Sunday 29 December 2013

New Exemption Order Under Do Not Call Registry

Do-Not-Call exemption 'gives consumers options'
Head of commission says this in detailed response to criticisms
By Irene Tham, The Straits Times, 31 Dec 2013

AFTER four days of continual criticism from consumers and privacy advocates, the head of the Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC) came out yesterday with a detailed explanation on the reasons for its new exemption policy.

The policy lets companies send SMS and fax messages to existing customers without having to check the Do-Not-Call (DNC) Registry, which lists the numbers of people who want to block marketing from businesses.

This exemption move, announced last Thursday, was seen as a U-turn by its critics.

Not so, said Mr Leong Keng Thai, the commission's chairman, at a media conference.

"We do not consider the exemption order a U-turn but rather an expansion of options for consumers. Without the exemption order, it's an all-or-nothing approach."

The end result: Consumers may miss out on relevant marketing information from existing service providers, like a bank's promotional tie-ups with retailers for its credit card holders, he said.

Mr Leong's response yesterday is the second time in three days the commission is defending its decision to exempt businesses from checking the DNC Registry, which takes effect on Thursday.

The first time, it said the move did not dilute the original intention of and was not a back-pedalling on the part of the registry.

Dismissing accusations that the commission had caved in to pressure from businesses, he said the exemption "is not a back door to indiscriminate marketing" as it is narrow in nature. It covers only text and fax messages on products related to consumers' "ongoing relationship" with vendors.

Voice calls and one-off transactions are excluded. For instance, a person who visits a property launch is not an "ongoing" customer. Property agents cannot send him messages about new launches without checking with the registry or getting explicit consent. In addition, firms must inform customers how they can unsubscribe using the same delivery channels. Once they opt out, messages have to stop after 30 days.

Communication with existing customers was a hot topic at roadshows and workshops the commission held in the past four months with trade associations, chambers of commerce and individuals.

Some critics said it led to the commission caving in and coming up with the exemption order.

They said a neater solution would have been to provide these exceptions in the DNC registration process itself. But that would not be practical, said Mr Leong, as there would be too many lists for businesses to check.

"The exemption order is the least disruptive to consumers and businesses," he said, adding that Britain's DNC registry also has a similar SMS exemption.

Ms Angie Tay, vice-chairman of the Contact Centre Association of Singapore which represents call centres here, cheered the move. "Having too many lists to check will increase the cost of compliance due to increased labour requirements," she said.

Consumers Association of Singapore president Lim Biow Chuan said the move "will be a preferred option for most consumers".

Engineer Ngiam Shih Tung, 46, however, disagreed. "Consumers want certainty that businesses will not message them without explicit consent."

Do-Not-Call exemption 'not back-pedalling'
Allowing faxes and texts does not dilute intent of registry: Commission
By Irene Tham, The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2013

THE Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC) has defended a major concession that allows firms to send SMS and fax messages to existing customers without having to check the Do-Not-Call (DNC) Registry after it is launched next week.

Responding to strong criticism, it said yesterday that the concession did not dilute the original intention of the DNC Registry. "The exemption order is not a back-pedalling on the DNC registry," said a spokesman.

"The intent of the exemption order is to enable individuals to receive a subset of messages which they may otherwise not receive if their Singapore telephone numbers are on the DNC Registry."

These messages include information about products related to consumers' "ongoing relationship" with their vendors.

The spokesman said such communications with existing customers were not addressed in its consultation exercise, which closed in June. But the issue was brought up later by businesses.

"We also received feedback that some consumers with ongoing relationships with organisations expect to receive promotion offers related to their memberships and subscriptions," he said.

Consumers will remain protected as the exemption does not allow organisations to market all other aspects of their business indiscriminately, he added.

The exemption also does not apply to telemarketing through voice calls, PDPC clarified in a separate statement issued late yesterday. Plus, firms are required to inform customers how they can unsubscribe to messages using the same delivery channels. Once they opt out, messages have to stop after 30 days.

Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) executive director Seah Seng Choon had hit out at the concession after it was announced on Thursday. He said it diluted the original intention of the DNC Registry and "effectively gave businesses a second bite of the cherry", since businesses can also send marketing messages though e-mail.

