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New law aims to close mobile spam loophole

A rule prohibiting mobile phone spam adopted by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) earlier this month does not prohibit phone-to-phone text messaging, but FCC officials believe the new rule, combined with a 13-year-old law, should protect US mobile phone customers against unsolicited commercial e-mail.

The text of the new FCC order notes that the FCC's 4 August action to prohibit mobile-phone spam applies specifically to internet-to-phone messages addressed to a domain name, not to phone-to-phone messages using SMS.

The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (Can-Spam) Act, which US President George Bush signed into law in December 2003, authorised the FCC specifically to address mobile phone spam sent to e-mail-style domain-name addresses.

While the new FCC order covers any internet-to-phone messages using SMS sent to a domain name address, most SMS messages use the recipient's phone number to deliver the message. The new FCC order prohibits the sending of commercial messages to mobile phone domains without the permission of the subscriber.

At least one critic questions whether the FCC's failure to address many SMS messages in its latest order could open mobile phone users up to spam or cause confusion about what text advertisements are legal. But FCC officials say the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) already bans most mobile phone spam not addressed by the recent order.

The TCPA restricts the use of telephones and fax machines to deliver unsolicited advertisements, and in 2003, the FCC and US Federal Trade Commission established a national do-not-call registry with authorisation from the TCPA. In the June 2003 FCC order authorising the do-not-call list, the FCC also spelled out rules that should cover most forms of mobile phone spam not addressed in the Can-Spam order, said Ruth Yodaiken, an attorney advisor at the FCC.

The FCC's TCPA rules prohibit marketers from using automatic telephone dialing systems to make calls to wireless phone numbers, and the rule applies to text messages as well as voice calls, Yodaiken said. With a rule against sending messages in bulk to mobile phones, most of the incentive for spammers to target mobile phones is gone, she added.

And while the prohibition against auto-dialers does not address SMS-based advertising sent from one mobile phone to another - a tactic too expensive for many spammers -  the national do-not-call list should cover that form of unsolicited advertising, Yodaiken said. The list protects people who sign up for it from unsolicited phone-based advertising, and the FCC rules include text-based phone advertising on the list of prohibited activities under the do-not-call list, Yodaiken said.

The rules adopted by the FCC this month should close a hole in the protections against mobile-phone spam not addressed in the TCPA - spam sent to mobile phones through e-mail-style addresses, Yodaiken added. "We're trying to close the net there," Yodaiken said. "We're hoping we get most of it."

There are 167.6 million mobile phone service subscribers in the US, according to Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA). In December 2003, 21 billion text messages were sent to mobile phones in the US, although many of those messages were not commercial spam, according to CTIA.

Grant Gross writes for IDG News Service


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