Premium rate SMS has become hugely popular, and premium rate line watchdog ICSTIS has published guidelines for those marketing and providing them.
Topic: M Commerce
Who: The Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Service ("ICSTIS")
When: May 2002
The premium telephone line watchdog ICSTIS published its first Guidelines on the operation of reverse-billed premium rate SMS. The Guidelines apply where users pay to receive text messages rather than pay to send them. It is designed to help the industry understand how ICSTIS is likely to interpret its Code of Practice when considering complaints in this sector. With these services, content is delivered to a mobile telephone handset for a charge, with the consumer typically subscribing to a service and then being charged a premium for each message that is received. Currently these charges range from 10p to £1.50 per message.
One aspect debated before the Guidelines were finalised was the respective responsibilities of service and content providers. The Guidelines clarify, however, that so far as ICSTIS is concerned, the responsibility for compliance with its Code remains with the service provider. Service providers will no doubt wish to take this into account when concluding their contracts with content providers.
So far as pricing issues are concerned, the Guidelines point out that in order to ensure compliance with the ICSTIS Code of Practice, service providers must clearly state in all informational materials, including text messages which themselves are promotional, the likely charge for receiving a text message. Pricing information must be legible, prominent, horizontal and presented in a way that does not require close examination. This information should ideally include the cost of sending any text message which is necessary in order to initiate the reverse-billed service or to continue to participate in such a service.
The Guidelines go on to clarify that two particular types of reverse-billed premium rate SMS require prior permission from ICSTIS before they can be operated. These are services offering what are commonly termed "text chat" services and all SMS contact and dating services.
So far as promotional materials are concerned, the Guidelines underline the requirements of the Code of Practice that such material should not mislead or take unfair advantage. Best practice in relation to reverse-billed premium rate SMS, the Guidelines indicate, dictates that any ad material promoting such services should not use any implied personal messaging encouraging the recipient to reply such as "I am lonely, do you want to chat?" In essence, it must always be clear that the text message is a marketing communication and that the consumer is being offered a service. Information on how individuals can cease or exit a service and ensure no further messages are received and charged for should also be readily available. The opt-out request should be charged at no more than the standard operator rate charges and should require no more than one text message to take effect.
The Guidelines also emphasise that all promotional messages for premium rate services sent by SMS should be sent only to persons who have previously registered to receive those messages or, in the case of marketing material, have otherwise consented to receiving marketing text messages. Unsolicited promotions are not permitted (this is of course the legal position anyway if the marketing calls are automated).
So far as data protection is concerned, the Guidelines urge compliance with the relevant provisions of the Data Protection Act 1988 and the Telecommunications (Data Protection and Privacy) Regulations 1999 as well as any other legislation. It reminds operators of paragraph 2.4.3 of the ICSTIS Code of Practice, which states that when seeking the consent of individuals to the processing of their personal data for the purposes of such a service, the data controller must be identified, if different from the service provider or the information provider, as well as any different use other than that related directly to the reverse-billed SMS service in question, to which the personal information might be put. This should also be linked to an opt-out opportunity.
The Guidelines contain various other provisions and reminders of the relevant parts of the ICSTIS Code of Practice.
Why this matters:
Premium rate SMS has become hugely popular, but with that popularity there has inevitably become a greater instance of complaints. If further legal regulation is to be avoided it is up to the industry to keep its house in order and support and abide by these Guidelines as well as the ICSTIS Code of Practice itself.