But CASE president Lim Biow Chuan yesterday reversed the association's position, saying it no longer had issues with the exemption. "Having heard the full details, I believe consumers can accept that they need to opt out of marketing SMSes from their vendors - whether or not they have listed their numbers on the registry," he said.

But many consumers did not seem to agree. Asked whether they were bothered by the concession, 90 per cent of the 1,000 or so respondents in a quick poll on The Straits Times' website resoundingly said "yes" yesterday.

Some were concerned that receiving SMSes while overseas would incur roaming charges, though telcos have clarified that these are free.

Retiree David Kwok, 62, believes the concession makes the DNC Registry redundant. "If I list on the registry, it means I don't want these messages. It looks like I have wasted my time," he said.

Engineer Ngiam Shih Tung, 46, believes it is a "big loophole" for marketers. "If firms have an existing relationship with a consumer, it is not a heavy burden to ask them to get consent first before sending the promo message."

Several companies are already doing this.

Mr Michael Tan, key executive officer at property firm OrangeTee, said it has been urging agents to send e-mails to contacts to seek written consent. Realty firm DWG said its agents have been texting clients to get them to opt in for publicity materials.

Insurance firm Prudential and casino and hotel operator Marina Bay Sands have also been contacting clients to ask about overriding their DNC Registry listing.

When contacted, banks DBS and OCBC said they have processes in place to ensure that customers do not receive marketing-related calls or SMSes if they do not want to be contacted.

Firms can now SMS, fax existing customers
They get last-minute reprieve from some of Do-Not-Call Registry's rules
By Irene Tham, The Straits Times, 27 Dec 2013

BUSINESSES can send SMS and fax messages to existing customers without having to check the Do-Not-Call (DNC) Registry when it is launched on Jan 2.

The exemption, which does not apply to telemarketing through voice calls, requires firms to inform customers on how they can unsubscribe to messages using the same delivery channels. Once they opt out, messages have to stop after 30 days.

The leeway also applies only to clients with whom the firms have an "ongoing relationship". For instance, a bank will be able to send credit card users an SMS about a rewards programme.

But someone who visits a property launch is not considered an "ongoing" customer. Property agents will not be allowed to send him messages about new launches without checking with the registry or getting explicit consent.

"For consumers who welcome marketing messages from organisations they have an ongoing relationship with, but do not wish to receive unsolicited messages from other organisations, this exemption order will serve that outcome," said a spokesman for the PDPC, which indicated that more than 350,000 phone numbers are already on its DNC Registry.

Calling this a "major turnaround" by the PDPC, Contact Centre Association of Singapore vice-chairman Angie Tay said the move will better balance the interests of consumers and businesses.

Ms Lisa Watson, chairman of the Direct Marketing Association of Singapore, added that many consumers expect to continue getting promotional messages from firms they employ. "But they may not know that once they list their number on the DNC Registry, the messages will stop," she said.

But Consumers Association of Singapore executive director Seah Seng Choon hit out at the concession, telling The Straits Times: "The exemption is completely unnecessary. It dilutes the original intention of the DNC Registry. It effectively gives businesses a second bite of the cherry as they can now e-mail and SMS consumers with marketing messages. We are disappointed that our concerns are ignored. Now consumers have to put up with the inconvenience of dealing with spam."

Housewife Sakura Siow, 38, asked why she must opt out of such SMSes twice - with the DNC Registry and with the company.

The registry is a key part of the new Personal Data Protection Act, which took effect on Jan 2, to protect personal information from being stolen or indiscriminately collected and used for marketing.

After the registry's launch next Thursday, those who list their numbers can complain to the PDPC if they receive unsolicited messages. Firms risk being fined a maximum of $10,000 when they market to those on the registry.

What is allowed

FIRMS can continue sending text and fax messages to existing customers even if the numbers are listed on the Do-Not-Call Registry.

These are examples of situations and the messages businesses can send.
When recipient is an existing credit card holder with the bank:
"Sign up for a new credit card and receive an introductory gift."
When recipient has an existing home loan with the company:
"Re-finance your home loan now and receive free fire insurance for one year."
When recipient is an existing subscriber to one fashion magazine, and the publisher is promoting a new one:
"Enjoy 20 per cent off subscription rates to XYZ Magazine."
When recipient is a mobile subscriber of the telco:
"Enjoy a discount to the total bill when you sign up for pay-TV and fixed broadband too."

