Spam back in the can

Can TRAI stop unsolicited communication on cell phones?

The recent TRAI order, limiting users to sending no more than 100 SMSs a day at the regular concessional rate, has caused a stir, as expected. Subscribers who have become used to communicating primarily through SMS are understandably upset at being lumped with unregistered telemarketers and forced to ration their texts. Many are questioning whether this latest fix for India's SMS spam problem will be any more successful than the attempts that preceded it.

It was the English comedy troupe Monty Python that gave new life to the term "spam" — until then only used to describe the unappetising processed meat that was the canned food of choice in the 1970s. Their sketch about how it was impossible to find anything in a restaurant that did not have spam in it was so popular with the geek community that they adopted the term as a means to describe anything that repeatedly fills up your computer. As email evolved into the pre-eminent means of communication, it wasn't long before mass marketers discovered it was an easy way to access larger audiences than ever before. In a short while, the subject of an obscure musical parody by Monty Python found a prominent place in modern vocabulary, as most email programmes were forced to create dedicated spam folders to deal with burgeoning volumes of unsolicited communication. Though the origins of the term may have been long forgotten, the annoyance of having to deal, on a daily basis, with your inbox slowly filling up with unsolicited messages from unknown strangers, is a curse of our times.

While different countries have developed their own ways of dealing with spam, most of them have failed to effectively deal with the situation. In the US, the CAN-SPAM Act (which expands, delightfully, into the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003), regulates commercial messages, the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service. Given that the CAN-SPAM Act does not actually prohibit spam, it has been re-christened the You-Can-Spam Act because of all the loopholes and flaws that exist in the legislation. Other laws that have been enacted around the world have met with similar opprobrium. India joined this global war against spam relatively late. Since the internet itself was slow to take off in India (and is still only gradually spreading through the population), there has not been much action taken against email spam. What has caught the eye of the regulator is SMS spam — a problem that calls for a very different solution.

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