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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Why you didn’t get that OTP: marketers, a TRAI rule, a court case

OTP delay because of SMS blocking: On Monday, around 40 crore SMSes sent by banks, government authorities, e-commerce companies, etc. were not delivered to intended recipients. Why? What changed?

Written by Pranav Mukul , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: March 10, 2021 8:53:20 am
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. (Representational Image)

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

This happened after telecom operators enforced a 2018 regulation issued by the sectoral watchdog. Around 100 crore commercial messages on average are sent by companies to customers every day.

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What are ‘commercial messages’?

A commercial message can contain both solicited and unsolicited content. Messages such as OTPs for financial transactions, notifications about a transaction, confirmations for registrations, or orders placed on e-commerce websites are solicited; promotional messages selling financial products and real estate deals, etc. may be seen as unsolicited commercial communications. Mobile phone users have for years complained about unsolicited “pesky” calls and messages.

What has TRAI done about spammy communications?

Back in 2012, when mobile companies tried to monetise the popularity of SMSes by offering packs that allowed users to send unlimited free messages after buying a special tariff voucher, the telecom regulator had ruled that beyond 100 messages per day, every message would have to cost at least 50 paise.

Last June, the regulator did away with this regulation, citing newer technology-based rules to curb spam messages. It also issued ‘do-not-disturb’ rules, under which consumers could choose the categories of commercial messages and calls they wished to receive, and could complain if they received messages from a category they had not chosen. However, these rules did little to reduce unsolicited commercial communications.

What did the 2018 regulation do?

In 2018, TRAI introduced The Telecom Commercial Communications Customer Preference Regulations (TCCCPR), which defined an architecture with checkpoints at three ends — the sender of the SMS, the telecom operator, and the customer. To ensure effectiveness, it put in place technology-based requirements at each stage — including “scrubbing” of messages, a consent register to keep a record of the permission given by the customer, and a distributed ledger to maintain a record of all entities registered to carry out telemarketing-related functions.

What changed for senders of SMSes?

Senders, typically commercial entities, would have to register themselves. This built upon an older requirement under which a message or call from an unregistered number would result in a ban on that number — the entity would now have to register not only itself, but also the template in which its content was to be communicated.

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What would happen at the telecom operators’ end?

Operators would examine the list of numbers provided by the sending entity 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 were being sent as per the registered template.

And what would change for customers?

They could whitelist certain categories or entities from which they wished to receive commercial messages. However, telemarketers can still call through unregistered mobile or landline numbers — 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 — when several million messages, including important ones, were not delivered — has its roots in a case filed in Delhi High Court last May by financial service firm Paytm. The company argued that the failure of telecom operators to fully implement the 2018 regulation had allowed fraudsters to make calls and send SMSes pretending to be company representatives. In February this year, the court asked the telecom companies and TRAI to ensure “complete and strict” implementation of TCCCPR, 2018.

Telecom operators claim to have then sent repeated notices to principal entities — or companies on behalf of which the commercial messages are sent — to register their communication templates. On Monday, entities that had not registered their templates had their messages scrubbed out of the system.

So what happens next?

On Tuesday, in light of the inconvenience faced by thousands of customers, TRAI suspended the enforcement of these regulations for seven days, to allow the sending entities to register their templates. “…TSPs (Telecom Service Providers) are being requested to inform their principal entities to take immediate necessary action…and facilitate their registration…in a time-bound manner,” the regulator said in a release.

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