Users in India should have opt-in rights

Rediff, McAfee

Last year I posted on “Indian websites haven’t earned my trust“. What had annoyed me enough to write that piece was moneycontrol.com. Once it got hold of my email, it started sending me an email a day with an inane “Sensex was down 89 points, your networth?” Unsubscribing hasn’t worked so far. Eventually, I relegated it to “spam” in my email client where it finds company with all the Viagra and penny stock spam. I wonder what they’ve done with my email though. Probably sold it half a dozen times already, along with those of a thousand other unsuspecting subscribers.
Email spamming is one nuisance. Another one is pop-up ads. Especially, the ones that pop-up behind your current window. And the worst ones – that throw a pop-up every 5 minutes. Rediff.com does all of the above. It also installs adware on its subscribers machines. And of course, it spams (39 emails a week!) like any other good Indian consumer website. Take a look at McAfee’s site advisor analysis of rediff.com.

A different kind of spamming is what Airtel does. When I go to India, I use a pre-paid Airtel phone. After every call I get a message, usually selling ring tones. In addition, half a dozen text messages a day, also selling ring tones. But the worst, are these calls that I get with a recorded message at the other end. Other people feel the same teeth-gnashing anger at these as I do.

This has got to stop. Its becoming a race to the bottom of the worst kind. Here are my recommendations:

1. Email spam needs to be legislated against. The US has something called the CAN-SPAM act, but for India I prefer something similar to the UK version of it which requires the owners permission (opt-in) before a website can send out bulk email. US law requires the website to strictly operate an “Unsubscribe” feature (opt-out). This is not sufficient in the “chalta hai” Indian scenario. An opt-in will require a post facto audit trail, which is good.

2. Intrusive ads on websites and pop-up ads are hard to legislate against. Pop-up windows have legitimate uses also and there is no bright line separating intrusive from non-intrusive ads. Browser technology attempts to block pop-ups but the pop-up advertisers are winning this nuclear arms race, so far. No, I don’t think legislation is the answer. I think we should leave this to the market to sort out. If there is enough competition, someone will break from the pack and actually try to provide a superior user experience. So far none of the leading dailies seems to be keen to do this. But it will happen when they start losing their most discerning readers to Yahoo India and Google India.
3. Cellular phone companies telemarketing and spamming you with text messages requires legislation. The competition in the market is not strong enough to hope that things will sort themselves out. Telemarketing will be curbed somewhat by the Do Not Call Registry but what about SMS marketing messages? I think they should be banned unless a user opts in.

I wonder if these “Caveat Emptor” type issues in India are a result of hyper-growth (If I lose this customer, there are a dozen more) or just complacence that arises out of getting poor services from public sector banks, telecoms etc. for that past two decades.

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9 Responses to Users in India should have opt-in rights

  1. Sanjay B says:

    Oh definitely, hyper-growth, and apparently assured for years to come, definitely does nothing to spur improvement. But this is true almost generically, only adverse circumstances foster change – towards further efficiency and innovation.
    I have noticed the trend in many businesses – small restaurants (always brimming with customers), builders, airlines, banks – individual customers matter little as long as hordes are lining up outside the gate.

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  2. Neo says:

    completely agree with u.
    infact u missed another prominent indian site – indiatimes.
    they spam you big time.

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  3. Shreyasi says:

    Cellular service providers often attach an otherwise paid add-on service (caller tunes,voice mail,missed call alert etc) to new customers and then continue with it even after the free period is over. I have personally faced this and it ocurred to me when suddenly my monthly phone bills shot up.
    Also advertisement is a regular feature for the phone banking menus(these are not toll-free numbers).Oten ads are so big that the overloaded systen snaps before the main menu could be reached leading to a dozen trials before we get through.

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  4. Gagan says:

    totally agree with neo on indiatimes.com the number of spam email s that they send across is definitely amongst the highest in the email service providers category. in fact, an account that i had opened for my father with indiatimes had to be closed within 2 months because of the incessant spam.
    but in the case of mobile service porviders spamming, the Do-Not-Call registry has been effective in my view. the special offer SMSs that i used to get from Hutch have gone down considerably after i registered with their DNC service.

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  5. ranjit says:

    Hi ,
    This is what the airtel privacy statement says :

    ‘If you do not wish to receive information SMS on Airtel products, services and special offers, please SMS us at 121(toll-free) or call at 121(toll-free). ‘

    Note the catch there – if you decide not to recieve those sms messages on products/services , you will also miss the special offers !

    Ref : http://www.airtelworld.com/privacy.jsp

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  6. Paddy says:

    Hi,

    A good topic for discussion as these are difficulties/pains that most of us share.

    For the telemarketing that cellular cos do, I recently came across an article that gave a very practical solution(damn!downside of the information overload: forgot where I read it from)
    The thing would work like this:
    You have the option to subscribe to Do not Call or Do not Message registry. However, if you do wish to recieve (or bear the crap), you can get waivers from the provider (more talk time, reduced rental etc). This is a win-win situation for all the parties (the customer, provider and the advertiser.

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  7. Basab says:

    Ranjit, thanks for pointing that out. First two things on my to do list on my next trip to India – call DNC and call Airtel to block SMS.

    Paddy, that is a good solution. The only thing I would add is that it should be opt-in. Assigning a cost to “spam” is a good way to drastically cut it down. The chief reason for spam is that the variable cost of spamming is close to zero. This is true about email spamming as well. In fact, of the many suggestions out there on how to cure spam, there is one that says that there should be some cost imposed per email, however small.

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  8. Swapnil Pundle says:

    Looks like competitive pressures are working or has this blog scared Indian companies đŸ™‚

    Check the opt-in program of UTI Bank (India’s 3rd largest private bank) at http://www.utibank.com/banking/sampark.html

    This initiative certainly deserves appreciation. Personally I’ve never been called by anyone representing UTI Bank. Many foreign banks do not follow good practices on spamming in India and I am certain that they act more responsibly in the developed world.

    PS: I am not an agent of UTI Bank.

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  9. Basab says:

    Swapnil, thanks for the url. kudos to UTI Bank for standing up for users’ rights when most banks around them are stooping low.

    I did not know that the DNC was not one central database. On the UTI webpage what does “institution” mean? Is it every marketer or every wireless (or fixed line) service provider? Can someone clarify this?

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