Most people would have missed it, but at the end of October the Government’s Justice Committee published a report called Referral Fees and The Theft of Personal Data. It mostly looked at how referral fees for accident claims are fuelling a range of illegal and criminal activities. Many people are aware of spam accident claims texts, which are part of this ‘industry’. Although the spam messages were a smaller part of the report, there could be some important repercussions for the mobile marketing sector.
The report recommended the ending of referral fees, better investigation powers for the Information Commissioner’s Office and harsher penalties, including custodial sentences for data breaches. All of those are good things. Anything that can help clean up the mobile channel for legitimate marketers has to be of benefit. However, it is the age old problem with many regulations – it’s not lack of powers but lack of enforcement that is at issue. The ICO has never prosecuted anyone for sending an unsolicited SMS. There has been plenty of opportunity to do so, but it would appear that lack of evidence or investigation resources has meant that nothing has happened.
Whilst the need to clean up messaging is obvious for brand marketers, there is a less obvious worry about increasing government legislation. History shows that when governments try to legislate for technology they never do a good job. This year’s PECR update to include an opt-in for cookies is a good example. Everyone; brands, consumers and even the regulators are confused as to how it works or how it should be implemented. In these cases, industry self-regulation is always a more effective option.
Although this report isn’t largely concerned with spam, The Justice Committee called for legislation to look beyond just the accident claims sector. Although nothing specific has been suggested yet, you only have to look at recent legislation in India limited messages to 100 per day per person to see how draconian (and ineffective) it can get. Whilst that’s unlikely to happen in the UK, some people have already called for proof of ID when buying PAYG SIM cards. Both of these examples hurt individuals but do very little to combat the spam problem.
SMS spam is not simply a moral issue though. Whilst many brand marketers and ad agencies are thinking up whizzy apps and social media campaigns, spam messaging is damaging the whole channel. As mobile users we consume across all channels and the perception of spam will affect all brand campaigns. Poor legislation may actually make that worse.
In the end, the best solution is the introduction of better consumer spam reporting (as we have in email) and better filtering by the mobile operators.