Cellphone Spam Coming to Canada

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IF YOU UNDERSTAND THAT, chances are you're one of the quarter of Canadian cellphone owners who use the text feature to send and receive messages. (For the rest, it means: "Free for dinner tonight?" "No can do. I have to work. Call me later.") But even those who don't "text" regularly will understand this: GAP SALE XL BLU SWTR 50% OFF.

In a gadget-obsessed culture, where powerful communication devices now travel with us everywhere, it was only a matter of time before unsolicited ads jumped from the desktop to the cellphone. Almost 60 million text messages now traverse Canadian cellular networks each month, and a small but growing number of those are spam. Adding injury to insult, many cell users have to pay to receive them.

If so far you've eluded the text ping of a marketer, you probably won't for long. According to one research study, 20 per cent of American cell users have received commercial messages on their phones, either sent by their service provider on others' behalf or by spammers who've hijacked the wireless network. That figure, however, pales in comparison with Europe and Asia, where cellphone spam has become a torrent clogging the systems. Japan's largest wireless provider NTT DoCoMo, for one, stops an average of 960 million junk messages a day, a volume that represents 80 per cent of its traffic.

Why has North America avoided this onslaught so far? Largely, it's because we're relative laggards in cellphone adoption. As of this summer, there were 14 million wireless subscribers in Canada, which translates to a 46-per-cent penetration rate. That's peanuts compared with overseas markets; in Sweden, for instance, there are more cellphones than people. As well, the high cost of cellular time in Asia and Europe makes it cheaper to send a text note than to talk. As a result, texting has become a cultural phenomenon there - and, naturally, a marketing phenomenon as well.

Canadian wireless carriers - many of whom also provide Internet service - insist cellphone spam is unlikely to become as big a problem as email spam because they have greater control over what travels on their private cellular networks than ISPs have over the Internet. Besides, they've learned from their battle against spam, and now use similar methods to identify suspect text messages (such as large volumes sent from a single source) and filter them out. "The key is to stay one step ahead of the spamming community," says Marc Choma, spokesman for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association. "Fortunately, we're behind Europe and Asia [in rolling out wireless technology], so we're able to see the steps those regions have taken and the problems they've faced."

Carriers also stress that they don't sell their subscriber lists to marketers, unlike some wireless companies overseas - a sure-fire way to fill cell inboxes with spam. David Neale, vice-president of new product development at Rogers Wireless (whose parent company owns Maclean's), says Rogers does distribute advertising and sponsored messages, such as entertainment news alerts, on behalf of other companies (as do its rivals). "We always leave an option for customers to opt out of the marketing list," says Neale.

So far, the Canadian industry has resisted legislation such as that recently enacted by the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S. Spurred by the growing outcry against cellphone spam, the FCC has mandated an opt-in rule for commercial messages, and plans to list email domains used by wireless companies that will be off-limits to marketers. Verizon Wireless is even going after alleged spammers in court.

Anti-spam advocates would like to see similarly aggressive tactics here. "Companies worry legislation would be the thin end of a wedge into government control," says Neil Schwartzman, chair of Canadians Against Unsolicited Commercial Email. "It's a knee-jerk reaction. And if you look at email, self-regulation has clearly been a failure."

Some observers argue that it's in wireless providers' interest to get tough on spammers. If cellphones become inundated with junk mail, people may turn away from the technology, dashing the young industry's hopes for growth. "We have little tolerance for spam," says technology consultant and author Mark Federman. "The presence disturbs us as an invasion of privacy. Delivering ads may sound attractive, but the backlash will be greater than any benefit."

Still, carriers are facing increasing cost pressures. Canadians already enjoy some of the lowest wireless rates in the world, and the market is about to get more competitive. Virgin Mobile, a youth-oriented British provider, plans to start offering cheap, pay-as-you-go service in Canada this fall. If its arrival forces prices down further, the temptation to tap revenues from direct marketers will become harder for companies to resist.

So the odds are you'll see more, not less, spam on your cellphone. And the worst - or best, depending on your point of view - is yet to come. Trend watchers paint a future, already emerging in countries like Finland and Japan, where marketers can locate you anywhere in the world and send commercials to your phone promoting sales at retailers in the mall you've just entered. Able to cut through the noise of a media landscape cluttered with magazines, TV channels and websites all begging for attention, the cellphone could become a tiny tailored billboard that travels with you. "It took 10 years for the Web to go from being pages with text and occasional photos to the slick, flashy sites we see today," says Kaan Yigit, president of digital culture research firm Solution Research Group in Toronto. "We're seeing a similar evolution in the wireless space."

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Backdoor Voice Mail Gets Free Pass

Our mail and email are already flooded with junk. Now it's open season on voice mail. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission decided earlier this month not to ban voice-mail spam, the kind delivered straight to your call-answer service without the phone ever ringing. That means companies like Infolink Technologies Inc., a "Voicecasting" pioneer, can continue to send you so-called backdoor voice mail from furniture movers, banks and other businesses that want to cheaply reach a large number of potential customers.

Bell Canada's complaint to the CRTC argued that unsolicited automated messages tax its voice-mail system and violate its policies, not to mention the commission's own 1994 prohibition against automated dialling devices. The CRTC didn't see it that way. Pointing to Bell's own research suggesting consumers are becoming numb to the myriad forms of junk mail, it said the ringless messages are not enough of a nuisance to require action. "The decision leaves us with a large gap that we think needs to be addressed," says Bell's lawyer David Elder. "Voicecasting technology is not subject to any restrictions whatsoever."

As junk-mail technology continues to advance, griping is sure to get louder. A Maryland company is already preparing ways to combat junk mail on Internet phones, dubbed "spit" (for spam over Internet telephony). The firm says that as more consumers sign up for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone service, marketers are sure to follow.

What You Can Do

Keep your cell number private. Only give it out to friends and family. Never put it on forms requesting a phone number.

Opt out of marketing programs. Ask your cellular service provider to take you off its promotional lists, either through its website or by contacting customer service.

Notify your carrier when you receive junk text messages. This will help your service provider tweak its filters in order to block future advertising from that source.

See also TELECOMMUNICATIONS.

Maclean's October 25, 2004