Limitations to US Do-Not-Call registry
By Jeremy Au Yong, The Straits Times, 6 Jan 2014

MS NOREEN Bowden, 42, a voting rights advocate, stopped answering her home phone three years ago.

"I just let the answering machine take the call. My friends leave messages; telemarketers don't," she said.

She was getting between three and seven calls a day from telemarketers, many of them, she said, from scammers. All this despite her having signed up with the National Do-Not-Call (DNC) Registry in the United States.

Ms Bowden's sentiments are not unusual in the US today, where the registry first came into effect some 10 years ago.

Although there are signs that the law has curbed at least some phone spam - US$118 million (S$150 million) has been paid by errant telemarketing companies in civil penalties over the past decade - it certainly has not eliminated unwanted marketing calls.

And those who are familiar with the 10-year-old registry suggest that Singaporeans should not expect its own fledgling registry, launched on Jan 2, to guarantee peace on the phone lines.

Ms Lois Greisman, who heads the division of marketing practices at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) - the US body that administers the registry - warned that while such a registry can rein in calls from legitimate companies that tend to follow the rules, it does not deal with those who break the law.

"It has had a great impact. And we definitely saw a reduction in calls when the registry started," she said.

"But fraudsters aren't going to pay money to access the registry, then download that list and not call people on it. Do-Not-Call is designed as a privacy protection, it is not an anti-fraud regulation."

The DNC registry law in the US was popular if controversial when it was first put in place in 2003, so much so that legal challenges hampered its full implementation until 2004. Today, there are 223 million numbers on the list in a country with about 800 million active numbers.

The American Teleservices Association filed a lawsuit against the FTC arguing that the curbs were akin to putting limits on what was constitutionally protected free speech.

But the courts disagreed, saying that if consumers decided they did not want to receive calls from telemarketing companies, this did not constitute a violation.

As is the case with Singapore, the exemptions proved to be the most unpopular with members of the public.

The US registry continued to allow calls from not-for-profit organisations, political organisations and businesses that had an existing relationship with customers.

Ms Chris Haerich, who is the vice-president of the Professional Association for Customer Engagement - the new name for the American Teleservices Association - was working in a company providing call centre services to firms when the regulations came into effect.

She said that the existing business relationship exemption was the one that drew the most complaints.

Her company received about 100 complaints in the first month the DNC registry was in effect, from people asking why they were still getting calls even though they had put their numbers on the list.

"The government did not do a good job of explaining to the people that there were exemptions... or explaining why there were such exemptions," she said, stressing that the exemptions are important to businesses.

The same view is held by the FTC, which makes clear that it is not trying to shut down the industry.

Said Ms Greisman: "I think it makes sense that, if I have done business with a company, I think it is reasonable to permit that business to call me as long as, if I say to that business, 'Don't ever call me again', and they abide by that. So basically, they get one crack at it."

The more complicated problem, she said, is how to deal with cases in which a customer has made an inquiry - such as filling in a loan application or test-driving a car - but has not yet bought anything from the business.

The law now allows businesses to call for up to three months.

But designing the regulations is just one part of it.

For Ms Haerich and Ms Greisman, the task now is how to keep the DNC registry up to date, in terms of what numbers are in the database and dealing with technological improvements that have enabled companies to make millions of calls using pre-recorded messages.

Ultimately, the aim of the regulation is to balance consumer privacy and business needs, they said.

"A lot of people have the perception that we are a boiler room operation, sitting in a basement somewhere dialling people. In reality, that is not the case," said Ms Haerich. "The people who work in this industry pay taxes just like everybody else."

Ms Greisman put it this way: "We do not want a regulation that is so onerous that it pushes businesses out of the ability to market to people who might be interested in their products. It's no good for business, and it's no good for customers."

Do not diss the Do-Not-Call Registry
By Irene Tham, The Straits Times, 9 Jan 2014

MANY consumers were annoyed when last-minute changes were made to the new Do-Not-Call Registry rules, designed to protect consumers from unwanted marketing.

