Short message spam

Nobody even asked about Spam.

When Canada’s four wireless carriers announced an interoperability agreement to further short message service (SMS) at Communications 2001 last summer, the room fell silent. At first, no one had any questions, which suggested no one was really interested in

a form of communication that has taken off like wildfire in other countries. We finally talked about demand (not knowing there’s hardly any) and pricing (which still isn’t clear), but we should have raised the issue of abuse. It took a Rogers AT&T Wireless dealer to do it for us.

The Toronto Star reported Tuesday that a number of customers using Fido phones received SMS messages last Sunday urging them to make the switch. Both Microcell, which makes the phones, and Rogers said they were upset at the tactics, which were clearly not what anyone had in mind when interoperability was promised.

For all their dithering, however, we have to recognize that in bringing SMS to the market the industry has opened up the floodgates. Direct marketers are now on par with the pornography industry in their ability to adapt to new technologies, and SMS will be no different.

Fido users knew this was coming. In the June 17 edition of FidoNews, for example, Steve Townsley shared an experience which demonstrates how easily innocent bystanders can become an accomplice in spam distribution. While checking one of his free e-mail accounts recently, Townsley said he found approximately 760 bounced messages and a number of AOL users asking him to take them off his mailing list. There was just one problem. “”I don’t have a mailing list,”” he wrote, “”but it soon became clear that my humble free Web account had been used as a spammer’s return address and the thousands of bounced messages he was expecting were ending up with me.””

Since we’re still probably a year or so away from the level of SMS that’s been seen in the United Kingdom, perhaps it might be worth looking across the Atlantic to see how others are dealing with the problem. British SMS provider Orange, for example, started a policy late last year of deleting text messages that are sent from “”certain companies and countries”” because of security issues. Some market observers there have suggested this is merely a way of blocking connections to firms that refuse to pay for bulk e-mail — which many would argue is the same thing as spam anyway.

In February, the Australian Communications Industry Forum began looking at a draft of an Interoperator SMS Issues Industry Code that aims to provide guidelines for how marketing SMS messages are delivered. This could include defining the types of messages that can be transmitted in bulk across networks to customers. The European Union went further, composing a Data Protection Directive that would force companies operating in the EU to get mobile phone users’ consent before sending commercial messages. (The most dreaded message for any kind of communications company? “”Opt-in.””)

All of these efforts are in the early stages and are prone to change, but if we’re serious about building SMS as a value-added service — and cash-strapped carriers like Microcell are certainly counting on that — Canada needs to get cracking now. Yes, it’s going to be legislatively tricky. It will be almost impossible to enforce. It is also as inevitable as the growth of SMS spam itself.

Townsley, by the way, installed a filter to get out of his “”mailing list”” problem, but the incident made him wish for a better future. “”Wouldn’t it be great if the Fido community could write a Fido Mail program for the Internet that guaranteed an almost completely spam-free environment?”” he asked.

Sorry, Steve. I’m afraid the writing’s on the phone.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Shane Schick
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