Dec 31, 2013

    Opt in, not out, to get marketing messages

    WHEN the Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC) announced last week its last-minute exemptions to the eagerly anticipated Do Not Call (DNC) Registry, consumers who had signed up for it cried foul.

    I, too, was disappointed. But not for the reasons you think.

    Despite accusations that PDPC has "diluted" the original intention of the registry, the changes are by no means out of the ordinary.

    Actually, the rules here are still stricter than those in many other countries.

    For example, under DNC rules in Australia, the United States, Britain and Canada, telemarketers can still call you under certain circumstances or if you have an existing relationship with them. This is even after you have signed up to be in the registry.

    In Singapore, they are allowed to only text or fax you if there is a relationship. And, even then, only under certain conditions.

    What I was disappointed with was the response PDPC gave to criticism by consumers that the exemptions constituted "back-pedalling" on the DNC Registry.

    The spokesman said that, after consulting businesses on how to deal with communications with existing customers, it received "feedback that some consumers with ongoing relationships with organisations expect to receive promotion offers related to their memberships and subscriptions".

    I may be reading it wrong, but, to me, this means the exemptions were meant for the benefit of consumers.


    According to an online poll conducted by The Straits Times, 90 per cent of about 1,000 netizens polled had a problem with the exemptions.

    If consumers' interest was really the main focus of the PDPC, it would have made receiving marketing text and fax messages an opt-in, rather than opt-out, choice.

    The PDPC says it will make it easy for consumers to opt out of messages they do not want to receive, which means it is equally easy for consumers who want to opt in to do so.

    India does this. Consumers who register for its National Customer Call Preference Registry can choose to "fully block" all commercial communication, or a "partial block" in which they can opt to receive text messages from categories of businesses of their choosing.

    There is still a way for the PDPC to make it up to those angered by the exemptions: Ensure that there is sufficient enforcement after the rules kick in on Thursday. Otherwise, we may suffer the same fate as American consumers.

    In the US, which started its DNC registry in 2003, the average number of monthly complaints from consumers who signed up has gone up by 63 per cent since 2011, according to an August report in USA Today.

    The Federal Trade Commission, which oversees the registry, gets an average of 308,000 complaints a month.

    In contrast, it has filed only 106 enforcement cases against errant companies and individuals since the register's inception.

    Observers say the surge in unsolicited calls is due to technology, which allows telemarketing firms to use automated software and Internet telephony to bombard large groups of consumers cheaply, with what is termed as "robocalls".

    Tracing these companies can also prove difficult, as many use software to hide their real contact numbers.

    Prosecution may also be an issue, especially if you need to record the unsolicited call for evidence, or if businesses outsource their telemarketing to overseas callers. I've received telemarketing calls from numbers bearing China and Britain country codes.

    This will be a huge challenge for the PDPC.

    I just hope it will be up to it, or this DNC Registry will be for naught.