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Senate introduces legislation to block unsolicited SMS

After two U.S. Senators introduced a bill to crack down on unsolicited text messages, one has to wonder, what effects could that have on the mobile marketing ecosystem as a whole?

The m-SPAM Act of 2009, if passed, would focus more government attention on SMS and MMS and make modifications to existing laws in order to ramp up efforts to restrain mobile spam. But would such legislation punish the majority of mobile advertisers who play by the rules along with the bad actors?

"On the surface, this legislation would have little impact on legitimate mobile marketing and mobile advertising programs," said Patricia Clark, vice president of sales for 4Info, New York. "Unfortunately, spammers that are already ignoring carrier requirements and the MMA Code of Conduct are not likely to be swayed to change their ways because of this bill.

"At 4Info, we already abide by stringent carrier rules for mobile programs, including clear disclosure of terms and requirements for active consumer opt-in," she said.

While the large majority of marketers abide by opt-in and double-opt-in standards, there are fringe players trying to cut corners. As unfortunate as it is, one bad apple can ruin the bunch. However, it is a lot less common than many people seem to believe.

"Fortunately, unsolicited text messages are still pretty rare in the U.S.," Ms. Clark said. "Regardless, nobody wants to receive spam, whether in their email or on their phone.

"However, people do like to receive free mobile content and understand that advertising support makes that possible, so are willing to accept advertising alongside content they value," she said.

That is the key: Provide a clear value proposition -- ?In return for viewing an ad you'll receive the free content that you requested' -- to avoid being perceived as spam. Also, make it easy for consumers to opt out.

That equation shouldn't be too difficult to abide by, and self-regulation makes government intervention unnecessary.

The bottom line is that marketers must educate themselves about existing standards. That way, the industry will not attract unwanted attention.

"The mobile industry is already taking proactive actions through industry groups such as the Mobile Marketing Association to protect consumers from mobile spam," Ms. Clark said.

"We must hold ourselves and our industry colleagues to the highest standards in running mobile advertising and marketing programs, so that we're always adding value to the consumer and protecting both the industry and the consumer," she said.

Many industry players struck a similar chord.

"I think overall this is a good thing in that it will ensure compliance with existing industry best practices and provide a strong incentive for marketers to maintain the integrity of our quickly evolving industry," said Alan Sultan, founder/president of Acuity Mobile, Greenbelt, MD. "The MMA clearly states that users must opt-in to any mobile offering prior to any interaction on their mobile device.

"Responsible marketers understand this, and utilize strategies and technologies to ensure consumers get relevant messaging that are consistent with these best practices and as such have nothing to fear by this legislation," he said.

Another common message: Don't lump the upstanding citizens in with the companies looking for short cuts.

"As with any new technology driven industry, mobile marketing will have irresponsible participants who will focus on short term, selfish gain at the expense of the industry as a whole," Mr. Sultan said. "This generally leads to a legislative overreaction, which can be much more severe than the proposed legislation.

"We support these types of initiatives, which can help the industry evolve in a structured, more predictive manner with the long term consumer benefit protected," he said.

At least one executive believes that SMS spam will never be as big of a problem as email spam is.

"The only way to spam at a really low cost is to send an email to a cell phone, and that's covered by the CAN-SPAM act," said Jared Reitzin, CEO of mobileStorm, Los Angeles. "Plus, if you want to send spam text messages, you have to go through carriers, which charge per-message fees, and they have the ability to cut it off, so the model isn't there for spammers in mobile."

One provision of the proposed m-SPAM Act is the creation of a do-not-text registry, which would be cost-prohibitive.

"I'm extremely against having wireless numbers on the do-not-call list, it's absurd," Mr. Reitzin said. "They're going to charge people to scrub against it? Will they offer APIs we can automatically scrub against? How long is it going to take to get your data back?

"That will be shot down," he said. "Overall the m-SPAM Act is probably a good idea to establish best practices, but not going to stop spam."

Senators' spin
U.S. Senators Olympia J. Snowe (R-ME) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) have introduced legislation aimed at curbing unsolicited text messaging -- or mobile spam -- which they claim is a growing nuisance for millions of wireless customers.

Specifically, the mobile spam legislation would strengthen the powers given to the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission to curb unwanted text messages and strictly prohibiting commercial text messages to wireless numbers listed on the Do-Not-Call registry.

"Mobile spam invades both a consumer's cell phone and monthly bill," Senator Snowe said. "There is also increasing concern that mobile spam will become more than just an annoyance -- the viruses and malicious spyware that are often attached to traditional spam will most likely be more prevalent on wireless devices through m-spam.

"This significant and looming threat must be addressed in order to protect consumers and vital wireless services," she said.

The Senators expect mobile spam to grow over the next several years.

Wireless users in the U.S. received more than 1.1 million spam text messages in 2007, up 38 percent from 2006, according to the Senators.

Mobile spam not only clutters a wireless user's inbox, but it also unduly increases their monthly wireless bill -- wireless subscribers typically are charged for sending and receiving text messages -- sometimes as much as 20 cents per message, the Senators claim.

Neither Senator offered a specific dentition of mobile spam.

"Spam e-mail is bad enough," Senator Nelson said. "Now, we are seeing a proliferation of unwanted text messages -- and consumers are getting stuck paying."