Mobile Spamming Gets Out of Control
By Steve Wallage, Thu Aug 28 11:30:00 GMT 2003

Mobile spamming is clearly an issue but proposed EU initiatives would lead to far greater concerns for the industry.


Mobile spamming is clearly an issue but proposed ec initiatives would lead to far greater concerns for the industry.

Getting unsolicited SMS texts, and increasingly MMS messages, is clearly an issue for the mobile industry. It is expensive to operators and irritating or even offensive to users. The thought of the SMS market becoming anything like the fixed e-mail market in terms of spam is rather frightening. Yet, how real is this threat and are regulators in danger of massively over-reacting to this threat?

What is Mobile Spam?


'Spamming' is the term given to the problem of unsolicited messages transmitted over a variety of electronic communications media. Some analysts refer to 'ham' as 'good' messages as opposed to the spam of 'bad' messages.

But defining spam is very much a matter of interpretation. While the definition of a garden weed is simply 'a plant growing in the wrong place' so one person's spam can be another persons' helpful or interesting message. A great example is the welcome texts from network operators on entering a different country. To some users, these would be considered useful. To others, and this segment apparently includes some of the European Parliamentarians, they are classic examples of the rise of mobile spam. Another example is a mobile marketing campaign - where does this sit between spam and ham?

This argument is particularly important from an operator perspective, as they have to walk the thin line between preventing unwanted spam reaching users, and stopping the rise of marketing and informational messages that users may actually enjoy receiving.


How Big a Problem?


This is a very moot point over mobile spam.

The e-mail argument is fairly clear cut. The EC estimate that 48% of emails are spam, and many believe the actual figure is higher.

On the mobile side, certain operators (such as NTT DoCoMo) have reported high levels of mobile spam, and most users will certainly have received at least some mobile spam even if they have never entered any competitions or given out their mobile number to marketers. There is also the argument that the SMS market is increasingly been driven by machine originated messages, and that spammers will increasingly target the mobile market both as it grows and as regulation restricts their e-mail opportunity.

But, dependent on country, the mobile market is rather different from the fixed.

First, in most mobile markets (with obvious exceptions such as the US), the sender - not the recipient - pays for the text. Hence, mass mobile spamming is certainly not anything like as economically attractive as the e-mail model.

Second, it is far easier to detect the source of mobile spam. Whereas, on the Internet it is very easy to be 'whoever you want to be' in the mobile SS7 world, changing the originating source is not easy.

Third, there are ways for operators and user to use filtering and blocking techniques to stop the spamming.


Getting Round the Problem - Operators and Users

At the moment, different operators tend to do three things. First, put middleware in front of the SMSC as a filter. Second, look for mass sending of texts. Third, follow up in tracking down particular sources (or even countries) for mobile spam.

One of the current weaknesses is that spam sent from abroad may not be detected, as it does not go through this middleware. Swiss company, bmd wireless, has found a way to overcome this with its SMS Spam Filtering (SSF) platform.

The SSF platform is fully integrated with the SS7 network to ensure that all texts would go through the filtering process.

bmd wireless also offers an innovative way for operators to customize their filtering for users. Global filters can be a rather crude way to stop spam. Users filters could be more precise - for example, reject text which contains certain keywords. bmd wireless believe this could even be offered by operators as a paid for subscription service.

Users can also help themselves by taking part in a UK initiative. SOS SMS, launched by software developers LiveWebs and mobile marketing agency BeepMarketing, allows consumers to forward details of what they consider mobile spam via a text message tagged 'SPAM' or 'SCAM' or by a website - http://www.grumbletext.co.uk/sossms.htm.

The Regulatory Fist

In the US clear strides have been made to stop mobile spam. It started, as so often happens, in California when in September 2002 legislation was passed that "prohibits unwanted and unsolicited text advertisements messages to owners of wireless phones, pagers and personal-digital assistants." Rather strangely, the bill does not provide for any direct fines or penalties against companies that spam, but a means of allowing users to sue the sender to recoup the money spent to receive each unwanted message. There is currently a bill in the US Congress that includes mobile spam, and the whole privacy issue is very much a hot topic at the moment.

Other national regulators to have shown their teeth include Australia and New Zealand. In Australia, the Australian Communications Authority has ruled that operators should face fines of up to A$10 million allowing spam.

Which brings us to Europe and the EC. Quietly, their directive (2002/58/EC from 12 July 2002) is upon us and should be incorporated into national laws by October 31. It effectively lumps SMS and MMS in with e-mail, in its response to spam. Whatever action the EU will take on e-mail spam will impact on sms and mms because the directive is technology neutral.

It states that for existing customers operators may undertake, "direct marketing of its own similar products or services provided that customers clearly and distinctly are given the opportunity to object, free of charge." For new relationships, the communications, "are not allowed without the consent of the subscriber." It further states that all unsolicited texts must also provide the user with the option to send a message to an address stopping all future texts.

GSM Europe is rightly concerned about this legislation. Charlotte Andsager, the
Vice Chair of the GSME MCommerce Working Group, believes that the
'opt-in' element for new users, and the need for marketers to prove they have user consent, could mean the, "slowdown in adoption of 3G". She is also worried about national implementation of the directive. GSME monitors the national implementation to insure that the exception for direct electronic marketing to existing customers is transposed correctly. The new "soft opt-in" is in fact a softening of the current situation in the countries that already practice a consent requirement. Having seen the latest Commission initiative in July GSME felt a need to react due to the imbalance in their information otherwise mobile operators would end up with mislead and dissatisfied customers. Therefore, GSME is currently working on a Draft set of Recommendation on spamming in mobile networks which coincides with several of the issues raised by the Commission.

Although countries do not need to follow the letter of the directive, they should adopt the 'aim' of the directive. This means that the mobile marketing market could effectively be strangled at birth in some European countries if the directive is not transposed correctly. What is certain is that there will be much confusion over the definition and the responsibility over mobile spam (and little guidance in the directive on these issues!).

Mobile spam should not be too big an issue, given technology innovation and responsible operator behavior. The over-reaction of the EC will make it a far bigger headache for the mobile industry.