Explained: Why are many ‘commercial’ SMSes being blocked on your phone?

On Monday, telecom operators put in force a 2018 regulation issued by the sectoral watchdog, preventing a bulk of these messages from reaching their customers.

On Monday (March 8), around 40 crore SMSes sent by entities such as banks, government authorities, and e-commerce companies were not delivered to their intended recipients. These messages included confirmations of registration, one-time passwords (OTPs), transaction messages, etc.

On average, around 100 crore commercial messages are sent by companies to their customers every day. However, Monday, telecom operators put in force a 2018 regulation issued by the sectoral watchdog, preventing a bulk of these messages from reaching their customers.

What are commercial messages?

A commercial message comprises both solicited and unsolicited content.

While messages such as OTPs for conducting financial transactions, notifications of a financial transaction being conducted, confirmations for registrations or orders placed on e-commerce websites are solicited ones, many promotional messages under various categories such as those selling financial products, real estate deals, health products, etc may be seen as unsolicited commercial communications.

According to the existing rules, the purpose or intent of the communication may be inferred from its content and the manner in which the communication is presented. The issue of unsolicited “pesky” calls and messages have been troubling mobile phone consumers for years.

What has TRAI done so far to reduce spammy communication?

Back in 2012, when mobile companies tried to monetise the popularity of SMS messages by offering SMS packs in which users could send unlimited free messages after buying a special tariff voucher, the TRAI had observed that these vouchers were also being used by marketers to send spam messages.

Seeing this, TRAI had imposed a limit of 100 messages per day, after which users had to be charged at least 50 paise per message. However, in June last year, the regulator did away with this regulation, citing the newer technology-based rules that can curb spam messages.

The regulator also issued the “do-not-disturb” rules under which a consumer could choose the categories of commercial messages and calls they wished to receive. Based on these, the consumer could also then complain if they received messages from a category they did not choose to get commercial messages from.

However, these rules had little impact on the barrage of spammy and unsolicited commercial communications.

How did the 2018 regulation aim to check these calls and messages?

In 2018, TRAI introduced The Telecom Commercial Communications Customer Preference Regulations (TCCCPR), as per which it defined an architecture with checkpoints at three ends — the sender of the SMS, the telecom operator, and the customer. To ensure that these checkpoints were effective, the regulator put in place certain technology-based requirements at each of the stages.

These included aspects such as scrubbing of messages to ensure they meet the requirements, a consent register with all relevant details of consent acquired by sender to send commercial communications, and a distributed ledger for entities having a record of all entities registered to carry out telemarketing-related functions with all relevant details.

What changes for entities sending the messages?

A sender of these messages, which would typically be a commercial entity, would have to register themselves. This builds upon an older requirement, wherein a message or a call made from an unregistered phone number would end up in banning of the said number. However, this time around, the entity would not only have to register themselves, but also the template in which their content was to be communicated.

A “Content Template for Transaction”, meaning a template of content registered by any sender with the access provider for sending a transactional message, service message or transactional voice call, or a service call for the purpose of commercial communication, and containing content which may be a combination of fixed part of content and variable part of content, must be registered with telecom operators.

What happens at the telecom operators’ end?

Telecom operators would compare the target list of telephone numbers provided by the sending entity, to whom it wishes to send commercial communication with the list of telephone numbers in the distributed ledgers of preference and consent.

This would be done mainly to check whether commercial communications can be sent to the customer after verifying the preference and the consent. This process would also ensure that the messages are being sent as per the registered template.

What changes at the customer’s end?

The customers could whitelist certain categories or entities from which they wish to receive commercial messages. This ensures that only registered and preferred entities are able to send commercial communications.

However, the flaw of telemarketers registering and calling through unregistered mobile or landline numbers still exists, and while these can be banned post facto, a mechanism to fully restrict them is still lacking.

If the regulation was notified in 2018, what happened on Monday?

What happened on Monday with several million messages, including important ones, not being delivered, finds its roots in a court case filed by financial service firm Paytm.

Despite the regulation being notified back in 2018, telecom operators had not implemented the same fully. According to Paytm, this led to fraudsters making calls and sending SMSes by pretending to be company representatives, and stole money from users. In May last year, Paytm filed a case in Delhi High Court alleging that telecom service providers were not blocking fraudsters who were defrauding its customers by “phishing” activities over the various mobile networks. It contended that the telecom companies were violating their obligations under the TCCCPR, 2018.

In February this year, the Delhi High Court asked the telecom companies and TRAI to ensure “complete and strict” implementation of the regulation. Since then, the telecom operators claim to have sent repeated notices to principal entities — or companies on behalf of which the commercial messages are sent — to register their communication templates.

On Monday, the entities that had not registered their templates found their messages being scrubbed out of the system. These messages were not delivered to the customers.

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