Elections, Media and Communications, Politics and Governance

Unsolicited SMS messages are spam. Please desist Mr. President.

All mobile phone subscribers, across all networks got an SMS from the President this morning – “Kiwu paridi obata NIDAHAS, NIVAHAL RATAK laba dunnemi. Idiri anagathaya sarwapparakarayenma Wasanawantha Wewa! SUBA NAWA WASARAK WEWA! Mahinda Rajapaksa” (As I promised, I gave you a free and independent country. May your future be successful in all ways. Happy New Year!)

Many thought it was a hoax until it was confirmed in the media that the message was legit.

At the conservative estimate of 1 rupee per message, and around 12.6 million mobile phone accounts in Sri Lanka, this one SMS message could have cost over US$ 110,000 to send out. A number of pertinent questions arise around this extraordinary SMS message.

Did anyone pay for this SMS message sent from the President’s office, and if so, exactly how much of our money was spent? One mobile operator had told Daily Mirror that the SMS was sent to all of their subscribers following a request from the President. Emphasis ours. Therefore, if the broadcast of the SMS was done pro bono, could it be taken as deeply partisan behaviour by telcos towards the incumbent Executive? What would happen if all 21 of the presidential candidates also made similar requests that were acceded to by mobile telecoms operators?

Furthermore, in the case of Mobitel, with a majority share owned by the State, could this ‘request’ by the incumbent Executive also be taken as yet another instance of the misuse of state resources for electioneering? One also wonders whether in the context of the upcoming Presidential elections, the option of sending a New Year’s greeting was open to all candidates and not just the incumbent?

A number of subscribers on Dialog Telekom (and perhaps other networks) also got an unsolicited SMS from the Media Bureau of the Sri Dalada Maligawa today, invoking upon them the blessings of the Sacred Tooth Relic. While perhaps heartwarming for the faithful, there was again no way to respond or to opt out from receiving similar SMS’s in the future. Even more annoyingly, customers would have had to pay for this spam SMS if they were out of the country.

The President’s New Year greeting via SMS and the one by the Sri Dalada Maligawa Media Bureau raise vital concerns over the erosion of privacy. How does one opt out from getting these messages? Bloggers who have called up mobile phone companies to opt out of messages from the President have been told they cannot do so. What right do mobile phone companies have to give out and use private mobile numbers for non-vital, partisan communications and propaganda, without prior permission from customers?

Update – 3rd January 2010
The truly pernicious nature of this SMS is coming to light with news reports suggesting that it is in fact the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (TRC) that had instructed mobile telcos to it out. CJ’s comment below points to a lead news story in the Financial Times on Saturday, 2nd January 2010 that flags serious concerns over the delivery and content of this SMS, especially in the context of the up-coming elections.

According to the news story, one mobile operator, Dialog Telekom, is not going to charge the TRC for the transmission of the message. So in effect, this is free publicity (only) for the incumbent Executive, delivered by all mobile telcos in Sri Lanka, ostensibly at the behest of the telecoms regulator! As other independent commentators have noted, the TRC has interpreted Section 5 (f) of the Sri Lanka Telecommunications Act in an incredibly novel way to mean that it can and will at the behest of the Executive or Government order all telcos to disseminate partisan information and propaganda. If unchecked, what does this portend for hapless customers in the future? And as noted in the original article above, by complying with the TRC’s instruction, can a prima facie case also be made on the misuse of state property in the case of Mobitel?