A closer look at the changes announced by the Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC), however, suggests that the rules strike a good balance between the interests of consumers and businesses.

An exemption announced late last month allows firms to send text and fax messages to existing customers without having to check the registry, which lets consumers block marketing calls, SMS messages or faxes. This is as long as customers are given an option to unsubscribe to the messages via the same channel.

Consumers criticised the registry's administrator, the PDPC, for caving in to last-minute business pressures - a charge it denied. They also took issue with the exemption being introduced, also at the last minute, without first going through a public consultation.

However, the exemption is reasonable. Going by comments from consumers, the main source of consumer complaints appears to be phone calls. Pesky telemarketing calls have interrupted meetings, disturbed sleep at ungodly hours and even taxed consumers' wallets. Incoming calls while roaming overseas are chargeable.

The DNC Registry tackles these unwanted phone calls by disallowing telemarketers to call phone numbers listed on it. If they do, they risk a maximum fine of $10,000 for each offence.

SMS, on the other hand, is deemed to be less intrusive. SMS messages received while roaming overseas do not cost users anything.

Despite the loud complaints from some consumers, others may, in fact, find it useful to be kept informed via SMS of promotions and deals from companies.

A credit card user, for instance, may want to be informed by his bank about promotional tie-ups with retailers.

Similarly, a mobile, pay-TV or broadband subscriber may want his telco to inform him of discounts or freebies for renewing his subscription.

Said engineer John Wong, 35: "I would like to know if there is a discount in a bookstore. The channel of passing useful information like this can be killed by the DNC Registry but the exemption allows for some flexibility."

In fact, some readers had called The Straits Times asking for help to delist their numbers from the DNC Registry. They had realised that once listed, they would not be able to receive any marketing messages from the country clubs of which they are members.

Singapore's DNC Registry, which came into force earlier this month on Jan 2, is also in line with practices in countries like Britain, the United States and Australia.

In Britain, for instance, SMS marketing is treated the same way as e-mail marketing.

While the blanket rule states that consent from consumers is required before organisations can market to them, there is a "soft opt-in" exception to the rule.

This exception lets organisations send marketing materials as long as the information is related to what customers had bought. But recipients must be given a simple means of refusing the use of their contact details for such marketing purposes. And it should be free except for the cost of transmission.

The United States National DNC registry, which covers only voice calls, also contains an exemption for businesses that have an existing relationship with customers.

If the commission can be faulted, it is for raising consumers' expectations.

The issue of SMS marketing was first raised in December 2011 by several companies, including telco M1, insurance firm Prudential and the Direct Marketing Association of Singapore, in response to a call for views from the Government. They called for SMS messages to be excluded from the registry, arguing that there was "very little harm" in receiving an SMS or MMS message, as such messages were unlikely to be billed, as opposed to phone calls.

Also taking this line was telco SingTel, which suggested that customers be allowed to block messages or calls from specific types of businesses, rather than go for a blanket barring of all text messages or calls.

Some argued that calls and messages sent to consumers should not be seen as marketing tactics but part of "customer service".

The then Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica), now Ministry of Communications and Information, responded by sticking to its initial hardline proposal to include SMS messages in the registry - to the applause of many consumers.

It could have taken up the issue for more consultation but chose not to do so. So, when it decided on a different rule later, disappointed consumers protested.

The unresolved issues resurfaced during the road shows and workshops the PDPC conducted with trade associations, chambers of commerce and individuals in the last four months.

To avoid disrupting businesses' communications with customers, the commission decided on the exemption. But instead of granting the blanket exemption that businesses had asked for during its second consultation, the commission narrowed the exemption's scope to include only "ongoing" customers and exclude voice calls.

Whatever one thinks of the way the commission went about managing public expectations on this issue, one should not fault it for the final outcome.

The DNC Registry rules strike a balance between the interests of consumers and businesses.

Vendors are given one crack at texting or faxing customers - including those listed on the registry - with relevant promotional materials. If the customer says no - by unsubscribing via the same channel the message is received - vendors have to stop the marketing.

All things considered, Singapore is off to a good start with its new registry. Consumers may want to at least give the current set-up a try.

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