, 35: "I would like to know if there is a discount in a bookstore. The channel of passing useful information like this can be killed by the DNC Registry but the exemption allows for some flexibility."

In fact, some readers had called The Straits Times asking for help to delist their numbers from the DNC Registry. They had realised that once listed, they would not be able to receive any marketing messages from the country clubs of which they are members.

Singapore's DNC Registry, which came into force earlier this month on Jan 2, is also in line with practices in countries like Britain, the United States and Australia.

In Britain, for instance, SMS marketing is treated the same way as e-mail marketing.

While the blanket rule states that consent from consumers is required before organisations can market to them, there is a "soft opt-in" exception to the rule.

This exception lets organisations send marketing materials as long as the information is related to what customers had bought. But recipients must be given a simple means of refusing the use of their contact details for such marketing purposes. And it should be free except for the cost of transmission.

The United States National DNC registry, which covers only voice calls, also contains an exemption for businesses that have an existing relationship with customers.

If the commission can be faulted, it is for raising consumers' expectations.

The issue of SMS marketing was first raised in December 2011 by several companies, including telco M1, insurance firm Prudential and the Direct Marketing Association of Singapore, in response to a call for views from the Government. They called for SMS messages to be excluded from the registry, arguing that there was "very little harm" in receiving an SMS or MMS message, as such messages were unlikely to be billed, as opposed to phone calls.

Also taking this line was telco SingTel, which suggested that customers be allowed to block messages or calls from specific types of businesses, rather than go for a blanket barring of all text messages or calls.

Some argued that calls and messages sent to consumers should not be seen as marketing tactics but part of "customer service".

The then Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica), now Ministry of Communications and Information, responded by sticking to its initial hardline proposal to include SMS messages in the registry - to the applause of many consumers.

It could have taken up the issue for more consultation but chose not to do so. So, when it decided on a different rule later, disappointed consumers protested.

The unresolved issues resurfaced during the road shows and workshops the PDPC conducted with trade associations, chambers of commerce and individuals in the last four months.

To avoid disrupting businesses' communications with customers, the commission decided on the exemption. But instead of granting the blanket exemption that businesses had asked for during its second consultation, the commission narrowed the exemption's scope to include only "ongoing" customers and exclude voice calls.

Whatever one thinks of the way the commission went about managing public expectations on this issue, one should not fault it for the final outcome.

The DNC Registry rules strike a balance between the interests of consumers and businesses.

Vendors are given one crack at texting or faxing customers - including those listed on the registry - with relevant promotional materials. If the customer says no - by unsubscribing via the same channel the message is received - vendors have to stop the marketing.

All things considered, Singapore is off to a good start with its new registry. Consumers may want to at least give the current set-up a try.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 9, 2014

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